A parent’s guide to minor hockey in the GTA during the pandemic. (Warning: It’s complicated)

When kids across the Greater Toronto Area get together on their teams this fall, they will be in hockey equipment in hockey rinks, but they won’t be playing hockey games.

They will be able to practise and maybe scrimmage, but definitely not hit.

Hockey — at least as they’ve known it, with five-on-five play — won’t happen for some time.

“It’s going to be a while before we get back to our league play in its traditional sense,” said Scott Oakman, executive director of the Greater Toronto Hockey League. “Our view is that our organizations aren’t in a position to start hockey at this point in time for a number of reasons. We think we need to make sure we have all the proper protocols in place.

“We’re opening in a safe and clear and concise and intentional manner, to ensure the safety and well-being of kids. We’re doing everything in our power to minimize the risks to players and their families.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has complicated a lot of lives and livelihoods, and minor hockey is no exception. The folks who run associations across the province are still trying to work their way through the various missives on what is allowed and what is not.

Hockey Canada, the provincial government and local health authorities all have a say, meaning what might be OK in one jurisdiction might not be in another.

“It is like trying to do a puzzle where all the pieces aren’t there,” said Oakman, “and then some days you discover those pieces that were missing. And then you get up the next day and some of the pieces that you had are gone.”

Changing the game

With registration for the hockey season approaching, time is running out.

The GTHL — the world’s largest minor-hockey league with about 30,000 registrants — intends to have letters out to families by the end of August, detailing what they can expect from a contact sport to be played at a “safe social distance.”

In a normal year, league games would start after Labour Day and be in full swing by the end of September. This year, early October is the target for on-ice activities, but not games.

Among the options:

  • No games to start, replaced by more skills development and practice.
  • When games do begin — no particular dates set — they might be three-on-three or four-on-four to encourage social distancing, and against the same opponent to keep the cohort bubble tight.
  • No contact, with the focus on getting the puck back without hitting.
  • No faceoffs, only pond-hockey style starts where one team begins with the puck behind their net.
  • Offsides may happen at centre ice, giving the offensive team half the rink instead of just to the blue line to control the play and encourage distancing.

“That’s in compliance, and maybe a little more restrictive than what’s required by the Ontario government,” said Phil McKee, executive director of the Ontario Hockey Federation, under which the GTHL operates. The OHF represents about 230,000 players, 50,000 female.

McKee adds that Ontario regulations not only limit the number of people inside a facility to 50, but the same might apply to a league.

“If I make a league of 50 players, they can’t play another 50 players,” said McKee. “They’re the only 50 players who can play each other. So we might have four teams of 10 playing four-on-four against each other.”

None of those ideas are set in stone — things can change at the whim of this contagious virus — but these ones are likely:

Skills and thrills

Skills development and practises are easier to police as far as social distancing is concerned, and likely the first step for leagues.

“There are pros and cons to what this year may hold,” said Oakman. “This year, you’re going to see a greater focus on skill development, because of some of the initial limitations on interacting with other teams.

“For the longest time we’ve talked about the practice-to-game ratio being too heavily weighted to the game side. (The experts say) practising is far more important for individual skill development than game play is. We’ll actually be able to see how impactful that is.”

But of course, there’ll be a downside.

“Kids just want to play the game,” said Oakman. “So I think we have a very difficult balance and making sure that the skill-development side is fun and enjoyable, so that the kids can actually develop in a way that’s meaningful but also enjoyable.”

The liability question

Then there’s the tricky issue of insurance, and just who’s responsible for ensuring dressing rooms meet the high hygienic standards required to keep the coronavirus at bay.

Hockey Canada provides insurance for everyone involved in their sanctioned leagues, and COVID-19 is included. But issues are emerging regarding the maintenance of rinks and who cleans between games. Some rinks are municipally owned, some are private, some are a mix. Some teams are private, some are community operated. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.

McKee said he’d like Ontario to follow the lead of British Columbia, which used its powers under the Emergency Program Act to legislate that sports organizations and organizers cannot be sued if someone contracts or transmits COVID-19 as a result of their participation in organized amateur sport, as long as those sports are following provincial pandemic guidelines.

“I’m hoping the government of Ontario takes steps to put some limitations on liability for minor sports and amateur sport that is following the guidelines established by the Ontario government,” said McKee.

