The players are back, the rink is ready and fans are eager to come in. There’s just one problem for the Flin Flon Bombers - when will they get a chance to play?
With the neighbouring MJHL having started its own regular season Oct. 9, the Bombers and the SJHL appear to be stuck in neutral. The league is the only western Canadian junior A league that has not publicly released a return-to-play plan or a start date for the regular season. The Saskatchewan Hockey Association (SHA) released a list of guidelines for returning to play, including possible start dates, but the SJHL distanced themselves from the proposed dates, stopping short of saying when – or if – SJHL teams would start play soon.
“We are in the process of finding that out,” said Bombers head coach and general manager Mike Reagan.
“I think that we should be finding something out here pretty quick. I’d be surprised if we don’t hear anything in the next little while. I’ve got to watch what I say, but I have a good feeling that we’re on the verge of getting going again here.”
Almost of all of the league’s 12 member clubs have started training camps or have at least invited players to travel to the community and prepare. With no plan released, the teams are now unable to hold preseason or exhibition games against other teams, putting clubs like the Bombers into a stasis.
What’s quickly becoming Schrödinger’s season - somehow both cancelled and happening until fans are told otherwise - has left teams confused from the top down. The Bombers began selling season tickets Oct. 1, becoming the first team in the league to do so for this season. One SJHL team that began selling tickets, the Melfort Mustangs, later postponed their sales Oct. 4. The Bombers’ season ticket sale is continuing.
“We’ve delayed this long for a reason and we, as an organization, feel comfortable with selling season tickets. If we didn’t think that there was going to be a season here, we wouldn’t be selling tickets right now,” said Reagan.
Teams are currently either unaware or unwilling to reveal what rules may be in place for the start of the season, either with mask use, social distancing protocols or possible attendance limits - possibly cutting down to a maximum of half capacity or less.
From a player and roster standpoint, the uncertainty has given Reagan an unusual dilemma. With no ability to hold games, but all the members of his presumptive opening night roster already in town barring any last-minute trades or changes, what do you do to pass the time?
The answer - scrimmages. Lots and lots of scrimmages.
“We’ve been playing a seven-game series. Every second day, we play a 20-minute game, we split the teams up and we’ve been able to work a lot on our systems,” Reagan said.
That extra practice time has allowed Reagan and the Bombers’ coaching staff to hammer down finer points of the team’s gameplans. With more time to work on plays, structures and schemes, Reagan says the players are more prepared now than they would be during a normal preseason.
“It’s something that [assistant coach] Cole [McCaig] and I have actually talked about, that it’s been good in a way because we’ve had a lot of time to work with these guys. They’re in good shape, they’re working out every second day, we skate them every day, so on the conditioning side there, they’re in better shape than they would be going through those exhibition games.”
In this year’s team, Reagan sees better forward depth than last year’s team had in training camp and lauded goalie Cal Schell’s ability so far, adding he had confidence in the team’s defence. Only one returning defenceman, Ryder Richmond, will return for opening night, with the sole other returnee, Cole Vardy, back home in Nova Scotia. He’s still recovering from an injury that will likely take him out of the lineup until the new year.
“We’re extremely happy with our players. I actually have to stop myself from getting over-excited. We still have a lot of work to do for sure, but I like what I see in practice and our young guys,” Reagan said.
“Their work ethic and their attention to detail has been terrific and I think we’re going to have a team with a competitive nature. It’s going to be a fun team to coach and I think a fun team to watch.”
As far as new faces go, Reagan hasn’t said whether or not he plans to bring in an extra difference-maker or two to bolster his roster, as he did last season.
“I’m always tinkering, but we’re at a very good starting point, that’s for sure. Maybe our back-end isn’t as deep, we don’t have a Mason Martin back there where we know we have a number one, but we didn’t have Dane Hirst or Troy Quinn at this time last year, or a guy like Cole Vardy who we weren’t sure on who got better,” Reagan said.
“It’s not how you start - it’s how you finish.”
While conversations on the Saskatchewan side continue to drag, Reagan said the Bombers have had conversations with the Northern Health Region (NHR) about a return to play.
“We’ve constantly had discussions with public health here in Flin Flon and they’ve been awesome. They’ve really helped us with protocols and everything and Sask Health has been in contact with Manitoba health in regard to our situation,” Reagan said.
“The two provinces are working together, understanding we’re in a unique situation. From that standpoint, things have been really good.”
Reagan knows the club will depend, even more than normal, on community support this year. The Bombers’ financial statements, as released at the club’s AGM earlier this year, show a growing debt due to loans having to be taken out during COVID-19 and almost no revenue from the postseason - the Bombers only played two playoff home games before the playoffs were cancelled.
This year, Reagan said the team needs the community’s support and hopes the team can support the community in kind.
“We really encourage our fans to support us in any way they can. I know it’s difficult for everybody, but the future of this organization depends on the support of the community this year,” Reagan said.
“These are hard times. I think the Bombers can be part of the healing process, mental health. This has been tough on everybody mentally and it’s something we’ve never had to go through. We hope that our team playing hockey can help the community and we hope we have everybody’s support.”