By Darren Lum
Highland Storm president Jason Morissette is asking the public to remember the importance of sport for what it can do for young people, as the hockey association works on a plan to return with measures to reduce risk of the coronavirus for players, coaches and volunteers.
“Kids need an outlet. They need to have access to things that are fun and healthy. It’s good for their physical health, but I think it’s more important even for their mental health, right? A lot of our local kids have been quite cooped up and, you know, they haven’t been able to see their friends or do some of the activities they would like to do,” he said.
Morissette said there is optimism and hope for the season after the Storm executive met at the annual general meeting on Monday, Aug., 17.
The Storm, like other hockey associations in the province is planning for a season using the Ontario Hockey Federation’s (OHF) Return to Hockey Phase 2 – Stage 3A plan, which uses the public health guidelines to allow players to return to play in a safe manner.
As stated online by the OMHA (Ontario Minor Hockey Association) earlier this month, “Stage 3 provides for additional hockey opportunities beyond the individual and group training that were approved in Stage 1 and 2 of the OHF Return to Hockey. It provides participants the opportunity to register in Hockey Canada programming that will include game play with rules that focus on removing deliberate and prolonged contact.”
Morissette is optimistic Stage 3 will remain in place to enable them to return to play.
“Our vision is to plan so that the season potentially could begin somewhere in early-October. So a good example is that the Greater Toronto Hockey League, they announced last week that they will not be starting their first skates until Oct. 7. Not saying anybody is in a rush here. I think what they’re doing is their due diligence to listen to the chief medical officer and then the OHF to the OMHA to say this is what we’re planning to do. They’re just trying to make it as safe as possible. Our goal right now is we formed committees amongst our executive to look at the different programming that would be designed for our local area, our local association.”
This undertaking will take considerable work to ensure the safety of everyone involved, he adds.
“The nice thing is we have time. We’re not looking to get back on the ice next week or the week after. We have time here to plan it out and see how things go. I’m sure the powers that be higher than here will look at how the whole return to school plan goes and they’ll go and base it from that and look at the medical advice they’re getting,” he said. “I do think people are going to have to make adjustments and they’re going to have to be supportive.”
Currently the Storm have 130 players registered for the season, which pleases Morissette.
Every age group is represented in this collection of registered players, but he said there will be a combination of age divisions to form cohorts. Deadline for registration is Sept. 1 to guarantee a spot on a team. Fees are not being demanded. Just a commitment to play and to help the Storm plan.
Games will take on a new look and format with this plan.
From the OMHA, games are non-contact, three-on-three. There will not be a penalty box, as there won’t be time served. However there will be a penalty shot for a minor infraction and two penalty shots, including an ejection for a major penalty.
“What they want to do is keep the game continuously playing. There’s no face-offs. For instance, it would be take a shot on the net and the goalie freezes the puck, the offensive team has to exit the zone and then the puck comes out. So a very different look to the game and the way it’s reffed is going to be different too,” he said.
With these games, he said, one referee as an official is permitted.
Also, two teams are likely to share ice and practice together. However practices will be individual at their core. There would be no “battle” drills. Up to 25 people on the ice at a time. Nine players and one goalie for a roster with two to three coaches. There will not be rep or local league hockey and there will not be any tryouts.
Although Morissette acknowledges this brand of hockey may not satiate the competitive drive of players and parents/guardians who enjoy that aspect of the game, he encourages people to come into this season with an open mind, understanding, and see it as a year of development.
“Yeah, I get that because a lot of our players and their families are very competitive people, but we have to look at it as individual skill development. Focus on your stick-handling. Focus on your shot. Focus on your edge work … Focus on your hockey IQ because a three-on-three game – a lot of people have done studies on this. They do small ice games in Europe. Three-on-three is really, really popular. They’ve been doing that way ahead of us … so I really looked at it that this might be an opportunity for kids to just [enjoy] a less structured game, right?” he said.
He adds this game format encourages greater stimulation, advancing skills far greater than what the five-on-five format can provide. The Storm have also stated online four-on-four is also a possibility.
Two weeks before games commence there will be practice to implement the plan.
