Organizing the National Hockey League bubbles was probably easier than what minor hockey organizations like the Cowichan Valley Minor Hockey Association have been facing to become operational for the 2020-21 season.
The CVMHA utilizes ice primarily at the Fuller Lake and Duncan arenas, but also at Lake Cowichan. The season started in earnest on Sept. 8 with 26 teams in divisions across the age spectrum from five to 21 doing a lot of practicing in anticipation of the possible return of game action.
“Each of the teams is getting two ice sessions a week and they’re full ice sessions,” explained CVMHA executive administrator Kathy Irving.
“Our coaches have to be really creative in keeping these kids occupied on the ice.”
But it’s already taken a lot just to get to this point, with much more that needs to happen before trying to put games together again can even be considered.
Practice and development, “that’s all we can do right now,” conceded Irving. “I’m in meetings with the arenas trying to figure out how we can pull off games.”
COVID protocols at the arenas and in keeping with provincial health orders are making the hockey environment complicated. Continual cleaning that’s putting extra demands on arena staff and minimal use of facilities such as change rooms are just the beginning.
The Fuller Lake Arena change rooms just opened up again on Monday for players to put on skates, rather than in the warm room, but are still not available for shower use.
Players must arrive with their equipment already on, other than skates, and some leeway is being granted for goaltenders and their bulky gear. Only 10 players can be in one dressing room at any one time at Fuller Lake to maintain social distancing and as few as six in Duncan.
Players enter on the top level at Fuller Lake and exit from the lower level.
Each arena has different return-to-play requirements, Irving noted.
“It’s a very different season, but at least we got our kids on the ice,” she said.
The kids, particularly in the U9 age level that has skaters as young as five, are their usual exuberant selves despite the circumstances. Everyone would love to be playing games, of course, but it’s just not possible right now.
There’s extra demands even before the kids get into the arena and strict measures are undertaken to ensure the numbers in the building do not exceed 50. That doesn’t allow too much space for parents by the time you consider players, staff and team coaches.
“Every one of our teams has a COVID team host that greets them at the door,” Irving indicated.
The parent volunteers have to keep meticulous track of how many are entering the building and complete a contact tracing list to be held onto for 30 days.
“The team host is instrumental in the workings of it,” noted Irving. “It takes a lot of volunteers to pull this off. Big shout out to the volunteers. We needed them in the past, but even more now.”
Seating is arranged at Fuller Lake and parents must sit in the designated area. There often isn’t enough room to also accommodate grandparents which is disappointing to many of them who look forward to watching the kids play hockey.
While all this is going on, coaches wanting to assist with teams still need to go through several courses and some of that is being converted to virtual this year. It’s a big undertaking for them just to volunteer their time.
The Vancouver Island Amateur Hockey Association is providing continual direction and won’t be releasing anything about cohort schedules until everybody’s schedules come in while “BC Hockey is releasing all sorts of information all the time,” Irving added.
Cohorts for Cowichan Valley teams, once established, might include Nanaimo teams but that would probably be the extent of any travel.
Irving’s job, already quite complicated in a normal season, now includes being the COVID communications officer.
“Interesting season is a good way to describe it,” she sighed.
Meanwhile, the Thanksgiving weekend would have meant the annual Cowichan Valley Memorial Midget C Tournament at Fuller Lake Arena. The tournament honours families brought together by the deaths over the years of young hockey players from tragic circumstances.
The tournament was originally held at the end of the season in March. When that was cancelled this year at the start of COVID restrictions, tournament organizer Irving and her large committee thought they’d move it to the start of the next season in October, something that had been contemplated for some time. COVID hasn’t allowed that to happen, either.
“Who could have forecast this would go on this long?” pondered Irving. “We kind of came up with a plan we really thought would work. We thought by moving to Thanksgiving we’d be good to go.
“Realistically, we’ll be trying for next Thanksgiving.”
It is with “heavy hearts”, Irving added, that the decision was made to cancel again because the families involved look so forward to the event all year as a memorial to their loved ones.