Pandemic ices hockey season for many Manitoba high schoolers
Several school divisions cancel competitive sports, leaving players 'super surprised'
Hundreds of Manitoba students are being left in the cold as the pandemic ices their high school hockey season.
The Winnipeg School Division announced Thursday it wouldn't permit any competitive sports teams this fall, joining River East Transcona and Louis Riel as city divisions withdrawing from play. The St. James-Assiniboia school division won't field any sports teams until Oct. 15 at the earliest, while Pembina Trails hasn't made up its mind.
The decision will turn off the lights at many arenas, but also at gyms and fields across the province while their seasons are also thrown into turmoil because of pandemic precautions.
Zack Street, 15, said the indefinite loss of his Kelvin Clippers hockey team on Thursday came as a shock. His teammates had been optimistic they could lace up their skates, a feeling echoed by their parents and discussions they were having.
Only a day before, the players and families booked an ice time at the rink. They were shaking off the rust before their first practice.
Shocked to find hockey benched
"A lot of us thought that [playing hockey] was going to happen, especially talking to kids from other schools," the Grade 11 student said on Thursday.
"I was just assuming that we'd be going on, but I don't know, I was super surprised today and obviously disappointed."
His mother, Kara Street, said Zack transferred to Kelvin High School in part so that he could play hockey.
"Once he made the team, it was just such a big thing for him, and it really made him feel like he was a part of the school," she said.
"There's also the academic connection, the social connection, the physical connection" of playing on a team, she said. "There's just so many things that it brings for these kids."
The Winnipeg High School Hockey League will try to scrape by without two-thirds of their usual teams.
Instead of the 37 schools represented in the 2019-20 season, president Dana Gordon said 12 schools have pledged to play so far. Teams have until Friday to back out or confirm their entry, she said.
"The reason we're doing that is because we want to make sure that if teams are going to decide to opt out of our league that the student athletes have a place to play someplace else before it's too late," Gordon said, explaining some players may be scrambling to find spots on the limited number of community teams.
The participating WHSHL schools, as of Thursday afternoon, are St. Paul's, Garden City, West Kildonan, Westwood, Lord Selkirk, Fort Richmond, Centre scolaire Léo-Rémillard, Collège Louis Riel, St. John's Ravenscourt, Linden Christian, Steinbach and Lorette.
Gordon said she wants to see a product on the ice by November, but said they'll have to evaluate the viability of their league, considering the range in team skill levels, potential travel restrictions and the chance that schools may drop out.
But she's still hopeful. "If we can provide an opportunity for these players to play, represent their schools, we will do so," she said.
The Manitoba High Schools Athletic Association has already given some sports permission to restart during the COVID-19 pandemic, but some school divisions are reluctant.
Soccer, golf and cross-country running are permitted, but only a small number of exhibition events have occurred, mainly involving rural or independent schools, executive director Chad Falk said.
Football and volleyball teams can train together, but cannot compete against other programs. The Winnipeg High School Football League may hit the gridiron in the spring, while volleyball, also a fall sport, is in limbo this year.
"The hardest thing right now is that the kids are missing out on volleyball," said John Blacher, Volleyball Manitoba executive director. "That's the most gut-wrenching part of this whole thing."
Falk said the Winnipeg Women's High School Hockey League and Westman High School Hockey League for boys will try to make a go of a season, while the boys' league in Pembina Trails likely won't.
Expand other recreation options
It's disappointing that sports are a pandemic casualty, Falk said, but he hopes schools expand their intramural programs and establish virtual events like cross-country meets to give students the opportunity to play.
"I feel so much for these student athletes that are going through this and especially those that are in Grade 12, this is their last year, or some of the new people that are new to their schools, where this is their outlet to meet new people."
Athletes must now decide what's next. Zack Street is thinking he may wear his Clippers jersey, after all. The Winnipeg School Division says schools can choose to offer skill development programs, provided return to train protocols are followed.
And maybe there's a chance to play competitive games in the winter, Street said.
"Maybe I'm just holding out, hoping something happens," he said, "I'm just being optimistic."