What it might take for minor hockey to return
Players, parents and officials ponder changes after being shut down due to COVID-19
At a time when minor hockey tryouts normally are in full swing, and house leagues are usually busy with registration for the fall, there's a lot to consider before officials allow pucks back on the ice.
Hockey Canada cancelled the season on March 12. Now minor hockey players and their parents are anxious to learn when and how they will start playing again, but the future is unclear.
Professional sports training facilities in Ontario were given permission to reopen on May 8, provided the sport leagues involved have established health and safety protocols for COVID-19. But for minor hockey, players remain off the ice.
Allie Thompson would normally be preparing for hockey tryouts with the Windsor Minor Hockey Association. Instead she's on her driveway trying to keep her skills sharp by firing pucks at an open net. The 12-year-old has played hockey since she was four and this season would be her last year before moving into a girls league.
"I look forward to playing more games with the boys and...appreciate the time I got with them," she said.
Thompson knows it will be different when the next season starts. She's not sure what changes will be coming, but has a few ideas of her own.
"Maybe just keeping the hand sanitizer [available], more soap in the dressing room or something like that," she said.
Being in a league with boys, she gets her own dressing room, so having to share space isn't as much of a problem for her as it is for other players. But her dad Tom Thompson said keeping dressing rooms clean is difficult, and if new measures include cleaning the rooms between every game, it's going to cause havoc for the schedule.
"Usually when we play, there's a team coming in right after we start," he said. "One team is leaving, one team is coming in and it's just constant turnover."
He thinks games will have to be scheduled farther apart, putting a further pinch on already scarce ice time. He's also concerned about travelling to different arenas.
"When we go play Tecumseh, are we going to have to use two dressing rooms on two different pads? We go to Essex, for example. Is every arena gonna have a different set of rules or is it going to be one blanket rule?" said Thompson.
Sports trainer Jeremy Smith with RAW Sports Training works with young athletes in different sports. He currently offers fitness training by video, including dryland training for hockey players.
He knows playing sports comes with a lot of sweat and close contact. Smith said sports leagues will have to find ways to make it safer. He knows it'll be important to keep locker rooms tidy and clean, as well as the bench areas, but said at the end of the day it's sports.
"Everybody's in a group, every one is around each other. Physical contact is involved in most sports, so I feel like the only thing we really can do is try to be just a little cleaner," Smith said.
There are also some ideas related to the equipment minor hockey players wear. Players and referees may want to use full plastic face shields, instead of the wire cages that some players use, said Lisa Porter, University of Windsor professor of biomedical sciences and executive director of WE-Spark Health Institute.
"I think the big things if you're considering the participants, is how close is contact? Whether the participants have any type of protective equipment on that would limit the ability of droplets to be spread to the next person that they're touching," she said.
The best medical science to date indicates that COVID-19 can be spread through droplets, such as when somebody coughs or sneezes. But Porter said so far there is no evidence the disease spreads through sweat. Still, she said basic hygiene practices should be enforced.
"I don't think any hockey mom would disapprove of us encouraging more hand washing when you finish hockey," Porter said.
But that could be difficult, she said, because some arenas don't have adequate hot water and don't replenish their soap containers often enough.
"These are things that really have to be [considered] as far as arenas and places where athletes are meeting, to make sure that there's access to ways for them to properly disinfect," she said.
As for dressing rooms, Porter said players may have to change in and out of their hockey equipment at home, as players often do when they first start playing at a young age. Or arenas may have to open up more dressing rooms, to allow more space for players to spread out.
Porter said minor hockey leagues may want to consider spacing out the games, so there's more time for players in the dressing rooms, and they can clean up properly before leaving.
CBC reached out to a handful of minor hockey associations in Ontario.
In Windsor, Riverside Minor Hockey Association president Anne Marie Schofield said she's looking for direction from organizations such as the Ontario Minor Hockey Association [OMHA], the Ontario Hockey Federation and Hockey Canada. And she said other leagues are in the same boat.
"They too are probably waiting for direction from someone smarter than us to figure out what's the right decision," Schofield said.
Kingston Area Minor Hockey Association president Steven Walker said they are bound by the OMHA rules when it comes to restarting. He's optimistic there will be a season this year but with some limitations.
"I would not be surprised if all travel outside of cities may be restricted. In other words, representative hockey would not be run 2020/2021. All hockey would be local league," said Walker.
The OMHA and the Ontario Hockey Federation said they're looking for direction from Hockey Canada about how to get kids back on the ice again.
In an email to CBC, Hockey Canada said its still monitoring the situation with COVID-19. Currently, a number of contingency plans are being discussed with its 13 member organizations.
"The Board of Directors, with guidance from public health officials, will decide when sanctioned hockey will resume in Canada," read the statement. "Our organization will remain in close contact with its membership, and future plans for a return to hockey will be made public when a return-to-play date is more clear."