By Darren Lum
The Highland Storm are moving forward with their season despite the Greater Toronto Hockey League’s announcement on Saturday that they’re postponing the start of their season until January due to concerns about COVID-19.
With 289 coronavirus cases in Toronto on Monday and just 17 (15 resolved) in Haliburton County, the contrast in case numbers is why the Highland Storm started their season, said president Jason Morissette.
“At this time we fortunately have very low numbers which is allowing us to begin hockey this week. We will take things a day at a time and encourage all of our members to adhere to community and OHF (Ontario Hockey Federation) COVID protocols to reduce the chances for community spread and allow players to continue to play. Things are of course changing day by day and members have been informed to be prepared for any potential changes in hockey planning and policy,” he said in a text sent Monday, as a response to the GTHL’s decision.
The Storm’s 170 registered players will begin holding practices for its 25 teams, divided into their respective divisions over the next two weeks before they commence their season of three-on-three games. The season will be run with COVID-19 protocols implemented in a plan approved by the Ontario Minor Hockey Association and developed in conjunction with the Municipality of Dysart et al. The plan met the “requirements of the Ontario Hockey Federation Return to Hockey Framework, as it relates to the phase 2 stage 3B that allows minor hockey associations to conduct, with the approval of the OMHA, instructional training for players and modified non-contact play,” reads the Storm’s COVID-19 Return to Hockey Plan posted on Sept. 16.
Morissette said the main goals for this season are to provide a safe environment for players to have fun, develop skills, and experience fairness in games, which he said will be a challenge because the plan to play includes combining age groups, Morissette said.
Giving children and youth an opportunity for organized play is important since COVID-19 has cancelled other sports; sport provides physical and psychological benefits, Morissette said.
Currently, the Storm’s plan to play includes nine players to one coach and trainer on the bench while on-ice activities will include 18 players and two goalies, and up to four coaches. Only one person per player is allowed to watch from the stands. Those in the stands are required to wear a mask and socially distance from others, which will reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission and allow parents/guardians, or local media, an opportunity to be present for games.
“That could change. Adults have to remember at the start of this we had a rule in place that was going to be no parents, but then that opened up and other regions were starting to do that and they are still doing that so we’ll still be doing this,” Morissette said. “So, yes, if certain members, for instance media, yes, of course we want media to see the kids, have memories and take pictures and have articles. We’ll still be doing that.”
Like it is everywhere, when people enter the arena they must wear a mask, including players, who will remove their mask while playing.
Dressing to play will look vastly different than the norm. Players are expected to arrive at the arena dressed in their equipment except for gloves, skates and their helmet. Players will proceed to a chair to finalize their dress, lacing up skates, putting on gloves and helmets. Access to the washroom in change rooms will be limited to one person at at time. Players 10 and under who require assistance from a parent/guardian will be permitted to receive it. No one is allowed to be in the lobby during play.
Another visible difference will be the game. The three-on-three games will be shorter in duration.
There will not be any face-offs. Following a goal, the scored-on team will take the puck from their own end and rush the puck once the opposing team has cleared the zone. Stoppages of play will occur when a goalie holds the puck and for penalty shots, which will be awarded in lieu of players serving time in the penalty box. One shot for a minor penalty and two for a major penalty. The game clock will be continuous.
There will be a cleaning period in between groups and everyone except staff must vacate the building until the next time slot. Morissette said it’s imperative that parents/guardians arrive early to change and be ready to play at the scheduled times. Once a session has begun the arena doors will be locked. Anyone leaving during a session is not permitted to return.
The Storm have planned their next four weeks with A.J. LaRue Arena as the only venue for October because they were told the new Minden arena is not available and that the Keith Tallman Memorial Arena is not available until December at the earliest. Acknowledging the fluidity of the times, the Storm will reassess their current plan to play in November.
To make this work for the volunteers and players, health and safety is the key, Morissette said.
“Even if it’s not COVID, it’s not worth coming to the rink and making other kids sick on your team and again it’s more about making sure everybody is following those rules and adheres to [them]. It’s really difficult. I know that because kids want to play and they want to show up to the rink and they don’t want to miss [it], especially if it’s the only thing going on for them, but we’re really, really stressing to all the adults … really the adults are sort of the gatekeepers for making sure their children are taking that responsibility to follow the rules.”
The small population and low density of Haliburton County is an advantage when compared to larger centres, but that doesn’t mean it guarantees immunity.
Everyone’s cooperation is needed to seize the opportunity to play organized sport. If it doesn’t work and the risk to health is apparent, Morrisette said, the Storm will be open to stopping the season, if that is recommended.
“We need to look at our opportunity and work with that and let’s be cautious and maybe up in these areas we can get to do some of these things, right? That’s what I would say, but if it has to shut down then absolutely. It’s going to shut down. That won’t be our call entirely. That’s going to go to someone else to say, ‘No, you have to shut that down.’” he said.
He asks parents, guardians and players to be understanding because of the uncertainty of the situation.
“There’s no road map for hockey. There’s no road map for anything that’s going [on] in our community that’s dealing with this so we’re just trying to plan as best as we can to make it happen. And you know what, if we get out on the ice and we get to skate, in our opinion as an executive that’s a success. Under these circumstances it’s a success. I can say this, I’m really proud of our executive. I’m so proud of them because the amount of work from the summertime forward that went into this … I’ve been on the executive for 15 years and I have never seen as much work go into something so quickly,” he said.
In addition to the executive of the Storm, Morissette is thankful to the Municipality of Dysart et al, which includes the A.J. LaRue Arena staff, and recreation co-ordinator Andrea Mueller.
If there is a case that is traced back to someone related to the association, Morissette said it isn’t just an issue for them, but everyone in the community and will be handled as such. The Storm would report the case to the OMHA, the OHF and then they would be following the guidelines set out by the public health unit, which would take lead on the next action.
This past weekend the Storm held a virtual meeting. This was an opportunity for parents/guardians to ask the Storm executive questions before coming to the rink for the first time. If parents/guardians missed that opportunity, they can contact the team coaches, or the associations’ executive, including Morissette with questions.
Even if all this work seems like a lot for a season that could potentially get cancelled, it’s still worth it, Morissette said.
“At least we tried,” he said.
See highlandstorm.org for more information.