But are local players taking liberties with health rules during the COVID-19 pandemic that could lead to a closure of city arenas?
Jason Shaw, Winnipeg’s assistant chief of emergency management, warned about the possibility last week after Manitoba’s chief provincial health officer, Dr. Brent Roussin, and Mayor Brian Bowman called out local rec hockey leagues for poor adherence to safety protocols.
"We’ve seen a number of contacts and a number of transmission events during recreational sports," Roussin said on Friday. "So again, playing a game of hockey and having drinks afterward with the entire team and both teams in change rooms or (parking) lots, we’re seeing transmission events."
A day earlier, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a warning that rec hockey provided the conditions for a "superspreader event" of COVID-19.
"... it’s just a matter of guys not congregating in the parking lot, not drinking in the dressing room and the guys are getting the message because they want to keep playing hockey.”
— Rob Barnsley, director of the Winnipeg Rec Hockey League
One local rec league operator said the provincial directives are being taken seriously.
"We’re in tune with the health authority, we know what is being asked of us (and) we deliver the message," said Rob Barnsley, director of the Winnipeg Rec Hockey League. "And we’re being very responsible in that sense. So, it’s just a matter of guys not congregating in the parking lot, not drinking in the dressing room and the guys are getting the message because they want to keep playing hockey."
Barnsley’s organization is a newcomer to the local scene but already has 90 male hockey teams and 34 women’s ringette teams under its umbrella, playing games at the Rink Training Centre, Bell MTS Iceplex and Seven Oaks Arena. It is the only rec league playing out of the RTC and Iceplex.
Barnsley said he regularly visits the venues and expects compliance with regulations.
"My guys are very respectful in the sense that when I say something they listen and I always tell the guys I deliver the message (that) we want to make sure we’re good patrons because we’re a big partner with all these rinks," said Barnsley. "It’s a business for them, too — renting out ice."
Hockey Manitoba executive director Peter Woods hopes the problem can be rectified quickly but made it clear his organization has no responsibility for adult rec hockey.
"I guess what’s disappointing is when (Dr.) Roussin and the mayor are commenting on socialization and guys drinking in the dressing room and and out in the parking lots — those aren’t our members," said Woods. "Then we as a sport are penalized and sanctions are taken against programs that aren’t related to us."That could be similar to penalizing us for the spread of the virus in Walmart."
Woods, as he has done frequently in the past few months, urged people playing the game to stick to the health regulations for the good of everyone involved.
"I think there’s a responsibility on everyone to not only look after their own program but to be respectful of others by following the rules and regulations and that it’s disappointing when people can’t follow the rules," said Woods.
"In talking to people that have participated in those unsanctioned programs, they had the impression that nothing’s changed and they’re still operating the way they have in the past."
“I think there’s a responsibility on everyone to not only look after their own program but to be respectful of others by following the rules and regulations and that it’s disappointing when people can’t follow the rules."
— Hockey Manitoba executive director Peter Woods
Hockey Winnipeg president Chris Hall worried that closing arenas, whether they be private-, community- or city-run facilities, would be a disasterous outcome.
"We’re concerned about that and also the people that we represent," said Hall.
"We remind everybody on an ongoing basis to abide by the rules that are in place and protocols in place at all the rinks. Because if they don’t, what the mayor said Friday is they’ll be forced to close rinks and that’s the last thing we need right now."
Hall said the return-to-play protocols in minor hockey, including physical distancing and limiting attendance to one parent per player, has been generally well accepted.
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"What I’ve been hearing is the adherance to the protocols in place has been good," said Hall.
"We implemented masks as part of our return to play through Hockey Winnipeg and Hockey Manitoba. From what I’ve heard, there’s been a couple of instances where people have not wanted to comply and (we) just asked them to leave."
Mike Sawatzky Sports Reporter
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.
Officials from Hockey Manitoba and Hockey Winnipeg met with the city’s recreation services division Monday, hoping to pave the way for minor hockey games to be played at 11 city-owned arenas in 2020-21.
The city was planning to enforce tight roster restrictions and arena access rules that would make playing games almost impossible.
The guidelines decreed that teams would only be able to have a total of between six and eight players and coaches on the bench (depending on the individual facility). That number would not include those on the ice.
In addition, regulations would not permit players and coaches to use dressing rooms before or during games and for only a brief period following the game. It would effectively force players to arrive at the arena dressed and ready to play.
“They didn’t want to leave anything open for issues and they didn’t want to have any kind of spread to go on at their facility,” explained Hockey Winnipeg executive director Ian McArton, who had renewed hope following Monday’s meeting. “But through discussions with Hockey Manitoba and Hockey Winnipeg... I think we’re going to be able to come to some agreement and work some plans out where we will most likely be able to run some games there this year.”
The tighter restrictions do not currently apply at community-operated facilities such as Dakota Community Centre and Seven Oaks Arena or the privately held Bell MTS Iceplex. Those facilties operate under rules approved by Hockey Manitoba.
“Our team sizes would make it impossible to have games like that,” said McArton. “But under Hockey Manitoba’s return-to-play plan, we’re going to work under those guidelines and then hopefully work something out.”
Five city-owned rinks — Century, Terry Sawchuk, Billy Mosienko, Charlie Gardiner and Eric Coy — are open for business with the remaining six preparing to open their doors Friday.
The St. James Civic Centre is undergoing renovations and will be closed for the season.
“I think we’re gonna have to continue to work with the city and plan,” added McArton. “They’ve been good partners with us and we had a great meeting today, so I’m hoping that can obviously continue. And we might have to do some things a little bit differently.
“We might have to avoid scheduling games back to back, (put) practices between games just so that there’s a little bit of extra time to get everybody in and out and get all the spaces cleaned.”