BONNYVILLE – Fans of the Bonnyville Jr. A Pontiacs may have to wait a little bit longer to watch their favourite team start their upcoming season.
The Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL) announced on Aug. 14 that the regular season is postponed for the time being. A 'development season' will begin instead on Aug. 31, which will see teams grouped into specified cohorts that will play against each other.
According to an AJHL press release, "The AJHL development season outline meets the current health and safety requirements of the Government of Alberta and aligns with Hockey Canada’s Return to Hockey Safety Guidelines and Hockey Alberta’s Return to Hockey Plan in focusing on the safety and wellbeing of all participants. In addition, teams will commit to using the ABTraceTogether App."
The decision to hold-off on regular season play was made due to the restriction on the number of people allowed at indoor events while the province is still in phase two of relaunch, which caps attendees at 100.
Pontiacs head coach and general manager Rick Swan said, “We’ve made a proposal with the AJHL to the (provincial health authority) to try and increase the current number of 100, along with COVID-19 protocols. We could do that as a league, and as individual operators, safely with a percentage of fans allowed in the building. Keeping in mind the importance of social distancing and making sure that we took precautions that would satisfy the government that we would be able to play games, obtain big revenue, and the more important thing, to look after the safety of our players, staff, and fans.”
According to Swan, the league has requested the province allow AJHL teams 50 per cent capacity of their arenas during games. If approved, the R.J. Lalonde Arena would be able to have around 900 people under this exemption.
“Even if they come back and said ‘we’re going to give you 27 per cent,' that would be 550 fans, which allows us to be able to go ahead and operate and allows us and most teams in our league the ability to jump in," said Swan.
When the AJHL announced the schedule for the upcoming 2020/21 season, they had a contingency plan in place in case a situation like this occurred.
“We could take 10 game blocks from the beginning of our season to add to the end of our season, that way we could retain the ability to have a 58-game schedule,” explained Swan.
The Pontiacs training camp will still take place Aug. 28 to 31 at the R.J. Lalonde Arena, which will be followed by the beginning of the development season.
Swan explained there are three main reasons behind the decision to move forward revised games.
“Number one is to give a finite date of when our players need to travel and record. The second thing is to fulfil their need to have a place to develop and train, and number three is to prepare for the season and be ready for the season as soon as those exemptions are obtained from our provincial health authority.”
Who exactly will be in the Pontiacs cohort is currently unknown, but Swan speculated the Lloydminster Bobcats and Fort McMurray Oil Barons could be part of their group.
Whether or not fans will be allowed to watch the training camp and games during the development season still needs to be finalized.
“It’s up to the comfort of each facility,” Swan said. “We may be different than a facility in Edmonton and even Lloydminster because they’ve got the Saskatchewan health authority to deal with. Currently, right now in phase two in (the Alberta) relaunch, is 100 people in the building at one time, which is pretty generous or liberal for us to anticipate that most parents and people are going to be able to watch with those limited numbers just as always.”
The talks between the province and the AJHL have been positive, stated Swan, and he has high hopes that the season could go ahead as Edmonton was named a hub city for the NHL.
“We have a chance to do something special here with respect to maybe leading the way and doing things right and opening hockey, not only for our league but maybe other provinces of Jr. A teams that have them, and maybe minor league hockey,” he expressed. “We’re excited about it. We think that hockey is going to get going and Alberta has the best chance to start it before anybody else.”