The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League will require all its players and staff who are in contact with players to get both their shots before the puck drops.
Players were informed a few weeks ago that they'd need to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to participate in the upcoming season, according to Karl Jahnke, the QMJHL's chief marketing officer.
It comes as the league's three New Brunswick-based teams look to recoup what they lost in an unusual 2020-21 season and prepare for the coming season, which should be closer to normal. The New Brunswick government has announced it will lift all public health restrictions on Friday once the clock strikes 11:59 p.m.
If someone decides they don't want to be vaccinated, "obviously it's a personal decision, but they won't be able to play," Jahnke said in an interview.
The policy has presented a challenge for some but has been generally "well received," according to Saint John Sea Dogs president and general manager Trevor Georgie.
"So far we've had one player that won't be able to meet those guidelines," Georgie said.
"We have one billet family that won't be able to meet the guidelines, and we have one staff member that may not be able to meet those guidelines. We have a few challenges, a few hurdles, but that's to be expected any time the league is mandating something like that."
The team has a player drafted from Belarus, and on top of securing his visa, Georgie said, the team is working with the player's agent to try to make sure he can get vaccinated before training camp, which begins in mid-August.
"The vaccines that are approved by the league are not consistent with the vaccines that are being distributed in his home country," Georgie said.
League hoping for almost full arenas
The league hopes to have almost full arenas this year, pending discussions with public health officials in New Brunswick, according to Jahnke.
"We'll be working with public health officials over the next few weeks to make sure that we can have as many people as possible, as many fans as possible, in arenas for the start of the season, which is what we're hopeful for," Jahnke said in an interview.
But according to the Department of Health, after Friday, there's no requirement for public health to give the green light.
"Information on the green phase once the mandatory order would no longer be in place has been shared with the Quebec Major Junior Hockey [League], including no mandatory requirements for mask use, physical distancing, or limitations on venue capacity," Department of Health spokesperson Bruce Macfarlane wrote in an emailed statement.
"Public Health would continue to provide advice to the public on living with COVID-19 through guidance and we would be happy to keep the league informed of this. There would be no requirement for Public Health to approve plans; however, as an employer within New Brunswick it was shared that they continue to have a responsibility to mitigate communicable disease within the workplace."
'A challenging year'
The idea of having packed stands is a welcome thought for the province's three QMJHL teams.
They were able to play games in front of some fans last season, which is more than teams in other provinces, including all of the Ontario Hockey League, were able to do.
But the season was stop and start, with a nearly four-month break at one point, and the three New Brunswick teams spent the second half of the regular season only playing each other.
The Wildcats have been selling tickets this summer on the premise that it will be able to fill the almost-brand-new Avenir Centre next season.
"We're very excited about the most recent information from the government," Josh Harris, the director of business operations with the Wildcats, said in an interview.
"We hope that trend continues. We know that we're not out of this yet. It's just another box that we've been able to check off here. It definitely reassures us, and it creates a very high optimism around here that next year will be a normal season."
Harris declined to comment on whether the team lost money last season, but said it was "a challenging year."
Sea Dogs lost $1 million last season
In Saint John, Georgie pegged the team's losses at "just north of a million."
"Any time you're losing $1 million, it's not an easy pill to swallow," Georgie said in an interview.
"But we're looking to the future and we're really optimistic about next season."
The Sea Dogs are bidding to host their first Memorial Cup, a four-team tournament among the best major junior hockey teams in the country.
Compiling the bid for the spring 2022 tournament means trying to predict how many fans will be welcome.
"When you're forecasting your attendance and you're forecasting all the different revenue mechanisms and all the different opportunities with the Memorial Cup, to know that we may very well be able to have a full arena, a full TD Station for that event, which is in June, it's very encouraging and we're really happy to be able to welcome people back," Georgie said.