'They need this'— kids hockey returns to northern Ontario rinks

It is hockey season again in northern Ontario, with kids strapping on the skates for the first time in months. But this year, they're also playing against COVID-19. 

Fewer players on each team, fewer teams to play against and fewer spectators allowed in the rink

Goaltender Pascal Brisson Jr. is watched by three masked spectators at the Edgar Leclair Arena in Azilda. (Erik White/CBC )

Pascal Brisson is wearing a mask, but you can tell he's smiling as he watches his son on the ice at the Edgar Leclair Arena in Azilda.

This after a summer wondering if hockey would be benched during the pandemic and constant questions from his son and goaltender Pascal Jr.

"'Are we going to be able to play hockey?' It didn't really matter the style or how many people, just 'Are we going to be able to play hockey?'" says Brisson.

The hockey he's watching on this Tuesday night is different.

There are fewer players on the ice, fewer players on each team, fewer teams to play against and "intentional contact" is now a penalty.

And if you touch another player on purpose, the referee won't send you to the penalty box, because that would have to be cleaned. Instead, every high-sticking or tripping will now give the other team a penalty shot.

There are no face-offs. The home team starts the game with the puck and after a goal is scored, players carry the puck out of their defensive zone, just like in basketball. 

A face mask hangs in a dressing room at the Azilda arena, while the players are on the ice wearing metal masks that protect them from pucks. (Erik White/CBC)

Off the ice, everyone has to wear a mask. There will be far fewer spectators, at least in Greater Sudbury arenas, where only one supporter per player is allowed.

Steve Ryan, the acting president of the Rayside-Balfour Minor Hockey Association, knows there will be many disappointed grandparents out there.

"The main thing here is to get the kids on the ice, get the exercise. They're bored. They need this. Most of them haven't played in a long time. And at least this is something," he says.

"I'm not afraid of it. And that's pretty much the attitude I've taken from the beginning."

One of the new jobs for U14 coach Steve Ryan, who is also acting president of the Rayside-Balfour Minor Hockey Association, is taking attendance at all practices. (Erik White/CBC)

Ryan says the last few months have been "choatic" but he's having fun now that the kids are back on the ice, as is he, as a coach of an under 14 team.

He says registrations in the younger age divisions are down this fall, but it's balanced out by a big increase in teenagers signing up, since they can't play on high school teams this year.

Jason Marchand, executive director of the Northern Ontario Hockey Association, says almost all of his 65 member minor hockey associations are back on the ice, although some with much fewer players. 

The windows in the lobby of the arena in Azilda are covered in garbage bags to discourage spectators from standing close together. Only one supporter per player is allowed to attend hockey games and practices. (Erik White/CBC)

"Won't be as drastic in terms of decrease we may have anticipated, but they will be down, just based on what we've heard from associations saying they're having trouble forming teams this year," says Marchand.

"I would say it's a little bit surprising that we've been able to move forward."

A few municipalities in the north have decided not to open arenas during the pandemic, most notably in St. Charles and Verner, but kids teams are instead playing at a rink in a neighbouring town.

Hockey during the pandemic doesn't look that different, but many of the rules have changed, including a new penalty called "intentional contact." (Erik White/CBC)

Pascal Brisson says if COVID makes a big comeback in the north, he'd pull his son out of hockey, but has no worries as he watches him stop pucks.

"You know it comes to the point, what's the greater risk? Him getting hit by a car because he jumped in the middle of the road with his bike or is it a COVID thing?" says Brisson.

"I think the risk level has been brought down to a level everybody can live with. Let's get them out and play."


Erik White


Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to


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