On Oct. 8, the Saskatchewan Health Authority announced that it has accepted the Saskatchewan Hockey Association‘s plan for a return to play.
For the 12 teams in the U-18 SMAAAHL, that means exhibition play begins on Oct. 17.
Although both of Saskatoon’s teams have been back on the ice for the past few weeks, playing intersquad games as they prepare for a season with an undetermined start date, they see this return to play as a light at the end of the tunnel for their 2021 season.
“The fact that we get to play against other teams soon is… It’s pretty exciting,” Contacts head coach Dale Lambert said. “It’s a welcome relief.”
“It’s exciting, and daunting all at the same time. You kind of didn’t see it coming,” Blazers head coach Scott Scissons added. “It was always hurry up and wait, and now it’s hurry up and hurry up.”
The competitive nature of those intersquad games has been beneficial to both teams with such a long layoff since their season was shut down due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s going to help because we’ve played,” Scissons said. “Again, there’s going to be some rust — some kids not having played since February. It’s a benefit to us, that’s why we planned it this way.”
One major change for the upcoming season is the scheduling, which will see the league split into two six-team conferences: a north and a south, with teams only playing within their respective conference for the duration of the regular season.
“Unlike a lot of the other sports we’re in almost every community, so that’s a positive thing,” said Saskatchewan Hockey Association general manager Kelly McClintock said.
“But it also scares the crap out of, you know, (the Saskatchewan Health Authority), that we’re that extensive. But it also helps us to show that we can keep it pretty regionalized and do all of the tracing.”
Another new look facing the league this season will be seen in the stands, as arenas can hold up to 50 per cent capacity in buildings that have marked seating, and where physical distancing measures can be met.
It makes for an intriguing scenario for the displaced Saskatoon Contacts, who are currently playing out of the Sasktel Centre.
With over two full months before the WHL season is set to resume, they hope to be a big draw, considering they’ll be the highest level of competitive hockey playing in Saskatchewan, with the SJHL yet to set a formal return date.
“I think people are hungry for hockey, so I think that they’ll come,” Lambert said. “I think it’s awesome, the atmosphere will be fantastic.
The U-18 SMAAAHL season begins on Nov. 1.