One of the recommendations from the OMHA is to not allow anyone but players, coaches and helpers into the arena unless a player from the youngest ages (under Atom – eight to 10) needs assistance. Any player or volunteer helping must not exhibit symptoms upon entering an arena.
Another consideration in the plan is how and where players dress.
Players will likely be asked to come to the arena dressed in much of their equipment with the exception of their helmet and skates and they may lace up in a cordoned off place for them at the arena. This and other actions for the plan are part of ongoing discussions, which will include input from the three arenas in Minden, Wilberforce and Haliburton.
He said the decisions the Storm will make rest with the direction from the OMHA, which have outlined their actions on their website and is available for the public to scrutinize. It comes down to the safety of everyone involved, Morissette noted. It’s up to the Storm, he said, to minimize the risk as much as possible.
“Now we have to design a return to play plan that we must move to the OMHA for approval. So we’re at the stage now we’re just starting to design and look at those plans and we’re doing that as well with our facility providers,” he said, referring to arenas in Wilberforce, Minden (in up to five weeks) and Haliburton.
He said if the public is interested in how hockey will look they can see nearby examples such as Lindsay Recreation Complex where they have already started.
Morissette is focusing on the positive, which is being able to facilitate playing instead of trying to think of how bad things are because it isn’t like it used to be.
“We have to look at the way things are and see how we can work from there. And we have to look into the future and say, ‘There is a Phase 4 and the phase four in the program exists when there is a vaccine.’ That means we’re going to get back to where we were, but right now we have to adapt and try to overcome it.”
During the pandemic the one constant has been change. It’s difficult, he said, to know what will happen in October, but with a pending plan and a Storm executive that is working hard to get players playing again he believes in a future.
Involved with the Storm as 3a coach and executive member for the past 15 years, including a parent of a child that played, Morrissette said the community can help.
He encourages parents interested in having their children playing to register sooner than later to help with organization and planning.
There are benefits to not just the players, but to parents too.
Close to an hour of play for children gives parents “a little breather too.”
He adds it’s a strong possibility that players’ parents and guardians will not be permitted to be in the arena. Although it takes away the social component, it is part of adapting this season.
Unlike other years, the $100 registration fee for first-time players is not likely to be available Morissette said. This is owed to the potential of added costs from the COVID-19 plan, less revenue due to current registration numbers, no plans to host tournaments and no sponsorship, which was a deliberate decision to provide a “reprieve” to the business community facing hardship.
He said the Storm has always tried to keep fees as low as possible, which ensures access to hockey to as many players as possible. However, he hopes it will be available for the future.
Looking out for businesses in the community is a long term outlook.
“We’ve had long partnerships with our sponsors and we hope that will help, but we also hope that in the future when we hopefully get back to more normal of a situation they’ll be there for us,” he said.
The Storm has looked at applying for government funding to help with the loss of revenue. Despite the reduction in revenue this season, he said, the Storm is healthy financially and has a surplus of money.
He wants to focus on the positive and hopes parents and guardians will do the same.
“We’re going to need adult cooperation, support. We’re going to need them to be flexible. We’re going to need them to be open-minded. We’re really going to need them to show their kids that it’s important to reflect on the things that you may have taken for granted before and I think this is a really good time to look at that and say, ‘Listen, if you get the opportunity to get back on that ice and people are trying to make it safe for you, maybe, really appreciate it … I think when things get back to the way they were, I think everybody’s going to have a new zest for activities, including hockey that they just were not able to do,” he said. “I think we take things for granted. I certainly look at it that way.”
This effort will not just rely on the Storm executive, who continue and have worked very hard to this point to start a season. It needs members of the community, particularly individuals with certifications in coaching and training, including new people to volunteer with teams to support the coaches or to help screen players entering the arena. Interested individuals can contact Ron Hall at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Like a great hockey team, the implementation of the plan to have a season will need everyone involved to make it work.
“And isn’t that what this sport is all about? Like, we’re going to need that and I’m very hopeful we can do that. I have a really long history in Haliburton County [in] the sport of ice hockey. It’s a very long history of success and fun and community spirit,” he said.