Saskatchewan

Sask. hockey teams prepare for new COVID restrictions

While children under the age of 18 are still allowed to practise, some parents and coaches say the restrictions— that players must be masked, physically distanced, and in a group of no larger than eight — will be difficult to accommodate.

All team and group sports suspended for 3 weeks as of Friday; practices limited to groups of 8 or fewer

Under new restrictions announced Wednesday, athletes under the age of 18 in Saskatchewan will still be allowed to continue training, but only in groups of eight or fewer. (Patrick Morrell/Radio-Canada)

New COVID-19 measures announced by the provincial government on Wednesday are being met by Saskatchewan hockey teams with questions and some frustration — but also the hope there may be a silver lining in the restrictions.

Those measures, which include suspending all team and group sports for a period of at least three weeks, deliver a blow to this year's already-limited hockey season. 

"There has been a mixed reaction," said Blair Watson, executive director of Hockey Regina. "Frustration is probably the common thing. Our games have pretty much only been going for a week and a half, so parents are frustrated."

After the rules come into effect Friday, players will not be competing until 2021.

Hockey Regina, along with many other teams and organizations in the province, are trying to find a way to continue holding practices over the weeks ahead. 

While children under the age of 18 are still allowed to practise, some parents and coaches say the restrictions — that player must be masked, physically distanced, and in a group of no larger than eight — will be difficult to accommodate. 

"I understand what the government's doing — I get it," said Mathew Niekamp, a parent of two young hockey players in Humboldt.

"But it's still tough on a lot of people. Most people who have kids in sports, they just want to see them spend some time exercising at the rink with their friends."

Some teams may find it doesn't make financial sense to put such a small number of young players on the ice. 

"We're looking at the options of it, and whether it makes sense to financially keep [training]," said Watson. "Eight players on an ice that costs you $250 an hour, that's an expensive eight kids."

'Positives and negatives' to smaller groups

But Kevin Henry, a hockey performance and development coach based in Prince Albert, sees a silver lining to the new restrictions. Having fewer athletes on the ice means all of them can get more individualized attention. 

"Personally, I like working with a smaller group," he said. "You can take a more detailed approach to development, you can work on more mechanics in their skating, you can spend more time talking to them and trying to get them to understand why they need to do these things. 

"But in a structured, team-oriented practice, they're learning about systems. So there are positives and negatives." 

Henry says the government's first priority needs to be getting the province's COVID-19 case numbers under control. Then, athletes can safely get back to training and play. 

"Whether we like it or not, the virus is not going anywhere anytime soon," he said. "So we need to learn to live with it. 

"And hopefully we can create an environment where there is a balance between developing hockey players in a safe environment, keeping kids on the ice, maintaining some normalcy for the kids and lining up with the government's protocols for safety."

While young athletes will still be able to skate in a limited capacity, some feel that hockey players over 18 have been left out in the cold. 

"There's a lot of junior players who are not able to practise — they should be able to practise," said Kelly McClintock, general manager of the Saskatchewan Hockey Association.

"We also have a lot of players in our province who are professional hockey players, whether they play in Europe or the United States or the NHL, and now they don't have an opportunity to practise." 

Ultimately, Niekamp says his three children — two hockey players, and one volleyball player — are just looking forward to getting back to their sports as soon as it is safe. 

"[They were] questioning why things have to change," he said. "It's tough for everybody in every sport."

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