Live streaming could help bring minor hockey back and keep spectators safe
Few arenas have cameras installed, some parents live streaming kids' games
For hockey players like 14-year-old Dylan Emery of Windsor, Ont., being on a team is like having another family. And Emery is missing his Riverside Minor Hockey Association family.
He says many of the players have played hockey together for so long, they are like sisters and brothers. Now, instead of going through tryouts for next season together, or making plans for summer hockey, they have to stay home and just wait. And, as he puts it, "it sucks."
"We're really excited about this time of year and then hearing it just get cancelled. Kind of sucks. So we're all really just bummed right now," said Emery.
The bonds they form on the ice continue during the off-season. He said he spent almost all of last summer with one of his teammates, and enjoyed a Florida vacation with another player and their family. So when they're all out on the ice and hear parents cheering, they know it's for the whole team.
The spread of COVID-19 caused the suspension of hockey across Canada on March 12 and it's unclear what minor hockey may look like when it returns. It's not only the health and safety of the players that is of concern, but also the safety of family members who enjoy going to local arenas to watch them play.
Lisa Porter, a University of Windsor professor of biomedical sciences and executive director of WE-Spark Health Institute said it's important that public health is the priority.
"Really carefully considering the most vulnerable populations. I know that most grandparents love to come and watch their grandchildren playing sports," she said. "So maybe there are ways that these things can be videoed so that they can watch them from the safety of their homes."
Dylan's father, Walter Emery, is already doing that. He's been using his phone to live stream minor hockey games for a few seasons.
"Technology is great now to do that stuff," he said. "We've had up to 40 households watching the kids with grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, plus the other parents that are in other rinks with another child."
He uses his phone because unlike the NHL or the Ontario Hockey League [OHL], most arenas don't have video cameras installed. In the far southwestern corner of Ontario, there are just two arenas used for minor hockey that have the capability to capture video of the games - the Joe Thornton Community Centre in St. Thomas and Vollmer Complex in LaSalle.
Minor hockey broadcasting
Some leagues are working with the online platform Hockey TV to live stream the games. The president of the LaSalle Minor Hockey Association, Mike Seguin, said he found out about it from the LaSalle Vipers Junior B hockey team. They were using it to help with skill development and to review the games.
Seguin said they tried it out last year as a pilot project in minor hockey. They hope to fully implement it whenever the next season begins.
"The cameras are fantastic, because it not only has a smart camera that follows the play, wherever the puck is going to, it follows the play. But it also has a back camera that follows the back of the play," he said.
The initial cost was $12,500, split between the minor hockey association and the junior B team. In addition, they have to pay $150 per month per rink. The Town of LaSalle paid for some infrastructure updates.
Parents that want to use the service must pay a subscription fee of $9.99 per month. Seguin said the teams are paid about 75 cents per view by Hockey TV.
"You can choose which month you want to come in and watch," he said. "You can see all the games of your son or daughter."
Some say a virtual audience is not the same as having the real thing. Not having friendly faces in the arena cheering on players could change the game, said Jeremy Smith, sports trainer with RAW Sports Training.
"A big part of sports, a big part of these young athletes' careers, is having people in the stands; having family members in the stands to cheer on them," Smith said. "It's like a badge of honour when you're on the rink or the ice or the court."
Neither public health officials nor Hockey Canada have indicated when minor hockey may return.
The office of the Ontario Medical Officer of Health said to continue to follow the guidelines they announce, including physical distancing. Adding it's the government that will institute policies that minor hockey associations will have to follow when the games eventually return.