It may not yet be firm, but Saskatchewan hockey programs - including the SJHL - now have a blueprint to follow for the upcoming season, including possible start dates.
The Saskatchewan Hockey Association (SHA) announced a new set of guidelines Oct. 8, published with the approval of the provincial government and health officials. The 63-page document lays out what hockey programs, ranging from Hockey D to senior leagues, will need to do to hit the ice this year. The guidelines outline a possible return to regular-season league games - within small cohorts of teams called “mini-leagues” - as soon as Nov. 1.
In the SHA plan, the group has proposed a four-phase return-to-play plan, starting with an evaluation and training period, then moving into exhibition games within mini-leagues, transitioning to league games within a mini-league, expanding mini-leagues and, eventually, playoffs and provincials.
The first phase, evaluation and training, is already in effect. The SHA will allow 30 people maximum in an on-ice group including players, coaches, officials and other staff, with 50 people maximum in a mini-league - in other words, two teams. Travel permits or tournaments will not be approved during phase one, but intra-squad scrimmages are allowed.
Phase two will allow for exhibition games within a mini-league, with a maximum of four teams or 50 players. Exhibition games for leagues above under-13 level, including the SJHL, will be allowed - tentatively - as of Oct. 17, with tight rules in place. Teams can only play in two exhibition games during the second phase, cannot switch mini-leagues or be part of more than one mini-league and cannot travel anywhere that would require an overnight stay.
Teams can begin playing within mini-leagues as of Nov. 1, entering the third phase. Games are suggested to be in the form of back-to-back games, followed by several days of downtime - likely a Friday/Saturday doubleheader, followed by five days of practices. In phase three, mini-leagues can expand to as many as six teams or 80 players per group.
League games within expanded mini-leagues - up to eight teams or 120 players - will be looked at in the new year, with a presumptive start date of Jan. 18, 2021.
Playoffs and provincials will be allowed at an as-yet-undetermined future date. According to the guidelines, playoffs for leagues will not be allowed to use a tournament format - instead, the province plans to use a modified best-of-three format for playoff series in the minor, female and senior divisions. There is no word in the guidelines on whether such a format would be used in junior hockey leagues, including the SJHL.
Any change between phases will need to be done with the approval of Saskatchewan Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab. Factors involved with moving from phase to phase will include whether or not COVID-19 cases in Saskatchewan plateau or decline over a four-week period, whether there are any major outbreaks in the province or other jurisdictions (particularly if they’re related to hockey) or if cases do not increase for three weeks following major holidays or events. If any of those wires are tripped, phases might not progress or the province may choose to take hockey programs back to a previous phase.
The guidelines also include a how-to guide for what to do if a player begins showing possible COVID-19 symptoms - the participants will notify a team COVID-19 representative, who will then do a self-assessment screening and follow public health directions. The participant will then stay in isolation for two weeks or until a negative COVID-19 test result is received, if testing is deemed necessary.
Spectators at junior, senior and AAA under-18 games will allowed in to watch games at up to 50 per cent of the building’s total capacity. At the Whitney Forum, that will mean a capacity of around 825 fans - a mark the team only cleared in five out of 28 regular season home games last year.
All off-ice personnel, including fans, will need to wear masks and socially distance during games. Assigned, distanced seating must be made available for fans - any venue without assigned seating will only be able to welcome in a maximum of 150 fans.
Spectators are asked to not move around or congregate in larger groups during games.
Fans will also need to provide their names and contact information to teams for games they attend for contact tracing purposes. Records of that information will need to be kept for at least 30 days by the team.
SHA teams and officials will not be permitted to travel outside Saskatchewan for games, with no teams from outside Saskatchewan allowed to play within the province this season. However, Flin Flon has appeared to have cleared that hurdle with the Bombers - the community is listed, along the other 11 communities with SJHL teams, as approved communities for SJHL play this year once operations get underway. As a Hockey Manitoba affiliated association, the Flin Flon Minor Hockey Association (FFMHA) is not mentioned in the Saskatchewan plan.
The full document can be found on the SHA website at sha.sk.ca.