Coronavirus
Sports

How sports in the NWT are beginning their return to play


With warmer weather and phase two of pandemic recovery under way, many Northwest Territories athletes are itching to get back onto fields, courts, and courses. 

In March, at the pandemic’s onset, some sports in the territory had to end their seasons early. Covid-19 forced others to delay their start. 

In phase one of the territory’s recovery plan – which came into effect on May 15 – some sports and physical activities were allowed to return with conditions, such as a 25-person limit on outdoor gatherings. 

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With the dawning of phase two – which allows 50 people to attend outdoor gatherings and 25 to participate in indoor sports – more sports are now ready to return. 

Here’s a rundown of how some sports in the NWT have been impacted by the pandemic so far, and how they’re adapting to new restrictions. 

Golf

Golf is one of the few summer sports already in full swing in the NWT.

Golf and ski clubs without clubhouses were allowed to operate in the containment phase. Phase two means more participants are allowed.

Cole Marshall, general manager of the Yellowknife Golf Club, said they opened for the season on May 18. Between noon and 7pm most days, he said the club is “typically booked solid.” 

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The club worked with Golf Canada, the Alberta Golf Association, and Protect NWT to come up with safety protocols, Marshall said. Those include restricting golf carts to just one rider and not renting out golf clubs.

The club also has “contraptions” so golfers have to use a putter to lift the ball out of the hole rather than touching it with their hands. 

Players have been understanding about the new rules, Marshall said, although there has been some “humming and hawing” about friends not being able to share carts. 

“For the most part, they’re all OK with it,” he said. “We kind-of all are in the same boat, which is nice. It’s not necessarily just one person being affected by it, it’s everybody.”

The club’s annual midnight golf tournament, this coming weekend, will look slightly different this year. For a start, it won’t take place at midnight, with people teeing off earlier in the day. Lessons from new golf pro Kylie Frederick are due to resume this week.

“I think people are gravitating to the golf course because it’s something to do,” Marshall said shortly before phase two began.

“There are no restaurants open for sit-down, no bars, most of the other sports haven’t started yet. We’ve been busy.”

Softball

Softball in the North this year will look a little different, starting with no post-game handshakes or high fives. 

Like all sports, sharing food and beverages is banned for softball players, along with sharing uniforms and most equipment.

Small numbers of spectators may be allowed in phase two, as long as they can maintain their physical distance, and the total number of people gathered – including players – doesn’t exceed 50.

The Yellowknife Fastball League’s 2020 season starts on Monday. 

Garrett Hinchey, president of the league, said that’s just two weeks later than normal. 

The Tommy Forrest Ballpark is seen from the air in May 2020

The Tommy Forrest Ballpark in Yellowknife is seen from the air in May 2020. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

“Talking to the league members, everyone’s just been cooped up for so long that anything like this they can get out and do? People are really, really excited for that,” Hinchey said.

“It’s been kind-of cool just to see how grateful people are.”

Hinchey said new rules mean players won’t sit in dugouts any more but will space out on the bleachers. Umpires won’t touch the ball, players can’t share helmets, and shared bats will be disinfected between use. Spitting and sunflower seeds won’t be allowed. 

Under the league’s Covid-19 protocol, team huddles are prohibited and pitcher’s mound visits are limited to the pitcher and catcher.

Hinchey doesn’t expect any fastball tournaments this year. That means the Yellowknife league won’t play teams from other NWT communities, and the territory won’t send players to any national championships. 

The Yellowknife adult league, which has six teams, won’t host beer gardens this year – which are the league’s main source of revenue other than team fees. 

Hinchey said the league is in “an OK spot to weather that storm for a year” but it could become an issue if restrictions continue beyond the 2020 season.

Yellowknife Slopitch will begin its 2020 season on June 21. Year-end wrap-up is anticipated for September 12. 

According to the minutes of the league’s June 6 annual general meeting, teams will have to sanitize softballs after every inning. Shared bats have to be wiped down after every at-bat. 

