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Junior B hockey start awaits more meetings

Thursday meeting hoped to draw Clippers volunteers

LAKELAND - Cold Lake Junior B Ice coach Scott Hood says meetings, discussions, plans and delays due to COVID-19 protocols aren't doing much to help area skaters get back to the game they love.

"These kids need something to do. It has to be about these kids playing hockey and getting back on the ice," he said, disappointed with the delays and uncertainty coming from Hockey Alberta officials. "But we are just told to wait and see."

In most communities, back to hockey plans are already in place when it comes to COVID precautions in local arenas, dressing rooms and viewing areas, but Hockey Alberta, the governng body for hockey in the province, hasn't finalized its own guidelines yet.

Hockey Alberta officials had a call-in meeting with junior B coaches and managers last Tuesday — the second attempt at a meeting to lock-down a start date and long-term plan for the COVID-challenged season — but the meeting ended with calls for more discussions.

"Everyone is waiting for someone to make a decision of what to do," said Hood, who is tired of using terms like "in a little while," or "in a couple of weeks" to answer questions from fans and players about when some sort of a season could start.

From the latest meeting, however, coaches were given one firm date — Oc. 7 as the deadline for teams to collect feedback and give their final say to Hockey Alberta on what kind of a season they want to see.

A league of their own

Hood hopes it doesn't end in another stall. Going further, he says if Hockey Alberta continues to delay the playing season, he and some coaches in the Northeast Alberta Junior Hockey League have been playing with their own idea of forming a locally-run league.

"If you had your own rogue league, one-hundred per cent run by our teams, with no ties to Hockey Alberta — the option is there," he said, adding that it would mean a lot of work, but it could see skaters on the ice playing in some sort of league much sooner.

Lac La Biche Junior B Clippers Willie Abougouche feels the same frustrations as Hood.

"It's up in the air still," he said following last week's meeting.

Clippers need volunteers

Abougouche feels a likely outcome will see two teams placed into a cohort or bubble that will play three or four back-to-back games against each other and then both teams would take a two week break. Making things more challenging for teams — including the Clippers — are the bubble and cohort restrictions that will also apply to team volunteers. He said score-keepers and people who take tickets or admissions will also have to be found who can work through all those games.

"The reffing will also have to do the same — so each (bubble) would have to have their own officials," he said, explaining that the logistics and challenges for volunteers are partly why at least one NEAJBHL team has dropped out of the league.

"Vegreville is out and I hear Kilam is on the fence," he said, explaining that a community meeting set for Oc.t 1 in Lac La Biche is hoped to draw a lineup of volunteers willing to help.

"If we don't get the help . . . well let's just say we need the volunteers," he said.

Prior to last week's meeting with teams, Hockey Alberta had released a tentative schedule for Junior B players across the province that saw teams ready with 25 players by the last week of September after three weeks of training camps. Team training would take place until the second week of October, followed by a two-week long exhibition series with a neighbouring team, and the "pod play" beginning in the last week of October for the remainder of the season.

Both Hood and Abougouche say they have a selection of players ready to go, with Abougouche saying October 16-17 has been set aside for the start of a practice and training camp — if the team can find the volunteers.

The Clippers meeting for volunteers takes place at the Bold Center on Thursday at 7 p.m. Abougouche says anyone willing to help can also contact the team's officials directly through the Lac La Biche Clippers social media page.