By Darren Lum
This past Friday the A.J. LaRue arena came alive with the sound of skates on ice, carving and stopping, accompanied by the intermittent ping of a puck off the post or the rattle of a puck off the stanchions of the glass when it gets cleared around the boards, as the Highland Storm resumed its paused season with the start of session two.
With the Haliburton Kawartha Pine Ridge District health unit region returning to the Orange-Restrict level of Ontario’s COVID-19 Response Framework on Feb. 16, following the provincial wide lockdown, the Storm returned to play with close to 90 per cent of players returning from session one.
Highland Storm president Jason Morissette said it was a unanimous decision by the executive to return to play and that the motivation is and has always been a love for the game of hockey.
“I say it’s the reward we get for making sure we’re following health and safety. We take that as number one. And take it seriously because we as an association, we certainly do. We talk a lot about it at our meetings, but at the same time some people might forget that and they focus on, yes, we get to play hockey and, yes, that’s great, but we only get to do that if we stay in the proper zone,” he said. “Who knows how long that will last, but we have a better chance of it lasting longer if everybody [follows through with doing the] right things.”
The president’s message to the community is health and safety for everyone are central to all decisions.
“It is our top concern,” he said.
Working with Ontario Hockey Federation and HKPR district health unit guidelines for returning to organized play, Morissette said two keys to resuming the season was how the region moved to the orange code and hearing from the township about how they were prepared to reopen the doors to the A.J. LaRue.
COVID-19 protocols such as entrance screening and dressing just outside the perimeter of the ice rink’s boards will be enforced like session one. A new protocol implemented for session two is only one person is permitted to accompany an under 18 player into the arena, which can effect visiting siblings interested in spectating. However, there is an exception for a player under 18, who requires assistance. Once the help to dress is completed the individual must leave and can return when the session is completed.
As a response to Dr. Ian Gemmill, HKPR district health unit acting medical officer of health, discouraging hockey from happening, Morissette said, “If we’re able to provide hockey safely, and if the government was adamant about such a statement, then I guess the only thing I would say is they would have contacted the Ontario Hockey Federation and they would have basically said that sport cannot go. And then of course, community centres would be closed and shut down. So would all the private users as well, right? It’s not just minor hockey happening, but there’s men’s leagues happening and private skates that are happening – rentals,” he said. “The other thing is that there is going to be an element of risk involved. There was an element of risk in the first session as well, particular to our local area. Yes, we know we’ve had cases and we know we may likely have some new cases emerge, but right now the rates are quite low in Haliburton County. We’re hoping they stay there and people follow the protocols and adhere to the rules that are there. The more people do that among our members and the more people do that particularly in the community, then we’re hopeful it won’t go into the community centre and it won’t affect hockey. If it does become a problem and an issue, I’m pretty sure the likelihood of us being moved into a red zone is not that far away.”
The Storm, per its website, said the season will continue for eight weeks during what was supposed to be the March break and the April break, but will end before its scheduled April 17 end date if the health district moves to the red zone.
There is still space for players to register.
Register online at registration.hockeycanada.ca/registration/?ID=5390.
Refunds are available for players not returning to session two and “credit rollovers and refunds” will be available if the session is cut short because of government restrictions. In accordance with public health policies, all Storm players and coaches must reside in the health unit’s region of Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge District, which pertains to all activity at the arena.
Morissette said it’s worth crediting the efforts of all the volunteers, particularly with ‘Thank A Volunteer Week’ from Feb. 22 to 28. There wouldn’t be a season without them, he added.
Morissette has appreciated the support and communication provided by Dysart Township during this season. He believes the municipality’s efforts show they are aware of the benefit hockey can provide to people, offering an outlet in a safe way.
Another challenge this session and for the future of hockey in the county is the shortage of available officials for this region.
Morissette said there is a small pool of people in the area to officiate games this season, which has required coaches and volunteers with coaching certification to step in to help for four on four games, referred to as “organized scrimmages.” He encourages teens and adults with a passion for hockey to join the ranks. An official, he said, can make at least $25 a game with mileage to games being covered. He adds the Storm will cover costs related to acquiring the necessary certification so contact the association if interested (highlandstorm.org).
After two recent virtual Storm meetings, one between the executive and the coaches, and one with parents, the mood among everyone is positive, Morissette said.
“Everybody seemed comfortable and confident that they can make this work like they did in the first session and give kids an opportunity to get out and skate and do something that’s fun to do and have an outlet because they’ve been cooped up in their houses a lot, particularly during the lockdown,” he said.