Start times will be staggered with 20-minute breaks between games, the use of face masks is recommended, and there will be no tournaments.

Soccer and futsal 

It was “a shock” to soccer clubs and leagues when the pandemic hit and they had to stop playing in March, said Lyric Sandhals, executive director of NWT Soccer.

“Our players’ safety is of the utmost importance,” she said. “Our clubs and leagues did a really good job at adjusting, and they were all very patient and waited until we were given the go-ahead to return to play.” 

Outdoor soccer and futsal were allowed to return in phase one, as long as 25 or fewer people were gathered, players kept their distance on the sidelines, and equipment was disinfected between practices and games. Indoor soccer and futsal are allowed to return in phase two. 

The outdoor soccer season typically doesn’t start until June, Sandhals said, while the indoor season starts in September. The futsal league operates from November to April.

Sandhals said NWT Soccer has met with clubs and leagues to discuss its return to play guidelines. It will be up to those entities to determine if they will play this summer.

Conditions include that players avoid touching equipment and teams use cones to ensure physical distancing, while taking regular sanitation breaks. 

“We’re all really excited that we can get back out onto the field,” Sandhals said.

“We really just want our membership and the public to remember that … we can’t just flip the switch and get back on the field. There are still steps they need to take and planning has to be done.”

Basketball

Basketball is among the sports allowed to return in phase two of the NWT’s pandemic recovery plan.

Rami Ayache, executive director of Basketball NWT, said all basketball tournaments, selection camps, and league and club activities in the territory were suspended on March 17. Leagues usually start in the fall and end in the winter or spring, he said, and some teams train in the summer.

Basketball at K'alemi Dene School in Ndilo

Basketball at K’alemi Dene School in Ndilǫ. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

“We are certain that a return to play is greatly anticipated within the NWT,” Ayache said in an email. “While we are excited for the opportunity to restart basketball in the North, the safety of our members is our first priority.”

Basketball NWT is currently working on its return to sport guidelines. Ayache expects those will be ready in the next few weeks. Mitigation measures will include risk assessments, social distancing, participant limits, and disinfection protocols.  

Ayache said players are encouraged to train individually and stay busy with other physical exercise to be ready to return to the court.

Hockey, curling, and broomball

As previously reported by Cabin Radio, under the territory’s current pandemic recovery plan, indoor hockey, curling, and broomball aren’t allowed to return until all restrictions have been lifted – effectively phase four.

That won’t happen until a vaccine for Covid-19 has been produced or a large portion of the territory’s population has access to an effective treatment.

Dr Kami Kandola, NWT’s chief public health officer, said these indoor ice sports are considered high-risk for the transmission of Covid-19 because players have close contact with one another and are breathing hard, so a lot of respiratory droplets end up in the air.

She said cool, dry temperatures dry out mucous membranes, making it easier for the virus to spread. 

“It’s disappointing,” Val Pond, president of the NWT Broomball Association, said of the sport’s phase four status. “Especially when they’ve given sports with much more contact and interaction the go-ahead.”

She noted broomball is a non-contact sport in the North and said the association is working with its governing body to mitigate risks and get players on the ice sooner.

Pond hopes they will at least be able to have player development clinics or one-on-one training this season, where people can space out.

“We’re still hoping. Our fingers are crossed,” she said. “Something’s better than nothing.” 

The NWT broomball season usually starts in early October and ends in March

Speed skating

Jody Pellissey, of the Yellowknife Speed Skating Club, said it’s unclear what phase her sport currently falls under – but it’s likely being “lumped in with hockey.”

She said the sport is developing guidelines to return to the ice safely. 

“We hope to get on ice as soon as possible,” she said. “We hope all of our ice sports will be able to get on ice sooner rather than later.” 

If skaters don’t get on the ice until phase four, Pellissey said they’ll lose the opportunity to learn new skills and improve. If competitions open up down south, they won’t be able to attend without on-ice training. 

