Hockey New Brunswick is ready to drop the puck on regular gameplay in the coming weeks, with the season getting underway in most regions this month.
The provincial body for the sport announced this week the first eligible divisions will advance to the third of five phases in the staggered return to play plan later this month. The third phase allows regular game and practice structures with normal contact, no limitation on rosters and travel limited to the regional zone.
Elite-level groups can move to the third phase on Oct. 23, and the rest of minor hockey can do so on Nov. 6.
"Everyone's excited," said Nic Jansen, executive director of Hockey New Brunswick. "They're excited about the potential to play games; it's something that they're looking forward to."
Early registrants paid their fees not knowing when regular game action would be permitted.The initial phases restricted ice time activities, from physically distant skill development up to modified games in practice, and no travel outside the local association was allowed.
All divisions are required to start in the restricted first phase for at least two weeks before advancing.
The elite groups can move to the fourth phase — same as Phase 3 but with expanded travel — as early as Nov. 6 and the rest of minor hockey on Nov. 20.
But Hockey New Brunswick cautioned players and families that everything is subject to change, depending on how the province is managing the pandemic, and advancing a phase means basic health guidelines must still be followed.
"The one thing we stressed to our minor hockey associations, our coaches, our volunteers, our membered clubs," Jansen said, "while we'll be in a position to play games in phases three and four, we'll have to remain diligent in all other aspects of the return to hockey.
"The pre-screening has been important, the contact tracing is essential, if your kid has flu-like symptoms, by all means there are no exceptions. They cannot attend."
Jansen said a return to normal likely won't be until there's a vaccine.
Hockey New Brunswick and its counterparts across the country hired a firm to measure certain trends, including registration. He said the findings suggest there will be a 13 per cent drop in enrolment this season.
Though registration is ongoing, Jansen said overall enrolment will be '"fairly close" to that mark. He said it varies between associations, with some improving on last season's figures.
But the Restigouche North Minor Hockey Association has just over three quarters of the 2019-2020 total, according to president René Haché.
"We'd like to go up, but we certainly understand the uncertainties out there for parents," he said.
Haché said health concerns likely have deterred some families, while others may not be able to afford it this year due to the economic downturn.
The association, which covers the Campbellton and Dalhousie areas, could lose players who live on the other side of the Restigouche River in Quebec communities like Listuguj First Nation or Pointe-à-la-Croix.
Residents in those communities are still allowed to cross into New Brunswick on pre-registered day trips, despite the rest of the Avignon Municipal Regional County being excluded from the extended travel bubble last week.
"In our case, if there's ever a shutdown of the border, which is a possibility recently here, we have to find a way of compensating those parents from those areas as well for those small time periods for, perhaps, when they can't come for three weeks," Haché said.
"It's frustrating, but that's the reality of it. We need to be nimble."
He said Hockey Canada asked all organizations to review their refund policies, and Haché's association developed a new scale for both temporary stoppages and the cancellation of an entire season depending on how much of the season has passed.
Jansen said a full stop on play would happen if New Brunswick reverts back to the red phase, the most restrictive, in the provincial recovery plan. The decision would be made in consultation with Public Health, he said.
If the province returns to the orange phase, however, Hockey New Brunswick-sanctioned activities would fall back to Phase 1 of its return to play plan.
'People are just getting more comfortable with it'
The president of the Fredericton Youth Hockey Association admitted a sluggish start to registration worried him, but Frank Collins was pleased to see a spike in numbers after Labour Day. The association is now close to par with last year's total.
He said the return to school played a part.
"I think everyone is starting to accept the fact that kids are walking around the schools with their masks on and because they're interacting with each other so often at school, the chances of them catching COVID-19 at the rink is perhaps less likely than if they were at school," Collins said.
"People are just getting more comfortable with it."
As enrolment improved, Collins said in late September the association was looking for more volunteers to assist with the heavier workload brought on by COVID-19. Minor hockey teams and associations must handle pre-screening and contact tracing.
It's part of the new safety guidelines, which also require players to arrive almost fully dressed and vacate the dressing room within a 15-minute window before and after stepping on the ice.
Players are also limited to one parent in the building, something Collins is hopeful will change soon.
"A big part of going to hockey for the kids is knowing that your parents are watching you," he said. "That currently can't happen."