Several Saskatchewan hockey teams took extraordinary measures to hide their participation in a Winnipeg hockey tournament in July, including changing their team names, withholding player names on game rosters and forbidding parents from posting on social media.
Despite the secrecy, the teams maintain they did not violate any rules. The Saskatchewan government said teams should not have competed in the out-of-province tournament, but also concedes that its business response team issued some inaccurate information in an email.
The Saskatchewan government recommends against non-essential travel to other provinces. Under Saskatchewan's reopening plan, guidelines for sports and activities state: "Tournaments and interprovincial competition are not permitted."
The teams say they believed those rules only applied inside Saskatchewan and did not prevent Saskatchewan hockey players from competing in tournaments in other provinces. They said their understanding of the guidelines was reinforced in a phone conversation with a provincial official, and later an email from the government of Saskatchewan.
Five AAA teams from Saskatchewan with players ranging from seven to 12 years old travelled to Winnipeg on the weekend of July 16 to 19 to play in the privately run North American Hockey Classic (NAHC) at several arenas, including the Bell MTS Iceplex.
Currently, interprovincial travel is discouraged, but not banned. Interprovincial travel for competition for tournaments is not permitted at this time - Saskatchewan government official
Teams had pre-registered for the high-profile tournament before the pandemic. While some dropped out of the tournament — including the Regina Junior Pats — four teams from the Wheatland Wild hockey organization, which pulls players from all over the province, and the Parkland Junior Maulers from Yorkton chose to participate.
On Tuesday, the government told CBC News that it has contacted the teams "to ensure they understand that interprovincial travel for competition is currently not permitted."
"The Saskatchewan Health Authority also explained that any future non-compliance with the Public Health Order will be met with enforcement," said a government statement.
The Wheatland Wild teams competed in the tournament under a different name — the "Lightning" — even though they normally play as the Wheatland Wild. The teams filled out their game sheets, posted online, using only the initials of their players instead of their full names. Every other team included full names.
The Parkland Junior Maulers played under the team's real name and posted the full names of the players.
Social media gag order
"The coaches said that we couldn't talk about it, and we couldn't post anything on social media," said a mother whose son played on the Wheatland Wild.
She said she was surprised to see the team name was the Lightning at the tournament.
When CBC News contacted her, she expressed surprise that anyone knew she had attended the tournament, because she had followed the team's social media gag order.
She said she trusted team coaches when they said travel was allowed, but she asked, "Why does everything have to be hush-hush?" She said coaches told her they didn't want to "rock the boat."
"I was uncomfortable," the hockey mom said.
The woman's employer required her to stay home for six days and get a COVID-19 test after returning to Saskatchewan.
Chris Light, a coach of one of the Wheatland Wild teams, told CBC News he didn't attend the tournament and was on a fishing trip.
A team photo from Winnipeg shows Light at the tournament.
Light's wife, Krista, the team manager, sent a message to the team after the tournament stating, "Safe travels home everyone!...Reminder not to post any social media from the weekend and please do make sure to be mindful and self monitor please."
Misinformation from the province
According to team sources, at least one coach called the province's business response team before the tournament to seek guidance and was advised that competition restrictions are only in effect within Saskatchewan's borders. This was later confirmed in a government email, obtained by CBC News, that specified that tournaments and interprovincial competition are not permitted "here in Saskatchewan."
"If you wish to travel to Manitoba to participate in an event there, then you must follow the guidelines laid out by the Province of Manitoba. Interprovincial travel is not recommended at this time, but still permitted," the email said.
One coach told CBC News that parents decided they were "technically" allowed to attend the Winnipeg tournament and that Manitoba's low case count would make it a relatively safe environment. He said parents wanted to let their hockey-loving kids have some fun.
The Saskatchewan government confirmed late Tuesday evening that its business response team had given the wrong advice in an email in response to an inquiry after the tournament.
"This message has since been retracted and corrected to be consistent with government public health messaging provided by the SHA. Currently, interprovincial travel is discouraged, but not banned. Interprovincial travel for competition for tournaments is not permitted at this time," said the government email.
Rhys van Kemenade is the director of 50 Below Sports and Entertainment and owns the NAHC tournament.
"I've had health inspectors calling from Saskatchewan," van Kemanade said. "We keep referring back to this email that we got from the Saskatchewan government basically saying, 'What happens in Manitoba is up to Manitoba.'"
Van Kemenage said hiding the players' identities online was a team decision, "to avoid the controversy that might come from it."
"We tried to do our best here to make a safe environment for the kids," he said.
'It's disappointing': Sask. Hockey Association
The Saskatchewan Hockey Association (SHA) is the governing body for ice hockey in Saskatchewan, but it doesn't regulate privately run spring and summer hockey.
Still, SHA general manager Kelly McClintock posted a memorandum on the association's website on July 15 stating that the SHA had been made aware that some teams were planning to travel out of province and wanted to remind members that it wasn't allowed.
McClintock said he also spoke to the Wheatland Wild general manager on the Wednesday before the tournament to advise the organization that it shouldn't send teams out of province and that doing so would "jeopardize" efforts to resume minor hockey in the fall.
"It's disappointing," McClintock said about the organization's choice to send teams anyway.
He also said it's "sad" that some teams took extraordinary measures to hide their participation, including changing their team names and adjusting game rosters.
He applauded the Regina Junior Pats for pulling out of the tournament.
Pats chief operating officer Stacey Cattell said the team reviewed the provincial guidelines and agreed with the restrictions.
"Our Junior Pats program was notified that interprovincial travel for the purposes of tournaments was prohibited," he said. "That was brought to our attention, and we said, 'No problem, our kids will stay home and practise, and follow the rules."
"We're not going to do anything to jeopardize the COVID-19 response and the reopening of our province," he added.
The Saskatchewan Health Authority investigated the tournament to determine which teams from Saskatchewan travelled to Manitoba. The province said public health inspectors have advised that anyone who attended the Winnipeg tournament should self-monitor for COVID-19 symptoms and limit their activities in their communities for 14 days.