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Portage teams on sports break until 2021

College sports boss says community is missing the sports scene

Portage College Voyageur fans and players will have to wait until at least next January for their teams to start competing.

Due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, hockey, curling, soccer golf and futsal games have all been postponed until the beginning of the second semester of school — January of next year, says the Portage College athletics director Nate Bedford.

The delay falls in line with the decision by Alberta Colleges Athletics Conference (ACAC) officials to cancel all college sports for the fall semester. After a recent meeting with all ACAC colleges, Bedford said it's been determined that a shortened hockey season will begin in January after the Christmas break, curling and indoor futsal soccer will also start in January. The Voyageurs golf season will tee of from May to June next year, the same time as the outdoor soccer season.

"We are just trying to follow like everyone else," said Bedford, who is also the head coach of the Voyageurs men's hockey team, and says the COVID-based delay is in the best interests of players, staff, students and the community. "The health and safety of our student athletes and our team staff is the most important thing. It's very important that we make the right decisions for all people."

The postponement of the sports season also follows changes in the college's academic schedule. Portage officials announced last month that virtual classes instead of in-person classroom teaching will continue until at least the end of the fall semester.  The online learning model was implemented in May to reduce the potential spread of the coronavirus respiratory virus. 

Players signing up

With campus locations in Lac La Biche, St. Paul, Cold Lake, Boyle, Saddle Lake, Whitefish Lake and Frog Lake, the college draws players and students from all corners of the Lakeland area and beyond. But because of its rural locations where population numbers are far lower than larger cities, Bedford says many of Voyageur athletes are drawn from outside the region. Despite the virtual classrooms and the postponed season, Bedford said the player recruitment process has drawn several new athletes and students for the coming year. Six adult players from the Moose Jaw Soccer Association will be joining the Portage outdoor men's soccer team this coming season. Bedford said the signings take the roster on the men's team to 17. The college's female soccer team already has a bench of 15 players. The Voyageurs men's hockey team currently sits with 25 players.

"So despite all that is going on, we are continuing to actively recruit to our college and our teams," says Bedford, explaining that some of the earlier signings were made before the season's were postponed to next year. "We had been hanging onto the hope that we might have been playing in September."

Practice changes

As the COVID precautions will remain in place, Bedford says team coaches and managers will be evaluating their practice schedules and the best practices for conducting training. Bedford said coaches around the province are offering ideas and suggestions on a regular basis, while following the provincial health mandates as well as the guidelines of provincial sporting associations.

"We are being patient and seeing what the best things will be — and morphing ourselves into this new way of doing it," said Bedford, adding that one option could see teams split into small groups for practice sessions.

"There's a chance we could see team practices with just a handful of players at a time,"he said, adding that decisions will have to be made fairly quickly, as even with the delayed start, his hockey team will have to be starting practices by at least October.

The team's home arena at Lac La Biche County's Bold Center, however, is not yet iced for the season. Only a portion of the Bold Center's facilities recently re-opened after being closed since the middle of March. The two ice arenas were not part of the initial re-opening. According to Lac La Biche County's senior manager of recreation Darrell Lessmeister, the rinks aren't yet part of the current relaunch, and have no specific date to re-open — and even if they did, it would take at least two full weeks to prepare the ice sheets. 

Bedford said there are a lot of questions about all of the teams that sport the Voyageurs jerseys. And while it is frustrating, he says the attention and questions from the community about the teams has put a bit of a spotlight on local sports.

"I think it has put a bit of a magnifying glass over athletics at Portage," he said, "and I think that's a positive for our teams, our coaches, staff and our executive that the community is saying, 'we need to make this happen.'"