Sask. spectator sport industry reps don't expect altered rules if hockey, football return in the fall

Three people associated with contact sports leagues that operate in Saskatchewan say they do not anticipate the rules of junior hockey or football to be changed if they return to play this fall.

"On the field, if we return to play, it would be pretty much the game as we're used to it," Canadian Junior Football League commissioner Jim Pankowich said.

Last week, the province announced contact sports can resume, but restrictions remain on the number of participants and how many teams can compete against each other.

Dr. Saqib Shahab, Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer, said teams could play within a small bubble of two or three teams at the local level, with a maximum of 30 to 50 participants, but travel isn't recommended.

Premier Scott Moe said there have been preliminary discussions about how to reopen sports leagues that are fan-driven and need to travel, like the Canadian Junior Football League or Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, but no decisions have been made.

Safe parameters must be in place for the players and fans before they can restart, Moe said.

CJFL commissioner Jim Pankowich said if there is a season, there will likely be much less contact during practices, but games will probably still have blocking and tackling.

"If we want to go back to playing tackle football, we can't get away from the fact that there's going to be contact," he said.

"What we can do is decrease the number of opportunities that there are over the course of a seven-day period of time."

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He said the biggest hurdle to overcome is current restrictions on the maximum number of participants that can get together, noting most rosters have 40 or 50 people on the sidelines.

"We don't have a minimum number yet," he said. "As we get to September, we will have to come up with that number to determine whether we can come back to play."

Pankowich said the league would prefer to play games in front of fans, but it has a plan to make do without them if it comes to that.

He said the league is planning as if there will be games this fall — even if it means teams play a limited number of rivals at first — but it won't be before September.

A final decision on whether games will be played would need to be made about 30 days in advance of a season, he said.

It still isn't clear if there will be a Western Hockey League season, but Saskatoon Blades business operations director Tyler Wawryk said he doesn't expect new rules to minimize physical contact.

"I don't foresee any changes to the rules of the game, to be honest, at any level — from the professional ranks right down to the minor ranks with young kids," he said.

"I think that the integrity of the game is important."

He said challenges include a closed Canada-US border and being allowed to host events in arenas that are at 50 per cent capacity or less.

"How we need to safely get people in and out," he said. "That will be the biggest hurdle for our league."

In a return-to-play protocol announced June 17, the WHL said starting a season on October 2 is contingent on approvals from government and health authorities in each of the four provinces and two states that have teams.

Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League President Bill Chow said Hockey Canada has formed task groups across the country to work on what a return to play would look like.

"There's been no thought of changing rules specifically because of COVID-19," he said.

He said that, as of Monday, the SJHL has had two discussions with government representatives about a return to play over the last three weeks.

"I don't want to say they're preliminary but I don't want to say they're done, either," he said. "It would look like we could be starting near the end of September."

He said the league might have to go without American players at first.

"Until that border opens, I don't think there's going to be exceptions to the rules when it comes to that," he said.

He said SJHL teams are allowed six American players on their rosters, but the average is about three or four per team.

"I don't believe we'd be holding up a season for 42 players, if that was the case," he said.

He said he believes the SJHL will be playing games in the fall, but he isn't sure about the start date.

'Not quite there yet'

The province announced Tuesday that indoor sports and indoor rinks could reopen on Monday, July 6.

There was no mention of relaxing previously announced restrictions on sports teams.

During a Tuesday news conference, the premier told reporters the province is "not quite there yet" and there are "no guarantees" when it comes to potentially allowing large public gatherings.

But he said the government was thinking of gate-driven, professional and junior sports leagues and teams that "do need to have the opportunity to have people in the stands if they are going to survive financially."

He said there may be some tools, such as contact tracing apps, that could be coming in the days and weeks ahead that could spur discussion on how large public gatherings could be safely held in conjunction with physical distancing.

"We don't quite have all of the tools at our disposal yet that may be available come around to this fall when those leagues might be interested in moving forward," he said.