The head of the governing body of organized hockey in Saskatchewan hopes a regular season can start before Christmas, but safeguards against COVID-19, and enforcement of those protocols, must be in place before puck drop.
The Saskatchewan Hockey Association has been working since spring to develop a plan that would allow for a regular season to be played safely in the province, said general manager Kelly McClintock.
Then, on Tuesday, the organization received a 20-page document package from the province asking how the hockey association will prevent the potential spread of COVID-19 during the season, he said.
"It makes us feel good," McClintock said, when asked about possibly having a season.
"At least there's the commitment to work with us."
The renewed optimism comes after Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab said a hockey season could be a reality this year with the current public health guidelines.
"[Our current restrictions are] working well so those same principles can be applied to hockey," Shahab said during Tuesday's COVID-19 briefing.
Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe also said he'd be open to listening to a proposal, despite the issue not being part of his daily conversations. The documents McClintock received Tuesday is the first step to a proposal, he said.
When asked how realistic it would be for a regular season to start on time, McClintock said he hopes teams are playing before Christmas.
McClintock answered conservatively because the season hinges on Saskatchewan's COVID-19 situation, he said, but also to avoid giving false hope.
"[Players, parents and coaches] want a date. They want some hope that we can play games this year, that … they can play in league play of some kind," McClintock said.
Kelly Boes, executive director of the Saskatoon Minor Hockey Association, echoed McClintock's sentiments.
"There's just so much desire," Boes said.
Even if the start date has to be pushed back because of public health concerns, the thought of "some game play will be a huge burden off everybody's shoulders," he said.
COVID-19 rules must be implemented before season starts
Indoor sports and recreational activities have been allowed in Saskatchewan since July 6, according to the province's reopening strategy, and there are guidelines that will ensure all participants are kept safe.
Hockey skill sessions and limited scrimmages are currently allowed for evaluation. Once evaluations are over, teams will be paired up to form a mini-league with no more than 50 participants.
Six new cases of COVID-19 were found in Saskatchewan on Wednesday, and there are now 133 known active cases. This includes 14 active cases among people under the age of 20, according to the province's weekly data.
But experts believe those numbers will increase, given school has been in session for less than three weeks and flu season is on the horizon.
"We're in a difficult position right now, because you do see some sports and gyms are back … but not every sport in its [true] form is back," said Larena Hoeber, a University of Regina professor whose research focuses on how amateur sports organizations function.
"Is [a regular season] the right decision? In some ways, that it's really up to the organizations. They have to decide between the risk of doing it and the reward of doing it."
COVID-19 protocols and how to enforce them must be top of mind for hockey organizations looking at a regular season, she said, otherwise public perception will be negative.
Most of the safety concerns being weighed don't relate to the actual on-ice action, said McClintock, citing how to reduce travel, ensuring people aren't congregating and whether to host tournaments — and if so, how many teams should they be limited to.
The protocols also depend on the sizes and layouts of each local rink, said McClintock. Then the people running the arenas must have the means to enforce the policies developed, because the Saskatchewan Hockey Association doesn't run them.
SMHA develops mask policy
The Saskatoon Minor Hockey Association announced a mask policy earlier this week for its members to follow in all arenas it uses this year.
Players, referees and on-ice coaches must wear a mask inside an arena any time they are not about to step onto the ice. Bench coaches, spectators and scorekeepers must wear masks at all times, according to the policy.
Teams that refuse to follow the policy may lose ice time, or team officials may be suspended, it says.
"We want to do everything we can in our power to keep the hockey season going for the full season this year," said Boes.
"[We] just wanted to make sure that everyone was on the same page. So we're looking forward to hopefully having a safer environment inside the rink as we get rolling here."