The virus is deciding what’s fair from one league to the next as OWHA registration opens

While minor hockey federations get closer and closer to the start of the traditional hockey season — a season that could start without traditional hockey — the federation with the biggest complications could well be the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association.

“Ideally, we want to be opened up everywhere but it’s the local health departments that are really guiding us,” said Fran Rider, one of the founders of the OWHA and its current president.

Most leagues, representing largely boys, are regional in scope and the level of COVID-19 in each region will dictate to some degree how quickly full-contact, five-on-five hockey can be played.

The OWHA represents about 40,000 female players across the province. That means some leagues are in places where COVID-19 is prevalent and therefore the quick return of five-on-five hockey is less likely. Some are in places with very little COVID and teams are ready to get going.

And the OWHA is trying to be fair to all it members, with registration about to begin.

“We do believe in consistency and fairness,” Rider said. “And to be fair, that’s a new definition of consistency and fairness because it’s the virus that’s discriminating, not the hockey program.”

The OWHA issued a release on Aug. 25 telling parents what their hockey-playing kids can expect through September. Registration starts Sept. 1.

“We’ve done draft after draft because, as soon as you get a draft done, something changes within the health department somewhere,” Rider said. “We’re constantly readapting everything we do.”

For now, it’s no more than 30 people on the ice, with the emphasis on skills development and practice. Social distancing protocols are enforced in the rink and dressing rooms. There will be no travel, with teams operating within hubs, practising and playing with and against the same group. There may be some three-on-three hockey, or four-on-four, with modified rules. Some ideas include a penalty shot instead of a two-minute minor. And no faceoffs, with the attacking team forced to leave the zone after a goal, or any other stoppage in play.

“We’re not as concerned with the high performance end of it and the extensive skill training as we are with mental health,” said Rider. “We feel that getting these kids back on the ice with their teammates in a safe environment is good for them, and it’s also good for the staff that are doing it. That’s been our driving force. Obviously health and safety are No. 1, but mental health does play into that in a huge way.”

The Greater Toronto Hockey League, which represents about 30,000 players, predominantly boys, has registration starting Sept. 7. Its Return to Play guidelines suggest that hockey as we know it — five-on-five with contact at age-appropriate levels, would not be in play until Dec. 1 at the earliest.

The GTHL’s guidelines are similar to the OWHA’s in terms of strict contact tracing, health checks, social distancing within rinks and the wearing of masks everywhere but on the ice.

When will five-on-five hockey return for the OWHA, with travel and regular rules and contact?

“We really don’t know that,” Rider said. “We’ve got a number of arenas in the province that are designated to be shut down for health units in the event of a second wave. So, as our organizations plan, they’ve also got to put that into their planning grid.

“We’re not guaranteed anything going forward, so we sort of got Plan A, Plan B, Plan C. It’s hard to plan without a solid end-goal, but with some good values driving us and desire, it’s working reasonably well.”

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Rider said some parents are pushing for a return to five-on-five hockey as quickly as possible, while others are grateful for a more health-conscious, conservative approach, which has included on-ice training through August.

“We’re doing what we can with what we’ve got to work with and certainly we’re adaptable,” Rider said. “But right now the fact is the kids are getting on the ice, skating and they’ve had some wonderful experiences just getting back with their, their chums and sort of a little bit more normalcy.”

Kevin McGran

TORONTO STAR