With COVID-19 restrictions lifting across Alberta, junior hockey finding a way to return
By George Potter, Staff Writer
With the Alberta government rolling out plans to slowly return to normal across the province as COVID-19 cases drop, junior hockey players and leagues are implementing plans of their own to safely return to the ice.
Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL)
Provincial guidelines forced the AJHL to shut down their return to play in December, but with those guidelines starting to loosen, the league announced on Feb. 19 that the AJHL had been granted approval to return to play. Unfortunately, Canmore Eagles fans won’t get to see their team compete in 2021. The team announced they would opt out of the remaining season on Feb. 21.
“We have worked tirelessly through several options not only within the town of Canmore but also exploring possible solutions to work with other communities. Regrettably, we have not been able to arrive at a workable solution,” the AJHL said on their website.
The Canmore Eagles faced COVID-19 concerns at the beginning of the 2020-21 season when head coach Andrew Milne was suspended and fined for not adhering to the rules set out by the AJHL. This caused multiple players to contract COVID-19, affecting the league’s original return to play.
The Lloydminster Bobcats were cause for more disappointment within the AJHL. The team was denied participation in the 2021 return to play due to public health restrictions in Saskatchewan.
“We have created multiple proposals to try and make it work, exploring and exhausting every avenue. We even looked at options with a very steep price tag, but it just was not enough,” said Bobcats General Manager and Head Coach Nigel Dube.
After the league shut down in December, Olds Grizzlys forward Malik Kaddoura was motivated to help young players that would age out of the league without a full final season. The Chestermere, Alta. native created a petition for Hockey Canada to grant an extension for these players. Despite the petition receiving significant support, Hockey Canada announced they will not grant an extension for ageing out players.
Western Hockey League (WHL)
After setting an original target date of Jan. 8, the league has had to work around different provincial and state guidelines to arrange their return to play.
The East Division, which includes teams from Saskatchewan and Manitoba, will start their return to play on March 12, where Regina will operate as a “hub-city” for a 24-game schedule.
The Central Division, which features five Alberta teams, started on Feb. 26 with the Red Deer Rebels facing off with the Medicine Hat Tigers and the Lethbridge Hurricanes playing against the Edmonton Oil Kings.
The U.S. Division features teams in Oregon and Washington State. The puck will drop for the American teams on March 18.
The fourth WHL division, featuring teams from British Columbia, is still waiting for approval to return to play. B.C.’s Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has stated, “Nothing will change in this period of time, but I want to work with the Western Hockey League so we can have a spring season.”