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'Kids are itching to get back on the ice': Yellowknife minor hockey starts up again

'I don’t even want to think about what life would be like without hockey here this winter,' says longtime hockey volunteer Brad Anstey. 

'Starting the season brings a little bit of normality back to life,' says hockey dad and coach

Young skaters at the Yellowknife Sporting Club summer hockey camp this summer. (Yellowknife Sporting Club)

The Yellowknife Community Arena will come alive Friday night as Yellowknife Minor Hockey starts the season. 

But it'll be a lot quieter than usual. 

"No spectators," said Yellowknife Minor Hockey Association president Kacee MacLean. "Parents drop kids off at the front door, signing in, fully dressed except for skates and helmets. We'll get those on and then we're on the ice." 

A maximum of 25 people are allowed in the building at a time. With coaches and volunteers, that means about 16 kids on the ice at once. 

The first few weeks will be for distanced practice only. "We're aiming to start four-on-four games at the end of October," said MacLean, "then full five-on-five starting in January." 

Practices will last one hour, with extra Zamboni time between groups so kids can get in and out of the building without mixing. 

So far, over 400 kids are registered to play, down only slightly from recent years. 

"Kids are itching to get back on ice," said MacLean. 

The Triton Kings, U9 Division, from the 2019-2020 season. (Submitted by Kacee MacLean)

Hockey was not supposed to resume until COVID-19 had come and gone, according to the territory's initial reopening plan, called Emerging Wisely.  

The Yellowknife Sporting Club changed that this summer by working with the chief public health officer on a plan to run a summer hockey camp.  

"Our system worked," said Brad Anstey, the club's president. "And it kind of set the pathway for Yellowknife Minor Hockey and maybe some other organizations." 

The camp hosted about 130 kids from mid-August to the first week of September. Players stayed in cohorts — not mixing with other groups — including a group from Hay River. 

A little eerie

Anstey, who's been coaching hockey for 25 years and is a past president of Hockey NWT, admits it felt a little "eerie" with so few people in the arena. 

"But you know, the feeling of it, of being around the other coaches, being around the players never changed," he said. "It was actually more exciting to be out there with them ... because a couple months ago we never thought we'd be playing hockey or [be] on the ice until there was a vaccine." 

He likened the feeling to a recent experience he had passing through an airport. 

"You think you survived a big world change or something because it's so quiet, and that's what it was like in the arena. There's no fans, there's no parents … the kids were really focused on you as a coach. We had their attention."

Last year’s novice team the Weatherby Warriors. Dan Hunter wears the toque in the back row. (Submitted by Dan Hunter)

Dan Hunter has coached hockey for the past five years. 

"Starting the season brings a little bit of normality back to life," he said. 

Hunter already anticipates complaints from parents who can't watch their kids skate, and expects it will feel very different without them. 

"Hockey parents are the greatest parents in the world. They're very passionate about games," he said. "It's usually pretty loud for a minor hockey game. It's a lot louder than the rec league games that I play in."  

He's optimistic fans will be allowed back later in the season. "We're just in unprecedented times right now and things are weird. I look at it as at least they're going out and getting some ice time."

That's the goal for Anstey too. 

"I don't even want to think about what life would be like without hockey here this winter," Anstey said. 

"I think we're doing a great job in making sure we minimize the risks and making sure the kids are safe to come play."

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