As minor hockey games resume, parents in the North Okanagan are wondering when they’ll be allowed back into the rinks to watch their kids play.
Last weekend marked the return of minor hockey games for players aged 11 and up in the Okanagan. But with COVID-19 return-to-play guidelines limiting indoor recreation facilities to a 50-person maximum, little to no room is left for parents to sit in the stands once the players, coaches, scorekeepers and other game facilitators are accounted for.
Erika Jones has two sons playing minor hockey in Lumby and a daughter playing ringette in Vernon. Her oldest son is 17 and in his last year of minor hockey eligibility.
“Not being able to watch him finish his last year, it’s pretty sad that (we) don’t get to see those last moments our children are going to have,” Jones said.
Sporting organizations in B.C. are overseen by viaSport, which took direction from the public health authorities as it built its Return to Sport guidelines. Under the Phase 3 guidelines, contact sports must play in cohorts containing no more than 50 people — relegating hockey parents to the parking lot.
The limit on spectators also applies to the BC Hockey League, which has been running exhibition play in empty arenas since late September.
Jones says most other parents at the Vernon and Lumby rinks are frustrated and disappointed that spectators aren’t allowed in facilities, and would like to see viaSport provide direction on how to safely attend games.
“Nobody expects it to be normal, but they would like to have some rules and guidelines that everybody could adhere to.”
Being a manager of two teams hasn’t made Jones exempt arena occupancy limits — something she sees as a potential safety concern.
“My coaches like to have the managers there to help if there’s an emergency, someone there to call 911. It could potentially be disastrous if somebody needs to call an ambulance and if they’re still carrying on the game,” she said. “Things like that rarely happen, but there was a time last year where we had a hurt player and there were a lot of hands on deck to help. This year that will not happen.”
Lindi Cournoyer has a 10-year-old son who plays soccer and hockey in Lumby. After soccer was cancelled entirely around the time the pandemic emerged, they had high hopes that hockey would be back in full force.
“I’m happy and thankful that he even gets to play, but at the same time I also feel confused by it all,” Cournoyer said.
Cournoyer said she’s not alone among parents in wondering why safety measures that are now commonplace in grocery stores and other public spaces can’t be tried out in arenas.
“I think the majority of parents would be fine with sitting six feet away with a mask on if it means they can cheer their kid on,” she said. “I feel like so much of our joy has just been shut off and it’s going to come with devastating consequences.”
BC Hockey is among the organizations that reports to viaSport, and has been working on a return-to-play plan alongside Hockey Canada and other organizations since March.
Bill Greene, chair of the board for BC Hockey, said he’s spoken with parents and understands their frustration. He called the protocols around spectators “less than ideal,” but necessary given the expectations of a second COVID-19 wave that’s becoming more realized by the day.
“I actually like the idea that (parents) are enthusiastic about wanting to be there and engage with their kids, but for us, the most important thing is the players and player safety,” Greene said. “We felt it was more important to focus on the players, to get them back on the ice.”
The resumption of minor hockey games in the Okanagan isn’t to be taken for granted, Greene said. Last week, the provincial health officer issued additional COVID-19 restrictions in the Lower Mainland. Where sport is concerned, the order restricts anyone from taking part in an indoor sport unless the sport involves no physical contact between participants.
And elsewhere in the country, minor hockey leagues find themselves benched for at least the remainder of 2020.
“A great example is the Greater Toronto Hockey League. They have 44,000 members and they are all at home. None of them are playing,” Greene said.
Greene said BC Hockey is working daily to stay on top of the latest changes in public health recommendations and hopes parents understand that they and the organization share the same goal.
“It’s not forever,” he said. “We’ll do what we can, and as soon as we can get people back in the rink to enjoy watching their kids play then we’re all for it.”