Good news and bad news came for the SJHL Jan. 15. The good news: the league received $1 million from the provincial government to offset losses for the league's 12 teams during the pandemic. The bad news: the league won't be able to restart play until at least mid-February under provincial health rules.
The Saskatchewan government announced the new funding, along with $3 million for the province's five Western Hockey League (WHL) teams. The $1 million specifically for the SJHL will be sent directly to - and distributed by - the league.
“The SJHL, which consists of community owned teams, has been in a state of uncertainty due to COVID-19 during the past several months,” said SJHL president Bill Chow in a provincial government news release.
“The financial support that has been provided by the Saskatchewan Government creates a more positive outlook for our teams.”
Out of the SJHL's 12 teams, 11 are based in Saskatchewan - the lone exception being the Flin Flon Bombers. It is unknown if the Bombers being a Manitoba-based team will mean difficulty in receiving the funding or if the club will or won't be eligible for the money.
Later in the day, the SJHL issued a statement on the league's website stating that, following a meeting with the Saskatchewan government's Business Response Team, that approval for a return to play would not happen for at least another four weeks. The restriction would set the earliest possible return to operation date as Feb. 12, but not cancel the season outright. The BRT notified sports authorities province-wide of the changes Jan. 13.
"The announcement by the provincial government’s Business Response Team (BRT) that there would be no consideration of return to play (games) for at least four weeks is one more challenge the SJHL faces. We are grateful that our season has not been shut down completely," reads the league's statement.
"The SJHL has formed a committee to determine options for our return to play and determine the best scenario for all concerned. Our initial focus is to have our players return to their SJHL communities to continue their training and hockey development as soon as possible."
The SJHL plans to announce any possible changes to the season at a later date, pending provincial health approval.
The Saskatchewan Hockey Association issued its own statement earlier in the week, saying the provincial regulatory body would be reviewing play and holding zone meetings to determine a path for the rest of the season.
"This certainly was not the news that the SHA, nor any other winter sports, was expecting. With the current rate of positive cases per 100,000 people placing Saskatchewan near the top in Canada, the likelihood of things changing before the end of March is looking bleak," reads the SHA statement, issued Jan. 14.
The SHA is currently reviewing the state of the game and intend on conducting zone meetings for minor hockey associations and minor/female/senior leagues within the next two weeks. Please be aware that the landscape related to COVID-19 in the province can change at any time."
The news runs counter to a letter to corporate sponsors sent by the Bombers earlier this month, in which the team stated the league would hear a response from the Saskatchewan government by Jan. 15 and, if approval was received, would return to play Feb. 5. The latest information from the league puts this date out of reach.
Since the SJHL suspended play Nov. 25, almost 13,000 more cases of COVID-19 have been reported in Saskatchewan by provincial health officials. Active cases have jumped by climbed by almost 1,000 as of Jan. 15 and 173 people have died.
When or if the Bombers get back on the ice, they may have to do so without five players loaned to the club by WHL teams. The league announced intentions to host a shortened 24-game season of their own Jan. 9, once all jurisdictions sign off on health measures and travel.
There has not yet been a firm return-to-play date or schedule released by the WHL. Bomber forwards Brad and Riley Ginnell and Justin Lies, along with defencemen Rhett Rhinehart and Rylan Thiessen, were each loaned to the Bombers from WHL clubs when the SJHL began play last fall.