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Minor hockey league suggests season extension

From Elk Point to Plamondon, young skaters wait for word on league play

LAKELAND - As minor hockey associations in Elk Point, Bonnyville, St. Paul,  Lac La Biche, Cold Lake  and Plamondon continue to discuss current and future plans for players as the COVID pandemic has suspended play, officials with the region's main hockey league aren't ruling out the idea of extending the season well into next year.

Minor hockey associations across the Lakeland and in many other parts of the province slid to a standstill two weeks ago as provincial government officials implemented new measures within a public health state of emrgency to combat the spread of the COVID-19 respiratory virus. For a three-week period, hockey, along with other entertainment and recreation activities including group theatre and dance performances, gymnastics, martial arts, and indoor soccer practices have all been suspended.

Overtime plan

North Eastern Alberta Hockey League President Randy Martin says as of last Wednesday the league has suspended play until further notice, leaving more than 1,400 young skaters on 108 teams waiting for further instructions. An additional 500 young players across the Lakeland in the East Central Alberta Female Hockey League are also seeing their season put on hold.

While the forced shut down feels like a three-week penalty kill, Martin says there's an opportunity for some over-time play in order to make up for lost ice time. One idea could see the regular season, which normally runs to March and early April, extended longer.

"Once we get up and going, we can potentially run our league a little longer, keep the kids running a little longer than historically," he said, explaining that league officials do have that scenario in some of their long-term plans, depending how the virus numbers look in the coming weeks. 

As the daily numbers of the virus continue to rise, however, Martin says league officials — like players — also find themselves in a wait-and-see situation.

"Right now, from a league perspective we are shut down until hopefully some of these numbers get under control," he told Lakeland This Week. "Ultimately, our goal is to get everything safer and get the communities back to manageable numbers and hopefully get the kids back on the ice."

Working with provincial health officials, as well as the governing Hockey Alberta organization and community hockey associations, Martin admits there are a lot of objects in motion during ongoing discussions and planning.

"Everyone's goal is to get the kids to playing hockey and get kids out doing some sports and stuff that's back to some form of normality," he said, understanding that it's not only the young skaters who are affected by the temporary suspension. "It has impacts a lot of kids and a lot of parents and facilities and venues. It's not just us that it has affected, there's refs and maintenance people that maintain the rinks and the facilities."

NEAHL and Hockey Alberta are planning to meet on December 16, two days before the government's deadline date on the three-week COVID measures. That meeting will include the discussions, decisions and concerns from hockey associations across the region. 

In the Lac La Biche area, Lac La Biche Minor Hockey Association executive member Jeff Erick says a board meeting is slated for later this week to discuss plans and strategies.

One of those topics, he says, will be refunding hockey fees for the season. Registration fees vary depending on the age group, but an average season fee is around $800 for older players. Erick says there have been some questions from community members to the executive about refunds. He says there are many logistics to look at when it comes to the idea of refunding any amount of registration fees. While facilities are no longer charging hockey associations rental fees, reducing any expenses to the association, the process of re-registering players a month down the road if provincial health officials open up the ice, is daunting.

From a hockey community standpoint, Erick also said the idea of a refund could imply the end of the season, no matter what.

"We'd hate to see everyone get out of it, if there is a way we can come back and skate safely," he said, emphasizing that association officials are also mainly in a wait-and-see pattern, reacting to Hockey Alberta, league officials and provincial health decisions. "We know that people just want to go back to playing hockey. We get it. People just want to know one way or the other — but we just don't have that answer right now."

The Lac La Biche Minor Hockey Association meeting is scheduled for Dec. 10.