Hockey fans on the Southern Shore, rejoice; it looks like the ‘new normal’ includes junior hockey.
The St. John’s Junior Hockey League announced last week that all nine East Coast junior teams will be hitting the ice for a shortened season, with games beginning February 5.
It’s a process that’s been months in the making, says Gerry Dalton, one of the coaches for the team.
Meetings about a return to junior hockey began in the summer said Dalton, but the league held off on making any decisions until the release of Hockey Canada’s Return to Play guidelines in the fall.
An initial Return to Play plan was submitted to and rejected by all governing bodies in November.
Dalton said the recommendation was made that teams play a two-line roster, which the league took a hard pass on.
“We can’t play two-line hockey. We really need three lines and 5 or 6 D’s, so a reduced roster wasn’t really an option,” said Dalton. “Just before Christmas, the executives submitted another plan, much the same as the Major-Midget (plan), and we finally got approval.”
Teams will play a shortened season consisting of 16 games (eight home and eight away). Plans for a play-off format have not been finalized.
“The biggest challenge now is going to get the people back in the stands,” said Dalton, who noted that expenses to host the shortened season are high.
“Just for these two months of hockey, our budget is approaching $12,000, and that doesn’t include practise (times),” said Dalton.
Players are expected to pay a fee up front to play, and sell six tickets for home games.
“This is the first time we’ve ever had to charge a player to play for the Southern Shore Junior Breakers,” said Dalton. “We’re a volunteer, non-profit group relying on rink attendance to help along and pay for the costs over the years.”
The return to play will of course look different for those both on and off the ice.
That includes a limit on the number of fans in attendance. Dalton said the Ken Williams Arena has been approved for 140 fans in the stands, along with seven rink staff. Those numbers don’t include on-ice players and staff. Dalton said that the league is also asking fans to purchase tickets ahead of time if possible, to avoid congestion at the doors.
There will also be lots of logistical challenges, as each rink will have slightly different sanitizing and cleaning operations.
Players themselves may find the biggest challenges off the ice.
“After you complete your game you have to be out of the arena within 15 minutes or so,” said Dalton.
It’s a blow to teams, as the dressing room has always been a place for more than just dressing and undressing. The dressing room piece is really a family piece. The camaraderie and the locker-room stuff, you don’t get that luxury anymore.”
Even showers are a no-go. The league will also be limiting bus travel, and players will carpool for away games.
Despite the challenges, Dalton said it’s good to be back. “It feels great. We’re very pleased that at least we get to play some junior hockey, and the season’s not totally lost.”
The Breakers first game will be an away game against Whitbourne on Saturday night, February 6. Following that, they will battle the Paradise Warriors on home ice Sunday night. The Puck drop is at 7:45 p.m.
Mark Squibb, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Shoreline News