Hockey Edmonton prepares for return to play under COVID-19 pandemic

Minor hockey registration has begun in anticipation of the new season, but the sport will look much different this fall when players hit the ice.

Smaller cohorts of 50 players and mini-teams of around 10 players expected for fall play

Hockey Edmonton returns with a new set of guidelines to account for COVID-19 this fall. (Adam Carter/CBC)

Minor hockey registration has begun in anticipation of the new season, but the sport will look much different this fall when players hit the ice.

Hockey Edmonton recently released a comprehensive return to play plan with the COVID-19 pandemic in mind that will see the formation of cohorts of no more than 50 people. 

Those cohorts will have four mini-teams of between 10 and 12 players that will play against each other. 

On the bench and in the dressing room, physical distancing guidelines are expected to be followed as closely as possible, with masks and hand sanitizer also expected in rinks.

Chris March, director of operations for Hockey Edmonton, said they've seen lower registration numbers so far compared to past years, but at the same time there's been an uptick in families signing up ever since their plan was released, adding parents have given positive feedback to the plan.

"There is still some concern over multiple cohort groups that parents have and the number of kids," March said on Edmonton AM earlier in the week.

"But the one thing we're committed to in our hockey environment is ensuring our hockey players are only involved in one cohort, so it'll limit the amount of interaction they have with other players."

For the under-9 and under-7 age groups, March said hockey will be able to run mostly the same as previous years.

Hockey Edmonton plans to offer a recreational league this year as well with a lower commitment and lower price for families. It'll offer one game per week with a cost of $350 to $450 for registration, depending on the age group.

In the event of a positive COVID-19 test, March said Alberta Health Services will then get involved.

"We have a great contact tracing process put in place," March said. 

"We can get Alberta Health Services involved immediately, they can investigate and then we'll have all of the information for them to get in touch with families."

To Dean Eurich, a clinical epidemiology professor at the University of Alberta, the major underlying question is still what Alberta health officials will do when presented with a positive test result for COVID-19.

But he said looking at the plan for school reintroduction this fall, it's likely there will be some parallels for youth sports.

If a player tests positive for COVID-19, Eurich said that player will likely have to self-isolate for 14 days and health officials will watch the team more closely.

If another player on their team tests positive and it's seen to be related to transmission from the first positive case, it's likely that team will be removed as a whole for 14 days.

If transmission of positive cases between teams in the cohort can be seen, Eurich said he thinks a whole cohort could be shut down for 14 days.

"I do expect there's going to be pauses in the season, just based on some of the models that have been projected where COVID might be in the fall and winter," Eurich said. 

"I think parents have to expect that and I think parents have to expect know somebody on their hockey team or somebody they're playing against who may have tested positive for COVID as well."

Eurich has two daughters who play hockey and another daughter in ringette. He said the plan to use cohorts is essential for return to play to work as the biggest risk of spread is large groups in constant contact with other people. 

But Eurich said he'd like to know more about how leagues not sanctioned by Hockey Edmonton will operate, and the guidelines in place at private rinks around the city.

Eurich said he'd also like to hear more from the City of Edmonton about how it will run cleaning schedules and traffic flows of families entering and leaving rinks around the city.

This is especially the case in older, smaller arenas where traffic flow in and out can pack people in closely together like the Tipton and Oliver arenas.

"Those are the types of things that parents are waiting to see around some of these older rinks where there's not good flow," Eurich said.

"The reduction in the team sizes will help ... but it will be a concern in the smaller rinks."