Looking further into what stopped the SJHL from a return-to-play

More details about the cancellation of this year's SJHL season have been released, after a return-to-play plan was not approved by the Saskatchewan government.

The plan called for what league personnel called a “hub”, seeing seven SJHL teams - including the Bombers, Weyburn Red Wings and other teams that remain unconfirmed - put down stakes temporarily in Weyburn, playing games at Crescent Point Place and staying in a bank of local hotels. Bits and pieces of the plan became known to the public last month, until news broke March 21 that the league’s return to play plan had been denied government approval. The next day, the league announced the season was over.

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“I’ll be honest with you - I was pretty angry,” said Bombers head coach and general manager Mike Reagan.

“A lot of work went into it. I thought we were so close and to get that close and then be told no, for the reasons we were given at the time, it was very frustrating.”

In cancelling, the SJHL joined most other junior A leagues - including the Manitoba Junior Hockey League, which announced its cancellation Feb. 13, more than a month before the SJHL’s decision.

Plans for the return to play were formulated by the SJHL and a coaches’ committee - of which Reagan was a member - along with representatives of both the proposed host Red Wings and the Estevan Bruins.

“I still don’t know why we weren’t given the green light - we haven’t got answers. I think personally, I found it disrespectful to the league, the coaches’ committee, to Weyburn and Estevan - I know how much time I put into this and I can’t imagine how much time was put into this from their point of view,” Reagan said.

In a segment on the league’s SJHL at Noon weekly show, SJHL league president Bill Chow commented on the denial of the return to play plan. Chow said the league would have been able to resubmit a plan, but due to several close deadlines - including how long Weyburn’s local government could feasibly keep ice in Crescent Point Place - and delays due in part to new variants of concern cases in Saskatchewan would have made continuing on infeasible.

“The big question is the ‘why?’” said Chow.

“There were a number of changes that we would have to make to the last submission we sent into government and health. The other part was, with the number of cases of the virus and the variant that is in the Regina area and throughout the province, we would have been delayed another two to three weeks before approval could possibly be given. That was putting us up against the timelines that we had been given.”

The exact reasons for why the proposal were denied were not given out freely to members of the coaches’ committee, including Reagan - who was left upset, he said, about the lack of communication.

“We were supposed to receive something from them and we still haven’t. For me, that is ridiculous. I hate saying it like this, but I think it’s disrespectful. I just think we deserve an answer,” said the coach.

“I don’t even do that with my players - now we’re talking about an entire league. When I make a decision on how we’re going to play or who’s going to be on the powerplay or penalty kill, we have reasons for it. We explain it to the players. To me, that is respecting the players and they deserve an answer.”

Reagan also mentioned the Bomber players themselves were disappointed with the move. While no players had already started heading toward Weyburn to prepare for a hub, some players from other teams did on their own time, only to return home empty-handed. The cancellation of the season effectively ended the careers of eight 20-year-old players on the Bomber roster, with the league calling it quits too late for the team to trade them to teams in leagues that are playing games.

“Our players were so excited and craving this. For them to be let down like that, and for me to not be able to give my players an answer, it’s very tough. Same with the parents. I’ve got some of the parents that are saying, ‘What happened?’ and when my only answer is ‘I don’t know,’ that’s really tough,” said Reagan.

Reagan also mentioned the ongoing “bubble” in Regina for seven Western Hockey League (WHL) teams - the league’s Manitoba- and Saskatchewan-based clubs are playing games in the provincial capital while staying in an isolated environment, set up in unused residence rooms at the University of Regina.

Reagan said he felt there was a double standard between the SJHL’s plan being denied and the WHL’s plan being approved.

“When you see the WHL playing and Alberta, B.C., the Maritimes playing - I think for a parent, it’s got to be extremely frustrating to see your son mope around and really feel disappointed,” he said.

“The details that we were talking about, close to the end, were little things like what type of masks we were going to wear in practice or on the bench, what time every team was going to eat and where. These were small details that were easily finalized by having a two-hour conversation.”

Since the league’s hub plan was denied and the season cancelled, Weyburn has been mentioned as a location where COVID-19 variants of concern have been found, according to Saskatchewan health officials. No firm numbers for just Weyburn have been released, but as of April 4, a total of 195 variant of concern cases in the south east health region - which covers Estevan and Weyburn - have been found by screening.

With the season kiboshed, Reagan said the team is now looking ahead to next season, planning for a more-or-less normal 2021-22 season. The current plan, which is still tentative, is to hold a small camp for Saskatchewan-based players only, to heavily recruit players from video scouting and to get ready for a season.

With the present in doubt, some fans may worry about the future of the league and of the Bombers - going a full year with almost no gate receipts certainly will hurt teams financially. That said, Reagan thinks the SJHL itself and its franchises - including the Bombers - will come out the other side of the pandemic ready to play, whenever and however that may be.

“I think the league will be fine. I think every community is very determined to find a way to make their situation work. Everybody’s got different situations that they’re in, whether it’s from a financial standpoint or being a contender or not. Everybody’s got different strategies,” he said.

“There are teams that, financially, will be focused on making sure they can get through this downward time and set themselves up for two or three down the road. I don’t think there are any teams that are in jeopardy of folding or anything like that.”

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