Players will be facing off against increasingly familiar faces under the new cohort system adopted by Hockey Edmonton as a pandemic precaution, but that isn't diminishing the excitement of teams preparing for the puck to drop.
On Wednesday night, Rhys McLean, who has been determined to make the roster for the KC Columbians AA U13 team this year, joined other players for a Wednesday night practice at Glengarry Arena in north Edmonton.
"When I heard there was going to be hockey I was really excited and I started going to all my camps," McLean said.
Hockey Edmonton has started its youth hockey season but it's a little different than McLean and many others expected due to COVID-19 measures.
In any other year, the regular season would already be underway, but not so in 2020.
Right now teams are practising and can play intrasquad games within their cohort group, which has a maximum of 50 players. Most groups have two teams, though there may be three if the teams' rosters are small.
This fits within the voluntary measures announced Oct. 8 by Alberta's chief medical officer of health to curb the surge of COVID-19 cases in the Edmonton zone.
"Of course, first and foremost, a priority is the health of the kids. They need to get out," said Steve Hogle, general manager of Hockey Edmonton. "They need to be active. It's important socially, psychologically and mentally, that their health comes first."
"We hope we can get to a regular season, but for now it's just this cohort group. We have to watch to see how the numbers play out. If the numbers spike, we might stay where we are. We might go back to something even more restrictive."
Players must wear masks when they enter and exit arenas. Parents can watch in the stands, but they have to remain distanced from other parents; under new measures announced Thursday, only 25 per cent of the seating area can be used, up to 50 spectators or 100 in larger arenas.
Michael Pino, a parent of another KC Columbians player, has been happy with the way Hockey Edmonton has introduced and communicated its return-to-play plan.
"I'm just happy that there's hockey going, and I think it can continue as long as we, you know, continue on with what we're supposed to be doing in order to prevent further spread," Pino said.
Regular season games and tournaments are on hold for now.
If a full season isn't in the cards for Edmonton Hockey, the next phase could include adding teams to cohort groups — a move that would only happen if the number of individuals allowed at a gathering increases.
No matter what happens, McLean expects to have an unforgettable season.
"A lot of changes have been made," he said. "I definitely think I'll remember this one really well."