AT least one player with the OCN Blizzard has tested positive for COVID-19, putting the club’s season and perhaps even the Manitoba Junior Hockey League’s 2020-21 campaign in doubt.
Tuesday’s game between the visiting Blizzard and the Dauphin Kings, previously rescheduled when poor driving conditions Saturday made bus travel hazardous, was postponed again with minimal explanation from either the league or the teams.
The MJHL offered an explanation about the situation at midday on its website.
The post said, in part: "This week’s scheduled games involving the OCN Blizzard have been postponed due to a public health concern. The Manitoba Junior Hockey League is following our return-to-play guidelines while working closely with public health officials and following their direction.
"Public Health are the only informed authority to provide public information via daily bulletins on possible exposure, close contact to exposure or the declaration of an outbreak. We will adhere to these Public Health protocols concerning any COVID-related public announcement."
The teams played Sunday night in Dauphin, with OCN registering a 7-4 victory.
Multiple sources confirmed a Blizzard player had tested positive, and that OCN players from outside The Pas were being told to return home.
Initially, OCN general manager and head coach Billy Keane refused to comment, politely referring a reporter to the bulletin on the league website, instead.
During a second conversation later in the day, Keane was asked if one of his players still awaiting results of a COVID-19 test had faced off against the Kings on Sunday night.
"I don’t want to get myself in trouble here, either, so I’m not going to answer that question," said Keane, in his first season with the Blizzard.
"We’re trying to follow all the guidelines and do everything we can. In our situation, we’ve asked guys to get tested before they come up, even as a gesture of good faith. So, that’s how serious we are about trying to keep this under wraps. But having said that, they don’t need to get tested travelling from Winnipeg to Dauphin or to The Pas or Portage, that’s not a necessity. But it is a gesture of good faith if you arrive in the community with a negative test," he added.
Keane was also asked if that suggested someone didn’t.
"There’s a real confidentiality issue here, too... You have to be respectful for the player and the kid’s family," Keane said. "It’s best I just not talk to you. It’s very sensitive, obviously."
MJHL commissioner Kevin Saurette also referred the Free Press to the message on the website and wouldn’t field any other questions.
Several parents contacted Tuesday admitted information coming from the organization and league was slim at best.
"All the details haven’t been released yet," said an OCN parent, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "I certainly wouldn’t want to provide any misinformation, so the information has to come from the right channels. (The organization said) just that there’s been possible exposure in the division, so we’re following proper health protocols and going into isolation mode until there’s more information."
Another said the family was told Blizzard officials would offer more details after a meeting with representatives of Manitoba Health on Tuesday morning.
News of the positive test fanned quickly across the league.
"I am so disappointed," said one parent of an MJHL player from another team, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity. "(My son’s team) was trying so hard to keep kids safe. And test fans, players etc. And we were promised that our kids’ safety was a priority in MJHL return-to-play guidelines.
"Almost close to calling that anonymous line for COVID reporting. Something I think MJHL commissioner should answer questions on. Certainly OCN. But sure the league is done until (Christmas) at least after this."
This development comes a day after a move to code-red status in the Winnipeg health region forced three teams — the Winnipeg Freeze, Winnipeg Blues and Selkirk Steelers — off the ice.
Hockey Manitoba announced Monday it was suspending all programming in the city following Friday’s announcement from the chief provincial health officer that Manitoba was moving to red status owing to a spike of COVID-19 cases.
An immediate result was the postponement of two weekend games between the Blues and Freeze while a Sunday matchup between the Pistons and the host Steelers was moved to Saturday in Steinbach.
The Blues, Freeze and Steelers fall within the Winnipeg health zone and are thereby prohibited from travelling to play or practise.
"There is no option at this point," said Steelers head coach Hudson Friesen. "Our facility is shut down and with the current restrictions we’re not allowed to go to any other facilities outside the area to participate in any on-ice stuff, so yeah, it’s tough. It takes away any option for us to congregate as a group and go over things and do video."
The Pistons, a fourth member of the league’s Southeast Division and outside the Winnipeg zone, are continuing to operate.
Friesen was not projecting too far into the future.
"We’re told (red status is) going to be re-evaluated in two weeks, so we’re just gonna go with that and keep everybody around for the time being," said Friesen. "In two weeks we’ll see what the situation is and make a call after that."
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).