It's been a challenging enough season for youth hockey players, given cancelled games and restrictions around how they can practise and gather.
But for some Fredericton Caps U18 AAA hockey players from the Edmundston area, the season has been more challenging. They've had to be away from friends and family living in what has been a part of the province hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.
With no U18 AAA hockey teams in the Edmundston area, a handful of players from that region are playing for the Fredericton Caps to further their hockey careers.
Living with billet families and going to school in the capital city since last September, the boys were able to play eight games and return home to see their families before a spike in cases shortly after the holidays moved New Brunswick into more restrictive phases of the province's COVID-19 recovery plan.
For Jacob Long, who plays defence for the Caps, January and February have been difficult months, with his attention split between hockey and concern for his friends and family in his hometown.
Zone 4 was the location of a large outbreak that pushed the region into the province's most severe lockdown phase for two weeks, resulting in the closure of schools and non-essential businesses.
"I was getting a bit worried [about the outbreak]. I know a couple of people who had [COVID-19] so it was not fun hearing that," he said.
Long said he was also concerned about the well-being of his uncle, who's the owner of Manoir Bellevue, the care home that found itself battling a month-long outbreak among its staff and residents, with COVID-19 linked to the death of six residents.
'It can be tough sometimes'
Matthew Parker hasn't seen his family in person since Christmas.
The 16-year-old Fredericton Caps player hasn't been able to go home in almost two months.
"It can be tough sometimes, and you miss seeing them and everything," Parker said.
It's also tough on Gary Parker, his father, who would normally make the drive at least once a week to see his son play.
"It's very different, very difficult," Parker said.
"You want to be beside your son as much as possible in any such situation, but we're actually lucky that he's still having fun and enjoying himself and working hard."
Matthew Parker said he feels lucky to be able to practice and train, despite competitive games being suspended while the entire province remains in the orange recovery phase.
"It's pretty great, I think. And we're ready — like any time that the season starts again, we'll be ready," he said.
Still optimistic about future prospects
Noah Gibbs, like the rest of his teammates, has been practising four days a week, on top of hitting the gym in order to stay in shape.
And he's hopeful the unusual season won't have a long-term impact on his hockey career.
"Because everyone is living the same thing as us... I'm not really concerned," Gibbs said.
"[They've done a] really good job to make sure we stayed in shape. And we're ready to play some more games and develop ourselves too, so I'm confident," he said, adding he's already been drafted to play next year for the Québec Remparts, of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
Parker said he's also keeping a positive attitude, and remains optimistic he'll come out at the end of the season with good prospects for next year.
"I'm not worried much, honestly. I tell myself that everything happens for a reason and I just go with the flow," he said.
"And I have a couple of options for next year, so that's always good."
Supports there if needed
Eric Bissonnette, the team's head coach, has been keeping a close eye on players who've found themselves playing away from their hometown this season.
"I know from our organization, we've put a major, major effort to make sure that they knew they have a support system with them," Bissonnette said.
"Sometimes you only find out things after the fact, but we've tried to have an open line of communication and they look like they've coped with it very well."
Overall, Bissonnette said he's been impressed with how well the players have handled all the time away from family and not being able to play games this season.
"Coming to the rink they've been the very best, always bringing a positive attitude. So I like to think that they've done extremely well."