It’s October and for people like me, that typically means one thing - hockey season is back.
Normally, it would be back to Zamboni fumes, cheering on goals with the crew and poking gentle fun at the opposition.
Normally is the key word here.
These aren’t exactly normal times.
Right now, we’re not sure exactly what the season will look like, in Flin Flon or anywhere else. Minor hockey programs have gotten underway with strict guidelines and appear to be working well. That is excellent. The next stage, presumably, is to bring junior hockey back into play.
The thing is, it isn’t that easy. The SJHL still doesn’t have a firm date for when this season might start and while the preseason is starting up tonight, there’s a tight limit on capacity – meaning the Bombers won’t be making as much money off ticket sales as they may need.
If there’s going to be an SJHL season, it must be done as carefully as possible. There is a lot at stake here.
First off, let’s grant some propositions. Junior A hockey, at least in the form it takes in Flin Flon, is complex. Every single player on the team has a billet family, some with young, school-aged children. Some of these players work part-time jobs during the season. The teams also do community outreach during the season, visiting seniors’ residences, meeting kids, representing the club. These players also will travel a lot during the season - after all, in order to have a game, there needs to be an away team. Half the time, it’s your team on the bus.
The teams will surely need to curtail some of these appearances this year – no four-games-in-five-nights road trips, no visiting seniors, none of that – but in a small town, there aren’t many degrees of separation between players and vulnerable people.
There are dozens of volunteers who make the games work. That runs all the way from the person taking tickets on the way in to the person on the PA system - in Flin Flon, this of course means the sweet tones of Larry Feszczyn - and security, 50/50 ticket sellers and others. Along with those volunteers are the arena workers, the concession staff, the janitorial crew that comes in and cleans up all the spilled popcorn and Pepsi in the wee hours after home games.
On top of that, you have the hundreds of fans who show up to watch every game. Last year, the Bombers hosted 30 games between the regular season and playoffs - on average, the team had 765 fans in the rink.
Most of these people come into at least indirect contact with each other on game days.
This year, everything changes.
COVID-19 has increased the basic risk of every single thing every actor in this situation does. If a player gets sick – which has already happened in Melfort, though the person has mercifully recovered - they will have been in contact with their teammates, their billet family, possibly volunteers, rink staff, coworkers, even school kids, old folks, coworkers… the contact tracing network for even one junior hockey player is massive.
If a volunteer gets sick, they’ve been in contact with other volunteers, likely team officials and organizers, fans, rink staff and their own personal contacts. Once again, that’s a big dragnet.
Adding something like this into what’s been a year where those in a position to know have advised us to stay home, isolate, to avoid groups and people outside your own household… this has potential to go very south, very fast.
The creation of an ironclad plan for everybody to follow is crucial.
There are many rules in place for the SJHL to allow play – no staying overnight for teams on road trips, masks and distancing inside arenas, limited ticket sales and seats, no members of the public allowed in during training camp and many others.
There are also going to be restrictions for northern Manitoba communities as a result of increased case numbers in the region. Thompson, The Pas, Snow Lake and more communities than I can count throughout the region have at least one active case as I'm writing this.
It takes time to make a safe plan. We know this. I don’t have a crystal ball. I don’t know what the first day of the season will look like, or for that matter exactly when it is, but I can make some educated guesses on what the regular season could look like based on other plans. Games have to be held with at least some fans - half the junior teams in Canada would fold overnight without ticket money - so people must be in the building. The SJHL’s and Saskatchewan Hockey Association’s rules will need to be followed to the tee.
The City of Flin Flon already has a list of rules people need to follow while inside the Whitney Forum. People have to keep their distance and wear masks – and keep them on. Hands will need to be sanitized often. People who might be at further risk of getting sick might have to sit a few games out.
I’d imagine people would be temperature screened at the door - the Bombers, for one, already did this for players coming in for training camp sessions. There would need to be occupancy limits for areas like the entrances and lobby where people tend to linger - the lobby of the Forum is currently at 80 people maximum - and possibly one defined entrance and one defined exit if this doesn’t create a bottleneck where a large number of people will end up waiting around in a crowd.
These are good starting points.
I will say this - once we have rules in place and guidelines for people to follow, I have confidence that they’ll be followed to a tee. Hockey fans, particularly Bomber fans, love their sport too much to screw around and risk losing it. The problem so far hasn’t been a lack of adherence - it’s been that there’s very little to adhere to until recently.
For hockey fans, keeping a season going will not consist solely of going to the games, buying a ticket and following the rules only when the game is on. It's going to need commitment everywhere, the same way fighting COVID-19 has required buy-in everywhere. This is going to take teamwork.
Whatever form the regular season takes, fans and personnel need to buy in fully. That’s the only way this works. A spike in COVID-19 cases could cost fans games to watch, players the thing they've dedicated their lives to and future prospects and possibly end the season - if we're lucky.
I want to get back to watching games, maybe even playing (poorly) in a few if local beer leagues get the go-ahead. I miss those fluorescent lights, the blue railing on the running track, the Bomber Hall of Fame and the ghosts of players past. That said, returning to play will not work if the health orders and directions from the team, league, public health officials and provinces aren't followed to the letter.
Wins and losses aren't the things that matter most anymore.