Canmore junior hockey coach suspended, fined following news interviews about team outbreak
AJHL issued gag order after media coverage brought 'discredit to the league'
A southern Alberta hockey coach has been suspended and fined after speaking with the media about a COVID-19 outbreak on his team last month, CBC News has learned.
On Friday, the league issued a 15-game suspension and a $1,000 fine against Andrew Milne, the coach of the Alberta Junior Hockey League's Canmore Eagles, according to an email to AJHL executives and its member teams.
The suspension and fine were confirmed by league commissioner Ryan Bartoshyk, who said Milne was disciplined for "bringing discredit to the league."
Meanwhile, the league is preventing teams from speaking publicly or posting on social media ordering all media requests related to the pandemic or the league's return to play plan to the AJHL Office.
The AJHL has also changed its protocols, deciding not to publicly report confirmed cases of COVID-19 in players and staff, according to a Nov. 21 email obtained by CBC, sent from Bartoshyk to team executives.
"Our goal was to be transparent but it's only drawing negative reactions and not necessary as part of our guidelines," wrote Bartoshyk.
As of Nov. 17, three teams besides the Eagles had reported positive cases of COVID-19, but it's unclear whether there have been further cases within the league since the new directive was issued.
Despite requesting an interview, Bartoshyk provided only a written statement to CBC News and would not answer a question as to whether there had been further cases since the latest directive.
In late November, Milne spoke with CBC and other media outlets about the struggles of his team in dealing with a COVID outbreak. Milne explained "how fast the web can unwind and get going … and how quickly it gets from one guy to the next."
On Nov. 14, the Eagles were playing the Drumheller Dragons when a player on the Canmore team began feeling sick at the away-game.
Once on the bus post-game, the player said he felt "a bit weak," according to the coach, who figured it could be because the team had just played two games.
Within two weeks, 16 players and team staff had tested positive.
New rules issued after outbreak
Days after the Eagles boarded the bus, the AJHL issued new, additional protocols to teams, implying the league didn't have a policy in place to deal with players who fell ill on the road.
"If on the road — player to go to their hotel room and isolate OR private transportation immediately to home city wearing a mask," read the new guidelines.
The league took issue with "the apparent inconsistent information" disseminated by Milne.
Milne's interviews created "public misconceptions that strong protocols were not in place and put the AJHL's partnership with Alberta Health Services in jeopardy, both of which have now negatively impacted a return to play plan," wrote Bartoshyk in a letter to the Canmore Eagles.
AJHL issues gag order
Teams within the AJHL aren't solely tasked with following COVID safety measures, the league is also responsible for ensuring protocols are implemented and compliance is enforced.
In addition to changes in positive case reporting, a new AJHL media policy was announced through a widely distributed email sent out Nov. 28. It was to take effect Immediately.
Any media inquiries regarding the pandemic and/or the league's return to play policy were ordered to be directed through the AJHL office, with players and staff banned from granting interviews, issuing statements and posting on social media.
"No comments may be given to the media, nor may any public statements be made by team staff, board members (league and team), or players until further notice. This includes traditional interviews or social media posts," reads the email.
Milne declined to comment on his suspension and fine and directed CBC News to the AJHL office for further communication.
The AJHL is currently on pause under the latest Alberta government COVID restrictions with plans to return in 2021.