Winnipeg basketball program defies pandemic protocol by travelling to Ontario

Three players kicked out of program for talking about trip


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With Manitoba in a code red pandemic lockdown that forbids all organized sports activities, a Winnipeg basketball team ignored the advice of local health officials and travelled to Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., for training.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/12/2020 (812 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

With Manitoba in a code red pandemic lockdown that forbids all organized sports activities, a Winnipeg basketball team ignored the advice of local health officials and travelled to Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., for training.

Northstar Preparatory Institute, which is based out of Churchill High School and competes against teams across the country in the National Preparatory Association (NPA), returned to Winnipeg on Dec. 21 from a two-week trip where they had access to a facility for training. The NPA season is suspended owing to COVID-19 concerns.

The program, led by head coach Daron Leonard who also runs a local club team called Triumph Basketball, is designed to provide young basketball talent with competition that exceeds the high school level and exposure to help players attract the attention of university scouts from across North America. Northstar is made up of mostly top-ranked homegrown players, but the roster also features players from Alberta, Ontario and even one from the Ivory Coast.

Prior to the trip, Leonard told the players’ parents that everyone would be tested upon arrival in Sault Ste. Marie. The Ontario government advises the only people who should be getting tested are those with symptoms or anyone that’s been exposed to a confirmed case of the virus. A source told the Free Press the players were instructed to tell Ontario health officials they had symptoms in order to get tested.

The team’s associate coach, Jeff Giovanatti, is from Sault Ste. Marie, where some sports activities were allowed until Ontario entered its province-wide lockdown on Boxing Day.

The Manitoba government is strongly urging people to avoid non-essential travel. For those that choose to travel anyway, if you head east of Terrace Bay, Ont., you’re required to isolate for 14 days upon return to Manitoba.

The Free Press contacted Leonard, a London, Ont., native who now resides in Winnipeg after a basketball career that included several national titles with the Carleton Ravens and a brief professional stint overseas, for a phone interview last week but he declined, opting to answer questions via email.

Leonard was asked how these high school kids could isolate from family, especially over the holidays, after returning from the trip. He was also asked how they were able to get tested for the virus, but he didn’t provide an answer.

“Individual quarantine plans are up to each household to determine, as no one situation is the same,” he said.

He added: “During these challenging times, the mental and physical health of these young people has never been more important. Any individual athlete who participates in training opportunities is within their rights to pursue their individual objectives.”

Churchill High School, which is a part of the Winnipeg School Division, is the academic partner for Northstar and gives the program access to its facilities when there are no restrictions.

Radean Carter, the senior information officer for the division, said there’s no need for anyone at Churchill to comment on the trip as there’s no affiliation between the program and the school. On Churchill’s student registration page on its website, there is a PDF link to a consent form that authorizes Northstar and the school’s staff to communicate relevant information about a student in the program.

Any organized basketball activity was barred when Winnipeg entered code red at the beginning of November. At the time, Leonard came up with a plan for the team to head to Calgary from Nov. 11 to 15 to play three games. Alberta’s regulations permitted teams to participate in a cohort of 50 individuals. Those involved couldn’t compete against outside competition for two weeks before or after the cohort ended.

For high-level players that stayed at their high schools but wanted to train and do some travelling with Northstar, Leonard offered a circuit program. These players were also invited on the Calgary trip. The trip ended up getting axed as Alberta scrapped its cohorts rule and suspended team sports on Nov. 12.

Northstar’s circuit program also features players from Sault Ste. Marie.

“It is fair to mention that we are experiencing a major issue in the spike of cases in Manitoba, but to that I will say that travelling as a group to Alberta is no less responsible than remaining here,” said Leonard in an e-mail to parents before the trip was cancelled. The email also discussed an idea of spending January in Arizona to play 16 games in a bubble.

“Additionally, maintaining a small and closely monitored group in a controlled environment within a cohort for a weekend prevents us from having contact with people and places that may very well cause exposure locally.”

Prior to the Alberta trip falling through, one of the circuit program players, who asked the Free Press not to use his name, sought the advice of his high school coach on whether he should go to Calgary. The coach had already caught wind of Leonard’s plan and informed Basketball Manitoba.

Northstar is an independent program and not affiliated with Basketball Manitoba, but its executive director, Adam Wedlake, emailed Leonard on Nov. 9 advising him to not take the team on a trip.

“We’re doing our part to ensure the health of Manitobans remains a top priority and basketball will come back at one point in a safe manner,” Wedlake said in a phone interview.

“Our advice to anybody out there involved with basketball, be it a member, or a non-member like the Northstar Prep program, is that they should follow the guidance (of health officials) in the spirit of what we’re all trying to achieve here as a society.”

Wedlake emailed Leonard again on Dec. 3, advising against the Sault Ste. Marie trip.

A source said that when the Calgary trip didn’t work out, players’ families were informed a trip in December was in the works, but Leonard wouldn’t say where they were heading or when they’d be leaving, to avoid word getting out.

A week before the team left for Ontario, the circuit program player who went to his high school coach for advice about the Calgary cohort, wasn’t granted access to Northstar’s online Zoom workouts and wasn’t told why. According to a parent of the player, Leonard informed their son, as well as two other circuit program players who also happen to go to the same high school, that they were no longer in the program. The player had played club basketball for Leonard for three years.

“He told (my son) and two of his friends that they were kicked off the team… He assumed (my son) had spoken about (the Calgary trip) and couldn’t trust him, so they were kicked off the team,” said the parent.

“Right there, to me, if you’re expecting kids to keep quiet, you shouldn’t be doing what you’re doing.”

After the player was let go, the parent emailed Leonard for an explanation but never heard back.

The Free Press reached out to Leonard via text and email on Monday asking to comment on the three players as well as what he told parents prior to going to Sault Ste. Marie. Leonard didn’t respond by press deadline.

Twitter: @TaylorAllen31

Taylor Allen

Taylor Allen

Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of...


Updated on Tuesday, December 29, 2020 8:00 AM CST: Corrects subheadline

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