Bubbles, “pods” possible back-to-play ideas for SJHL: Bombers

Weeks and weeks with no news on the state of the hockey season have begun to wear on the SJHL - but there may be plans afoot to keep the season going and the Bombers are involved.

“It’s been very frustrating and it’s testing our patience, that’s for sure,” said Bombers’ head coach and general manager Mike Reagan.

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Reagan has been part of a four-man coaches’ committee within the SJHL, along with Nipawin Hawks coach and general manager Doug Johnson, Scott Barney of the Humboldt Broncos and Jason Tatarnic, coach of the Estevan Bruins. The four coaches, said Reagan, have been tasked with helping prepare what a league-wide return to play may look like for the SJHL, discussing matters with league and Saskatchewan government officials.

“We’ve been talking with the government, along with [SJHL president] Bill Chow, trying to come up with a solution that makes sense for everybody” Reagan said.

“We’re kind of at the mercy of the government and I think they’re in a tough predicament - we fully respect their position. We also feel that we have a couple of plans in place that are being responsible with the health and safety of our players.”

Current government regulations in both Manitoba and Saskatchewan do not allow for full-fledged hockey games. In Manitoba, public indoor recreations areas like arenas have been shut down under provincial health orders, while in Saskatchewan, only a small number of underaged players can get together for practice sessions under specific conditions. At one point before suspending play for the season, the Bombers planned to play all their games on the road, base players exclusively out of Saskatchewan and hold practices at the Creighton Sportex - that plan was not approved by health officials and with the Town of Creighton taking the ice out of the arena weeks ago, that option appears more distant than ever.

Reagan said the committee has at looked different ideas - possibly holding a “bubble” in a centralized location, for instance, or forming small three or four team “pods” similar to how the league handled preseason and exhibition play. The next step is not yet known, but Reagan said the ideas are there.

“Our main priority is finding a way to play, whether it’s in a bubble or pods of four teams or what. We’re not entirely sure what that’s going to look like but we have an idea what the government’s looking for, but it also has to make sense financially.”

So-called “bubbles” have been attempted as a return-to-play tactic by leagues in multiple different sports during the pandemic. Bubbles operated last year by the NBA and NHL went off without a hitch, but bubbles for other hockey entities - including one attempted by the National Women’s Hockey League at Lake Placid, N.Y. - have ended less well, with teams having to leave the bubble due to COVID-19 exposure.

Bubbles can also mean high financial costs, with each team needing to invest in accommodations, equipment and other expenses throughout the process.

“We wouldn’t be looking at it if we didn’t think it was doable,” Reagan said, mentioning recent funding received by the SJHL and its teams from the provincial government and possible sponsorship providing much-needed cash.

“When each team receives $83,000, that money was given to us to help us lessen the blow but also help the ability for us to potentially play. There’s no question it’s expensive… we have a good idea and if we didn’t think that we could do it, we wouldn’t be pursuing it.”

The WHL is planning to start their season with standard play without fans - the league’s five American teams, for instance, will play only against each other and with no spectators next month. The league’s five Alberta-based teams will also play against each other under similar circumstances starting later this month, with another bubble on the way for Saskatchewan and Manitoba based teams.

The return of the WHL will likely mean the loss of several players for the Bombers. The only player to have left the team at the moment is forward Ashton Ferster, who has left to join the WHL’s Medicine Hat Tigers. Forwards Riley and Brad Ginnell will likely return to the Brandon Wheat Kings and the Moose Jaw Warriors, while Rhett Rhinehart - a Saskatoon Blades defender - and Wheat King Rylan Thiessen are also likely to enter the bubbles with their teams.

Other Bombers who are part of WHL organizations - loanees Justin Lies and defender Marek Schneider, who played for the Saskatoon Blades last year - may also be on the outs soon, but return-to-play plans have not been announced for their teams as of press time.

“The players who were on loan to us, we’ve kind of planned without them anyways,” Reagan said.

“There’s not much we can do about it and we knew that, bringing them into Flin Flon.”

While the season of the Bombers’ suspension nears three months, Reagan and the team’s staff are keeping touch with the players. They hold weekly Zoom meetings on Wednesdays and are attempting to build a traditional team atmosphere hundreds of kilometres apart at a highly non-traditional time.

That said, keeping morale high is getting harder and harder for the coach and for the players.

“I know that one player, one of our 20 year olds, feels like he doesn’t even want to play next year, he’s so frustrated by the whole thing,” Reagan said.

“It’s been very challenging for them and I don’t want to say they’re in depression, but it’s been depressing for them. You could probably go through the 12 teams and there’d be dozens of guys who feel the same way.”

In the meantime, Reagan feels he owes it to his players to bring the team back on the ice if safe - not only to play, but for the benefits it could provide, including scholarships.

“I’ve heard this a lot, that it’s just hockey and that sort of thing. It’s not just hockey. People don’t understand these players who put this amount of hours in and the commitment that they’ve made, to try and pursue something that is going to benefit them and their futures,” Reagan said.

“We’re talking about scholarships that can be into thousands and thousands of dollars and can open up doors for some guys.”

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