SUNDRE — What remains of the adult recreational hockey men and women’s leagues seems unlikely to be salvaged at this point.
But although no games or practices have yet been scheduled and probably won’t be, the possibility hasn’t been completely dismissed outright.
“We’re coming into January,” said Nathan McCullough, a volunteer organizer who’s been involved in men’s rec hockey for the last roughly 15 years.
“For us to try and reschedule games with other teams is probably going to be darn difficult,” he said, adding other leagues have been playing for the past couple of months and have their ice times largely booked.
So, making arrangements for new games this late in the season while avoiding scheduling conflicts could be an insurmountable logistical hurdle, he said.
The Sundre rec hockey men’s league prior to the pandemic would have played throughout the course of a typical season anywhere between 35 to 45 games. But that’s a process that generally begins in September, when game schedules start being developed in coordination with other rec leagues in the area, he said.
The league, which is comprised of some five squads, usually plays against regional teams including Bowden, Caroline, Carstairs, Crossfield and Olds.
“We all just kind of get together and build a schedule and play hockey,” he said, adding the teams tend to invite one another to play on each other’s home turf and share the cost of renting ice.
Unfortunately, that approach was derailed early on following the provincial government’s Sept. 15 introduction of a new health order and the Restrictions Exemption Program (REP).
“We were basically kiboshed at the start of the season by the town because of all the protocols. So, we didn’t have home ice to trade with other teams,” said McCullough, adding, “Pretty much every other team out there is playing hockey with the exception of the teams in Sundre.”
From his perspective, the municipality did not adequately communicate with the user groups to provide updates and options on how facilities like the arena would be available to the public under the provincial government’s mandates.
“Was there a lot of uncertainty to begin with? Of course there was. But as things unfolded and changed and other communities were able to step up, our town didn’t step up and send out that correspondence and say, ‘We looked into the possibilities',” he said.
Confirming the men’s league received an email from the town dated Sept. 30, McCullough said the information wasn’t clear and that he was at the time left with the impression the adult rec league wouldn’t be able to proceed.
“Currently we are unable to provide arena rental for adult hockey,” reads a portion of that email, which The Albertan was able to obtain.
“If we choose to allow REP, then it is up to the organizer to implement and monitor attendees. If REP is not being used, it is also up to the organizer to adhere to the regular provincial restrictions. You can not mix REP and non-REP attendees in any of our facilities,” the statement later adds.
The email also welcomed groups who wished to further discuss the matter to contact the town.
In the end, the municipality decided to proceed with the regulations outlined by the Chief Medical Officer of Health’s order while leaving open the option for adult user groups to develop, implement and enforce their own REP.
“Teams that were shut down when we were starting to make our schedule, were back up and running within two to three weeks” of the provincial government’s Sept. 15 announcement, he said. “All these communities were able to step up and get moving in the right direction, and our community was nowhere near that point.”
Making clear that he was not opposed to the Health Order or the REP, McCullough said his concerns stemmed primarily from what he considered a lack of communication.
“We need the powers that be to lay out what they can in front of us and always be open about it, and that’s where the challenge seems to lie,” he said, adding municipalities have greater access to information released by the provincial government.
“As a citizen, I can only get glimpses of what’s being said at a (provincial) government level,” he said, expressing the belief that part of a municipality’s job is to relay that information to residents and user groups.
“We shouldn’t have to chase them (the town) down to find out,” he said. “They should be reaching out to us.”
A follow-up email from the municipality more clearly informing the group it could play hockey provided the league developed a REP, was only received on Wednesday, Dec. 29 following an article that had recently been published by The Albertan, said McCullough.
From the Sundre women’s hockey rec league’s point of view, the municipality did everything that could be reasonably expected under the circumstances.
“They gave us options,” said Katie Jo Munro, a volunteer organizer with the Sundre Shooters, which historically has had anywhere between 15 and 20 players signed up.
Earlier in the summer, when Premier Jason Kenney had declared the province was open for good and that there would be no return to restrictions, Munro said she felt like the town was optimistic about being able to offer a regular, run-of-the-mill season.
“I think the town did their best to hope that everybody could have a normal season,” she said.
Of course the situation changed amid a surging fourth wave of COVID-19 when the Delta variant swept across Alberta. The women’s league also received the Sept. 30 email from the town, she confirmed.
“I feel like they did say you could run the REP,” she said.
However, she added the email’s wording in reference to being unable to “mix REP and non-REP attendees” in the town’s facilities left some room for confusion.
“I did feel like, ‘Oh, I don’t quite get it.’ So, I called and asked and got a pretty good explanation,” she said.“I just think that everybody’s working as best as they can. Phone if you have questions — if it’s not clear, ask questions.”
Once she understood her options, Munro said the women’s league decided against proceeding with developing its own REP.
“In my mind, it was just too much on my plate for too little,” she said, expressing a reluctance to put in the time and energy to organize games that only one or two players might actually end up attending.
“So, I just said forget it and I gave up on hockey for the season. I was toying with the idea of stuff in January, but it looks like that’s going to be just as much of a struggle,” she said.
While games are off the table, she said perhaps some power skating or practice sessions might yet be possible. But as that would require a REP, she didn’t sound certain.
“That’s a lot of responsibility. Our women’s team, there’s not many of us,” she said. “For us, it’s more of a commitment issue.”
And her confidence is also undermined as Alberta braces itself for a fifth wave fuelled by a new variant.
“With Omicron, who knows what the numbers are going to be when we get back into school,” she said, adding any meticulously laid out plans might end up just getting scrapped for the rest of the season anyway.
“Let’s hope we have a better winter next year," she said.