The 2020 Polar Pond Hockey tournament was one of the last organized hockey events before pandemic restrictions came into effect. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
Hockey and curling are beloved in the NWT. Délı̨nę prides itself as hockey’s birthplace. But pandemic restrictions mean indoor ice sports may not return this year.
Indoor hockey, curling, broomball, and lacrosse aren’t allowed to resume until all restrictions in the territory’s pandemic recovery plan have been lifted – effectively the plan’s fourth phase.
Dr Kami Kandola, the NWT’s chief public health officer, has said that won’t happen until a vaccine or treatment for Covid-19 is found. Experts say that may take 12 to 18 months, and even that would be considered rapid by medical standards.
According to Dr Kandola, these sports are high-risk for transmission of Covid-19 because a lot of respiratory droplets end up in the air and players have close contact with one another.
Cold, dry temperatures make it easier for the virus to spread as they dry out mucous membranes, Kandola added.
“It’s really hard to reduce the risks on activities like that because wearing a non-medical mask would not be desirable due to breath limits for folks who are working really hard to play a sport,” she said last week, adding that “traditional face shields cannot be assured to stay in place during the course of the game.”
Not everyone agrees with the chief public health officer.
“I can’t believe that hockey needs to wait until there’s a vaccine,” said Brad Anstey, past president of Hockey NWT.
“I think it’s absurd. You know, it’s a strong word, but that’s how I feel about how the medical people here in the territories, along with our premier, support hockey and broomball in phase four.”
Anstey thinks there are ways to reduce risks and play hockey safely, which governing body Hockey Canada is examining with the help of territorial and provincial partners.
Ideas include eliminating the use of dressing rooms and limiting the number of players on the ice and the bench, Anstey said. In Yellowknife, body checking is already prohibited.
“I think we just need to present our case and share what we can do to take the steps to make sure everybody’s safe when they do return to play,” he said.
Other indoor team sports deemed less risky
Some indoor team sports are allowed to return in earlier phases of the NWT government’s plan.
For example, many restrictions on indoor volleyball, basketball, soccer, and futsal will be relaxed in phase two – anticipated in mid-to-late June – with conditions like enhanced disinfection and the use of face masks.
Anstey and others say they don’t understand why hockey is considered riskier, as those sports also involve heavy breathing and close contact between players.
Anstey said allowing kids to get on the ice will help them prepare for tryouts and develop skills. He says it’s also important for their physical wellbeing, mental health, and socialization.
“Hockey is the passionate sport to a lot of youth, he said. “We have hockey all over the North and in some communities that’s all there is, sometimes, is hockey.”
Under the NWT’s pandemic recovery plan, some indoor team sports are allowed in phase two. Read the plan in full on the NWT government’s website.
Kacee MacLean, an executive with the Yellowknife Minor Hockey Association, echoed Anstey’s sentiments.
“A lot of the kids are really disappointed they’re not getting back on the ice,” MacLean said.
“The parents, too, are very disappointed because these kids won’t be maintaining these skills that they’ve developed. It takes awhile to build it back up again.”
If there is no hockey in the NWT this year, MacLean thinks rinks in Yellowknife may not open at all. That would mean figure skating and speed skating can’t happen either, she said, while older youth may try to head south to play the sport.
Territorial sports organizations ‘not consulted’
MacLean believes territorial sports organizations like Hockey NWT were not consulted about the government’s pandemic recovery plan, nor given a chance to contribute ideas about mitigating the risks.
She hopes the territorial government will be receptive to any plans Hockey NWT puts forward.
Nick Saturnino, president of the NWT Curling Association, said he was disappointed his organization wasn’t asked for input from the government when creating its pandemic recovery plan.
The territorial organization is working with Curling Canada and provincial curling associations on adapting the sport. Saturnino expects a final document in two to four weeks and is confident the territorial government will accept the recommendations.
“I do feel that it can be presented or played in a way that’s safe for everyone,” he said. “It may not look like normal curling or that type of thing but it definitely can be done in a safe and responsible way.”
During a news conference last week, Dr Kandola said she is open to listening to territorial sports organizations about ways they can reduce risks.
NWT curler Jamie Koe is seen during a televised interview.
Jamie Koe has represented the NWT in 14 editions of the Brier, Canada’s national men’s curling championship. Koe said he has “mixed emotions” at the prospect of curling tournaments being postponed or cancelled.
“As a competitor you want to compete, right?” he said. “But I understand that health is first and the health officials are making the orders in the best interest of everybody.”
Koe said it is “hard to think about and comprehend” that there may not be a curling season, which for him usually starts in October, or a 2021 Brier.
“It’s family first, then my job second, and then curling has always been third but it’s a high priority,” he said.
“Come the summer we’re talking about the winter and curling, and then in the winter we’re around the rink and we’re curling and we’re watching curling on TV. It’s what I’ve always done since I was a junior curler.”
In an emailed response to sports organizations about the risks of indoor ice sports, Dr Kandola said while lives will be different for people “without the activities they love,” it’s important to “keep everyone as safe as possible when there are threats like Covid-19 at our doorstep.”
She added: “Sometimes, that means disappointing some people – including my friends.”
Correction: May 25, 2020 – 9:38 MT. This article initially gave the name of Yellowknife Minor Hockey’s president as Kathleen MacLean. Her name is, in fact, Kacee MacLean. Our report has been amended accordingly.