Commentary – Abnormality at the old hockey barn

Joe McWilliams

Somehow there will be a hockey season, locally in 2020/21. How it will look is still a bit up in the air. For one thing, the provincial government may come out with its ‘Phase III Re-launch’ guidelines by then. If so, it is expected the rules regarding what you can and can’t do (to prevent the spread of COVID-19) will be a bit less stringent.

But under the present situation, things are going to look very different. As we reported last week, all sorts of steps will be taken to keep close contact between hockey rink visitors to a minimum. This may include traffic controls, funnelling players to player areas and spectators to their seats. Mingling in lobby areas in the usual manner is probably not going to be allowed in 2020/21, or at least efforts will be made to reduce it as much as possible.

An example of how it might go in Slave Lake is at Grande Prairie’s Coca Cola Centre. It’s been operating through the summer and management has all sorts of practices in place to accomplish just that.

“No dressing rooms open,” says Angela Redding the general manager of what the City of GP calls its ‘community knowledge campus.’ “Users have to come prepared.”

Already in uniform, in other words. Traffic-flow measures have been put in place, with the use of what Redding calls ‘pipes and drapes’ to reduce contact between groups on their way in and groups on their way out. Not to mention the people there to watch or participate in other activities. It is not designed to take half the fun out of the experience of attending a hockey game, say, but it might look like it. Redding says a system called ‘cohort booking’ is being used. The ‘cohort’ is the user group. The management of the facility makes sure each group stays apart from other groups. How the members of the cohort handle physical distancing is up to the group leaders. However, Redding says, “If we see they’re not following the rules,” they’ll be spoken to and can be asked to leave.

Rules for how to run hockey practices and games come down from the sport authorities. Those are still being developed, but for sure there’s going to be no sharing of water bottles, plenty of sanitizing and quite possibly fewer people on the bench at any one time.

Redding says summer hockey has not been happening in GP. The main users of the ice this summer are camps and a figure skating club. Asked about how she sees hockey season happening, she says, “It’s going to be so difficult to know where we’re headed,” adding she is having a hard time seeing how rec leagues are going to happen. But, “there are still so many unknowns.”

One unknown at this point is whether the dressing rooms will even be opened.

Safety of the people is one thing.

Another is providing for that without adding too much to the cost of running the facility. Yet another is the time all the sanitizing might take away from ice rental time. All of that is being handled fairly well at this point at the Coca Cola Centre, but the busy season is looming.

This – or some version of it – is being faced by every municipality and ice user group in the province, the country and the world.

We’re all longing to get back to normal – but it looks very much as if things will be anything but that in your local hockey barn this winter.

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