Thunder Bay

Leagues in northwestern Ontario lace up for the return of hockey amid the COVID-19 pandemic

Leagues and associations within Hockey Northwestern Ontario are gearing up to get back on the ice for the first time since March.

Thunder Bay Kings join the Greater Toronto Hockey League as COVID-19 dashes hope of international competition

Since its inception, 20 former members of the Kings have gone on to play in the NHL, while many others were NHL draft selections. Joining the Greater Toronto Hockey League will strengthen those odds, says organization president Michael Power. (James Mirabelli/Submitted by Thunder Bay Kings)

Hockey Northwestern Ontario (HNO) released its framework for the return of hockey this year, outlining new rules for associations on and off the ice amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The framework, released Aug. 27, takes a phased approach to reintroducing hockey activities in the region. Officials with the organization said the framework is fully endorsed by the Thunder Bay District Health Unit and the Northwestern Health Unit.

"It's been a long time coming, and although the release is later in the summer than we would have liked, it was extremely important that we got our framework right and received endorsements from both the Northwestern Health Unit and the Thunder Bay District Health Unit to ensure we have a framework in place that will keep everyone involved safe as we return to hockey," said Jason Perrier, HNO president.

Starting Sept. 14, associations within the HNO will have the opportunity to build teams and focus on skill development. Associations are encouraged by the HNO to use a "blind draft" format, but tryouts or evaluations are allowed if deemed necessary.

The organization has set Oct. 14 as the tentative start date for the "informal competition stage" of the framework, when teams will be able to engage in game play while abiding by rules put into place by HNO.

Alex Vaillant, executive director of HNO, calls the release of the framework "exciting," even though the season will look different due to COVID-19.

"Leagues can only consist of a maximum of 50 participants... and also no physical contact will be allowed... and then a lot of safety precautions getting into the arena, that will look a lot different as well," said Vaillant

Mental health and physical health 'number one focus'

According to stage three of the framework, athletes can only participate in one league within HNO, with no affiliations allowed between leagues. HNO will also not be sanctioning tournaments in or outside the region during this stage.

When it comes to arenas and facilities used by associations within HNO, Vaillant said an agenda has been developed that associations are encouraged to discuss with their local facilities and municipalities.

"Things that we're anticipating you can look at is, ice times will be staggered. Some facilities may not even have dressing rooms open[ed] up, and you have to come dressed to the rink," he said.

Vaillant said the goal will be to eventually loosen the restrictions but added that the return of traditional hockey may not be possible for the foreseeable future.

"The mental health and the physical health of everyone involved is the number one focus for us," said Vaillant.

"I think our game plan for this year is just monitoring the environment... then being in constant contact and working with both of the health units in our region to get their opinions on when it possibly and potentially will be safe to start some more traditional hockey, because ultimately that's the end goal: getting back to normalcy."

Pandemic creates opportunity for Thunder Bay Kings

For the Thunder Bay Kings, finding a new normal for the season was a process that began in March, as officials recognized that the border closure due to COVID-19 would create a barrier for their teams.

For the last five year, the Kings have played in the North American Prospect League (NAPL), which would usually have players traveling throughout the United States during the entire season.

"The reality, however, with COVID is that our international border as we know is closed for the foreseeable future, and the cost for our players and families of playing in the United States... is only going up," said Michael Power, president of the Thunder Bay Kings.

For those reasons, he said, the Kings organization approached the Greater Toronto Hockey League (GTHL) about having their teams participate in the southern Ontario-based league this upcoming season.

The GTHL was supportive, Power said, and the process was approval by Hockey Northwestern Ontario (HNO), the Ontario Federation of hockey, and Hockey Canada last week.

The Thunder Bay Major Midget Kings were North American Prospects Hockey League champions for the first time ever in 2019. (Facebook)

"The good news is the vast majority of the direction, the guidance, and the rules associated with return to play for HNO and for the GTHL are comparable," Power said of the COVID-19 protocol on and off ice for their teams.

There are nuances for the Thunder Bay Kings, he said, as the U-15, U-16, and U-18 teams will transition to the GTHL "league play" framework, which will follow a five-on-five format, but with no body contact. 

"We'll likely spend the next six to eight to ten weeks I would anticipate in development, preparing within our bubble," Power said. "We'll be ready to go as soon as the GTHL is ready to move to Stage 3D, which could be November, could be December."

Despite COVID-19 restrictions, Power described the change in membership as a "monumental step forward" for AAA hockey in northwestern Ontario. 

Because the GTHL is highly scouted by leagues across North America, including the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), the opportunity to play within the league will likely lead to more exposure for players, and will dramatically improve their chances of going into the OHL draft, he said. 

"We will see the next generation of Staals, of Pyatts, of Johnsons come out of Thunder Bay as a result of this move," he said. 

As for Thunder Bay's fourth team, the U-13 Kings are slated to once again play in the U-14 age brackets within the Thunder Bay Minor Hockey Association.