Playing Recreational Ice Hockey In A New World – Alberta COVID-19 Stage 2 Rules and Regulations Interpreted

On Tuesday June 9th, 2020 Premier Kenny announced that Alberta will effectively enter Stage 2 of the relaunch strategy as of Friday June 12th, 2020. Luckily for us, hockey nuts, arenas were moved from Stage 3 into Stage 2 of the relaunch and can open on Friday. Don’t get us wrong, this is great news, we will finally be able to play hockey soon(ish). That is the good news.

Now, what is the actual reality of the situation? Things are little bit more nuanced than the initial headlines would suggest. Most, if not all arenas in the province will not reopen on Friday and here is why.

The province published a very detailed list of regulations outlining how hockey arenas, and organizers must manage playing hockey during Stage 2 of the relaunch. Obviously it would be really hard for players and officials to social distance on the ice, and maintain a 2 meter distance from each other, it would be impossible to wear masks during play. The new regulations do not recommend players wearing masks during the game. (we had a pretty good chuckle about masks in pools part of the regulations published)

Anyone who says otherwise, simply did not read the regulations, and listen to the answers by Dr. Hinshaw at the announcement on Tuesday.

To address this reality, the new rules allow for bubble cohorts, or as the regulations call them, mini-leagues of 50 people, who are participating in hockey. Once a player is assigned to their bubble cohort they are not allowed to belong to another cohort all together.

We can guess the rationale for this is that by being confined to your bubble cohort of players, the spread will be limited in nature as opposed to the situation where players are allowed to intermingle with other players from a different bubble cohort. Also should there occur an infection within a cohort it would be easier to trace its origin and nip the outbreak in the bud. All reasonable.

This presents a unique set of challenges we must address as a league. 50 people in a cohort means officials too, who are not allowed to be part of a different bubble cohort once they are assigned to one. As you can see, this now limits the number of players you can have on your team, and also the number of teams we can have in a cohort. Anyone who says otherwise, simply did not read the regulations, and listen to the answers by Dr. Hinshaw at the announcement on Tuesday.

The reason why almost no ice hockey arenas will open this Friday is simple. Most if not all rinks in Alberta took their ice out when they realized that there is a real possibility of a prolonged lock-down back in April.

4 teams per bubble cohort seems to make the most sense to us, three does not work so well with needing to have a bye week, two is not enough competition, and lets not even consider one team as an option.

With 4 teams in the cohort, each team can have at most 12 players, but in reality is more like 11 (including a goalie) because there needs to be room for officials and in order to have 2 officials on the ice, we would need to have 4 in the cohort to make sure we staff the games properly and have enough of a buffer should an official become unavailable for a game.

There are many other details in the regulations we must deal with before safely returning to play. Your health and safety and the health and safety of our officials (referees and scorekeepers), our staff, facility staff, as well as anyone else that will be taking part in our offerings is paramount.

No one knows the future and we don’t pretend to either …

In our view, proceeding slower is better than rushing into things without considering all that is required, and while we want to get on the ice as quickly as possible, we need to do this safely, so that we don’t contribute to the spread of COVID. At the end of the day we all want to be playing hockey this winter, and it is the last thing we’d want to see, AHS shutting down arenas again. There is no need to get into the impacts of that outcome, but kids would be devastated if they could not play hockey come winter.

The reason why almost no ice hockey arenas will open this Friday is simple. Most if not all rinks in Alberta took their ice out when they realized that there is a real possibility of a prolonged lock-down, back in April. Why keep the ice in when no one is using it, it just cost money (electricity is not free) especially as the days get warmer. So they took their ice out. Smart.

It will take arena operators a bit of time to put the ice back in, some of the challenges we are hearing about, are with equipment and supplies needed as everyone rushes to reopen. Things like pressure washers, ice paint and a multitude of other things you need to reopen. On top of this, there are new regulations for arenas from AHS as well, in regards to what they must do as facility operators to reopen safely. It would suffice to say they will need boatloads of hand sanitizer and PPE. All this takes time.

At the end of the day we all want to be playing hockey this winter, and it is the last thing we’d want to see, AHS shutting down arenas again.

Another thing facility managers must consider are the user groups and bookings in light of the new regulations. Will the bookings needs to be more spaced out between each other? What is a realistic start date after you take into account the challenges of putting the ice back in, and how much time each user group will need to get organized before they can start offering their programs? All these are questions that must be answered now, and it will take time to put the plans together and in motion, so that arenas can reopen safely.

Based on our discussions with arena operators it is a bit of a mixed bag, some are going to open mid July (15-20), while others may not open this summer at all, and be prepared to go in the fall. Even the City of Calgary is not exactly clear on when they will be reopening arenas under their management. City of Edmonton is not taking any bookings until June 30th, and may not take any after.

Yes, things are not as simple as pie when it comes to the realities of what we have to deal with, but we are working very hard on offering a condensed summer season which may look something like this (please do not hold us to it until we announce the details and open registration but this is what it looks like for now).

World Cup style, round robin (3 games), semis and final

5 game season

4 teams per bubble cohort

11 players per team (10 skaters and 1 goalie)

Will start mid July and will go to the end of August

We still have some details to sort out but we hope we have everything ready to go for the summer season by the end of the week. We have existing contracts with arenas that we signed before COVID hit everyone, and have the first right of refusal on ice when arenas reopen. Some arenas may not reopen or may reopen too close to the end of summer, we need to understand these realities and finalize our summer ice bookings before we can open registration for teams. Our staff is in constant communications with arenas.

It would be pointless to take your money so that 5 minutes later we have to turn around and refund it. Instead we want to crystallize all details first so that everyone knows what to expect and what is possible, then open registration. In our opinion this would be the smart way to go about in an uncertain situation.

As far as the winter season goes, we are also working on season details, we hope that by then we will be out of Stage 2, and play can resume as before (no, or little restrictions in place). No one knows the future and we don’t pretend to either, this is why we decided to offer a shorter summer season, and re-evaluate things for September. We are planning to have a regular season then, but if things do not work as we think they will, we will adjust to the environment we are in. Shorter season is also safer for you the player.

Information about Winter 2020-21 Season will be coming out next week. Teams that have pre-registered will have a 48 hour window to complete registration and set up their deposits to secure their place for the ice draft (we picked up some pretty awesome ice times for winter).

This is all that we know for now. We will share more as details emerge.

Stay healthy, and safe! We’ll see you on the ice soon.

The NCHL – A Better Way To Play!

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