Winnipeg's two Manitoba Junior Hockey League teams expressed contrition Friday afternoon for letting their players take part in a privately run practice in an Interlake community earlier in the week during the COVID-19 health crisis.
In a joint unsigned statement, the Winnipeg Blues and Winnipeg Freeze apologized for their actions, acknowledging the clubs showed poor judgment in participating in the training session at Sunova Arena in Warren.
"Considering the circumstances in Manitoba, we are sorry for our decision to proceed with any unsanctioned hockey activity. In hindsight it was an error in judgment that will not be repeated," the statement read. "Our intention has always been and remains to support the community generally and the hockey community in particular, most especially our players and their families.
The Blues and Freeze squads are owned by 50 Below Sports and Entertainment, which also owns the Winnipeg Ice of the Western Hockey League.
The Blues and Freeze maintain while the on-ice session was neither sanctioned by Hockey Manitoba nor approved by the junior league, it did not violate a Manitoba health directive issued Nov. 2. They confirmed that with a public health inspector in advance, just to be sure.
Hockey Manitoba followed the Nov. 2 provincial guidelines and issued a statement that "all sanctioned hockey (teams) within the Winnipeg capital region would not be permitted to travel to less restrictive orange zones for sanctioned hockey activities."
The Blues and Freeze say they were adhering to the directive and did not participate in any sanctioned events, and that ice times scheduled Nov. 2-6 in Warren were scrapped. However, the teams say they informed the MJHL and Hockey Manitoba they would continue to seek out "privately run, privately insured, unsanctioned options" for their players.
"Although no approval was given by Hockey Manitoba or the MJHL, we did not hide our intentions to pursue a privately run unsanctioned option for the players. We assumed that since this was clearly unsanctioned and privately insured, no approvals were required. Having said that, in hindsight, we were mistaken," the statement said.
The Blues and Freeze practised Monday under the name Laker Academy, a Winnipeg-based organization that runs youth hockey camps.
"To be clear, the ice was booked and practices were run by Laker Academy in an effort to comply with the Hockey Manitoba directive. This was not to create deception in any way. Although our intentions were good and with the best interests of the players at heart, in hindsight, given the circumstances, we were wrong and for that we apologize," the teams said.
The MJHL, which has had four positive COVID-19 tests and a lengthy list of postponed games, paused all hockey activities Thursday as the province operates under code-red status during the pandemic. The league is planning to resume hockey activities on Jan. 1.
The Blues and Freeze say they have made the health and safety of its players, team personnel and fans the top priority since the league's return to play, and that included the practice in Warren.
The organizations ensured a public health inspector had reviewed the Laker Academy's protocols, and those of the Warren arena, looking at things such as reduced capacity to 25 per cent (spectators and dressing room), mandatory masks when players were not on the ice, sign-in sheets for tracing, physical distancing and clearly displayed traffic flow.
"It was also made clear to us that there was nothing included in the public health order restricting travel for Winnipeg residents to Warren. Once again, we were up front about our intentions, this time with Manitoba public health, which demonstrates clearly there was no intention to be deceptive," the statement said.
Still, the Winnipeg clubs accepted responsibility for making a poor decision but denied their the move was underhanded.
"With deep reflection it is clear to us that we did not find the correct balance in our decision making on this occasion. We were wrong in directing the players to the Laker Academy programming without a clear approval from Hockey Manitoba and wrong for not taking an even broader interpretation of the public health order than what was strictly enforceable," they said.
"Were we deceptive in our actions? Were we trying to hide our intentions? Were we trying to skirt the public health order or the Hockey Manitoba directive? Absolutely not, the facts are clear and speak for themselves. However, we are a business that depends on the trust and support of the community we play in and we could have done better. For that, we are deeply sorry.
"Moving forward we will be extra vigilant when seeking clarity and ensure decisions are made in partnership with Hockey Manitoba and the Manitoba Junior Hockey League."
The league and Hockey Manitoba continue to review the situation.
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).