Minor hockey in Quebec cautiously returns under the cloud of COVID-19
With enrolment down, some leagues say they aren't sure they'll be able to handle pandemic's financial burden
Mia Brogon got her sporting fix playing a lot of road hockey with her brother this summer, but nothing can quite replicate the feeling of skating on ice.
So this week when she had to go through the new COVID-19 protocols before she could get back out there for the first time since the lockdown, for her, it was only a small inconvenience to play the game she loves.
"It's not fun but we have to respect [the rules]," Brogon said.
Minor hockey training camps got underway across Quebec this week, and because of the new COVID-19 protocols, it may not look like it usually does.
But those who've decided to play, like Mia, are trying to make the best of it.
Every arena has slightly different regulations, but in general COVID-19 self-evaluation surveys are now the standard when entering the rink.
Everyone who is not on the ice is expected to wear a mask, practise physical distancing and the number of people allowed in the grandstands and inside locker rooms is limited.
For parents, the decision to bring their kids back to the rink took some consideration because despite the protocols, there is still a risk the virus could find its way into an arena.
"We cross our fingers that everybody is wearing a mask and do what they have to do so we can keep playing. The kids need it. They need to see their friends get active and move. They've been sitting on couches for three to six months," said Mia's mother Amy Brogon.
Enrolment in minor hockey expected to dip
Not everyone is rushing back to the rink, however.
Hockey Québec says it's expecting enrollment to drop as much as 40 per cent from last season and as a result, local associations could start to feel the pinch financially.
And it's not just the fear of a COVID-19 outbreak that is keeping people away.
Hockey Québec is using its phase five return to play protocols right now, which limit practice to 22 people on the ice. Games are restricted to nine players per team playing four-on-four instead of the standard five-on-five. There is also no body contact allowed.
The goal is to move into phase six of the plan and return to normal hockey rules Oct. 15. But no one can say with certainty that will happen.
Hockey West Island president Andrew Brookman is gambling that it will.
He says registration will be down between 15 and 30 per cent this season for his association but they should be OK if normal games resume.
"If we don't return to normal hockey, there could be pressures to have more ice, with fewer kids on the ice and that could create an issue with funding," Brookman said.
"There's a fear of what's going to happen in the future in general. It's tough to look too far ahead right now. We're all dealing with day-to-day and keeping our fingers crossed."
Elite level hockey navigates additional challenges
John Struthers, the owner of the Junior AAA Montreal-Est Rangers, says recruiting players wasn't an issue for teams at the elite level to start this season. In fact, the pool of players grew substantially.
With COVID-19 shutting down travel, many teenagers are sticking closer to home this season and it's been an unexpected boost.
"It's been great, because we've had interest from players who would have otherwise travelled out west or gone down to the states," Struthers said.
Still, Struthers believes a financial squeeze is looming. Sponsorships are down around 70 per cent and the costs to accommodate new protocols, especially around travel, are ballooning.
He says owners are being asked to come up with money to fill the gap and while that isn't easy he feels a responsibility to his players to do everything he can to help them keep developing.
"It's critical, because at this point, at 17 to 20 years old, you're playing junior hockey [and] you're making a decision or the game is making a decision for you. Are you going to go play university hockey? Are you going to play pro in Europe? Are you going to play minor league pro? Are you going to get drafted to the NHL?"
Struthers estimates that every team in the league stands to lose money on this season regardless what happens next with the virus.
Increased responsibility for parents
At the junior hockey level, players and the equipment staff are taking on much of the responsibility for keeping things virus-free. But at the minor hockey level, much of the extra work falls to parents.
Parents are being asked to act as COVID-19 compliance officers and collect data for Hockey Québec and public health.
But by this point, the parents say doing extra work to enable their kids to play sports doesn't come as a surprise.
"In April it would have been more restrictive, more tiring and more of an obstacle. Now, the kids know what the questions are, as a parent you know what's expected," said parent volunteer Rich Swaminathan.
Hockey mom Amy Brogon believes the extra sacrifice and extra risk is worth it when she sees her daughter playing the game that she loves.
"For the kids, I'm hoping that once they get on the ice they get an hour where they get to forget about it. It's not COVID time. It's, we're playing hockey with our friends," Brogon said.