Team NT speed skaters warm up at the 2018 Arctic Winter Games

Team NT speed skaters warm up at the 2018 Arctic Winter Games. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

“We lose the community that we’ve built up, the support system that we have, the importance of sports, and the camaraderie that we have with our team and our coaches,” she added.

There are around 100 skaters in the Yellowknife club, Pellissey said, with just under 200 territory-wide. 

The club began dry-land training outdoors in phase one, she said, where skaters build up fitness to maintain speeds when they get on the ice. 

A territory-wide speed skating camp, usually held in Yellowknife each summer, won’t go forward this year. 

Gymnastics

Gymnastic clubs are considered a higher-risk activity for the transmission of Covid-19. They can’t reopen until phase three of the NWT’s plan and will have to comply with a number of guidelines, including capacity limits, when they do. 

When phase three starts rests on the implementation of a rapid-testing strategy in the territory and the passing of Covid-19’s anticipated second wave in the south.

Jessica Smith is a sport coordinator for the NWT Gymnastics Association and recreational director at the Yellowknife Gymnastics Club. Smith said the closure of gyms in March was hard on gymnasts in the territory.

Since then, she said, the Yellowknife club has been hosting online classes for competitive athletes.

Team NT's gymnasts in action at the 2019 Canada Games in Red Deer

Team NT’s gymnasts in action at the 2019 Canada Games in Red Deer. Ollie Williams/Team NT

“The gymnastics club is really a home for a lot of athletes and so it’s quite hard for them to be able to keep up with their fitness, as well as the socialization with their team members,” she said. “It really is a family there.”

Smith said she fully supports the NWT’s pandemic recovery plan, adding Dr Kandola has done an “amazing job” responding to Covid-19.

“It is unfortunate that we are classified in a higher risk, but I feel she is doing the best she can with the information and knowledge she has,” Smith said. “So when we are given the green light, we will happily be opened.”

Smith noted it’s hard to completely disinfect gymnastics equipment after each use, as well as maintain social distancing. 

The gymnastics association is taking direction from the chief public health officer and looking at guidelines being developed for gymnastics across Canada. That includes the Yukon, which in May became the first jurisdiction in Canada to allow gymnastics clubs to reopen. 

Gyms and fitness centres

One-on-one services like personal training were allowed to return to indoor gyms and fitness centres in phase one, as long as equipment was disinfected, among other conditions.

In phase two, fitness classes can resume with a maximum of 25 participants. Risk assessments carried out by the Workers’ Safety and Compensation Commission will determine individual class size limits and mitigation measures, based on the space and equipment available.

 Hot tubs, saunas, steam rooms, and hot yoga will not be allowed to reopen.

What about other sports?

Aboriginal Sports Circle NWT has been hosting online wellness workshops.

The Yellowknife Shooting Club’s outdoor range opened in late May and has been hosting archery shoots. Restrictions include no sharing of equipment and limits of one person per target and eight people on the line at a time to ensure social distancing.

Dr Kandola said on June 3 risk assessments must be submitted to determine if hand games tournaments can go ahead. That will depend on factors like whether the event is indoors or outdoors.

Dr Kami Kandola said those wishing to host a hand games tournament will have to submit a risk assessment.

Ultimate frisbee, cricket, badminton, touch football, tennis, and beach volleyball were allowed to return in phase one.

Tennis courts opened in Yellowknife in May. Recommendations from Tennis Canada include cleaning and not sharing equipment, avoiding physical contact with other players, using their foot to pick up and pass balls, and bringing hand sanitizer. 

Sports allowed to return in phase two include outdoor rugby, indoor volleyball, and other indoor court sports like squash and racquetball. Pools can open for instructor certification in this phase.

In phase three, limits will be removed from outdoor gatherings, pools can reopen to the public with capacity limits, and common-use gyms can reopen in buildings. 

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