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It may not be a return to normal but the restart of minor hockey in Winnipeg has some of the look and feel of the real thing.
On Tuesday, players in the city's AAA programs got their first taste of tryout action and those sessions will continue. Many players also participated in conditioning camps last week.
Despite the restrictions imposed during the pandemic, progress has been steady.
"I think it's gone really well," said Hockey Winnipeg executive director Ian McArton on Thursday. "AAA council is very organized. It's a very experienced group of people who have been doing this for a number of years, so they're good with this.
"There were some additional protocols and some additional hoops (to jump through) with the current heath situation that needed to be considered, so things do look a little bit different."
The numbers are higher — with 573 boys registered citywide for AAA tryouts — and the challenge has been to accomodate that. On the ice, Hockey Manitoba's return-to-play protocol permits 20 players and five coaches at the U18 level and 19 players and five coaches at the U15 level.
Meanwhile, city AAA girls teams, normally assigned an earlier start, conducted tryouts in August.
"There's quite a bit more ice needed because our registrations are up a little bit," said McArton, who estimates the bump in ice time is at about 50 per cent. "This year, with some uncertainty about high school hockey as well as junior hockey having fewer players at their camps, there are players that are back here in Winnipeg now.
"And with there being a limit to the number of players you can have on the ice at one time, we couldn't form bigger groups that would've helped get those players through."
The tryout process for AAA U14 and U15 teams must be complete by Sept. 24 while the U18 and U17 levels will form their squads by the first week of October.
To get through the tryout process and beyond, all teams have been assigned a communications officer who must be well-informed on health guidelines and will be responsible for making certain players and coaches adhere to those regulations.
Although Hockey Manitoba has granted approval for practices, the timeline for Phase 3 of return to play, including a go-ahead to play games, is uncertain.
McArton hopes leagues may be able to schedule games by mid-October but the delay could be challenging for coaches hoping to finalize rosters.
"Teams put a lot of stock in exhibition games," said McArton. "We're thinking if approval comes soon we'll play exhibition games. If it doesn't, we'll have to get creative."
Tryouts at the AA and A levels are also starting to ramp up this week, with similar limits to the number of players and coaches on the ice, but some area associations are not prepared to start while some are limited by access to ice time.
"The earliest ones wraps up towards the end of September whereas everything else goes pretty much til mid-October on our normal program chart," said Hockey Winnipeg president Chris Hall. "When we developed this (and) decided this was the way we were going to move forward, everyone understood this was a bit of a moving target from an association standpoint.
"So, we're at the mercy of ensuring we've got compliance in place to meet the requirements and that the rinks are compliant with the requirements of return to play."
Getting clearance to play games is crucial.
"We're submitting documents on behalf of all the associations to Hockey Manitoba by the middle of next week," said Hall. "And then Hockey Manitoba will review all of those to ensure that the measures we have in place are compliant.
"Once that's done, they'll announce a date when Phase 3 will come into effect. I suspect that's not going to be until late in October — at the earliest."
Hockey Manitoba's ban on out-of-province travel remains in effect for all teams.
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.
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