The unsanctioned option

Further complicating matters are families that still want their kids to play games and leagues — unsanctioned by Hockey Canada — that are happy to fill the void if the GTHL doesn’t.

The Carnevale Summer League — run by Frank Carnevale, director of player personnel for the OHL’s Barrie Colts — extended its program to September with five-on-five mini tournaments.

Carnevale added he wanted to start a 10-week league — he said 60 teams of 17 players sent deposits, with another 40 on the waiting list — but ran into a challenge from a long-standing tradition that kids can’t play in two leagues.

“We were supposed to start Sept. 7 and go 10 weeks,” he said. “We were taking the GTHL ice, because they weren’t using it. They’re not playing. So the rinks are saying great, at least we have a tenant.”

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Then the GTHL reminded parents that if they sign with an unsanctioned league after Sept. 30, they will be banned from the GTHL for the season.

“Everybody’s going nuts because they aren’t playing; they’re just going to practise,” said Carnevale. “Parents don’t know what to do. It’s chaotic. I’m not one to break rules, but they’re forcing the parents not to come with me, but they can’t play games with them because they’re not allowed.

“The GTHL has the nerve to say: ‘We’re not offering you games. We want your money, but you can’t go have fun in another league.’”

Oakman said parents who want to put their children in leagues such as Carnevale’s are welcome to, but they’ll have to make a choice.

“If they choose to stay with those other programs, that’s great for them and we wish them luck,” said Oakman. “But they won’t be able to participate in GTHL programming after that date (Sept. 30) if they continue on in the other programming.”

Rink rules

For now, Carnevale has scaled back his plans: September only, at the Scotiabank Pond in Downsview. He says he has run his game plan by Toronto Public Health. It includes:

  • Each team using two dressing rooms.
  • Teams using the entrances on the dressing-room sides of the ice (defencemen/goalie) as well as the benches (forwards), with X’s marking where to sit for proper distancing.
  • Two hours of ice time for a one-hour game to allow for dressing, undressing and cleaning.

“It met all the things you needed to do,” said Carnevale. “We’re not letting anyone come in the rink until the others are out, so they’re not mixing.”

The issue for the GTHL — and indeed minor-hockey associations across the province — is that not all rinks are as modern as Scotiabank Pond. Some have smaller playing surfaces. Others don’t have as many dressing rooms. And different public health units might have different ideas.

“If I’m an operator with one rink and it’s an Olympic-sized rink, I can run a totally different program on an Olympic-sized rink that doesn’t promote physical contact in-game than if I’m on a three-on-three training rink,” said McKee.

“We might have to go to the lowest common denominator. We’re an organization that is spread out and governs a lot of different hockey in a lot of small towns, a lot of northern communities, a lot of different rinks.”

Drop the puck

Hockey Canada pulled the plug on minor hockey in the middle of March, when the pandemic first took hold in North America resulting in lockdowns, closed workplaces, quarantining, self-isolation and mask-wearing orders. In May, the GTHL polled families with kids signed up. Of the 2,450 respondents:

  • 95 per cent were “thinking” about returning this season.
  • 62 per cent were “in a hurry” to see hockey return.
  • 92 per cent were willing to participate in a “shorter than usual” season.
  • 63 per cent would be happy to have hockey without contact.

So far, said Oakman, teams have not seen a drop from the usual number of interested families.

“We’re happy with the interest level and the willingness of parents to return,” he said. “I think it’s important for us to make sure that we’re communicating very clearly how diligent our organizations are going to be in terms of protocols and safety requirements, and the measures we have in place for contact tracing.”

The NHL returned with hubs in Toronto and Edmonton, players hived off from society and no positive tests for COVID-19. The league intends to start the 2020-21 season in December, with similar timelines for Canada’s major junior leagues.

The OHF is encouraging its minor-hockey associations to let families sign up as late as November, for those who would rather take a wait-and-see approach. Medical experts believe there will be second wave of COVID-19 in the fall. What happens when schools reopen will be a big factor in the return to play of all sports, including hockey.

“Our plan has to intertwine with government regulations. That’s the challenge,” said McKee. “If the government regulations change, we can speed up our model if we need to, or we can stay they same. Or if it changes backwards, we can change back with them. It’s a malleable model.”

Kevin McGran

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