SUNDRE — The skating season is swiftly passing us by and some municipalities as well as organizations have already reluctantly decided to remove their ice because of burdensome operating costs that have not been offset by any revenue generation as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 closures.
But not Sundre.
“As of this moment, we are planning on keeping the ice in,” Sue Nelson, the town’s manager of community services, said during a recent phone interview.
“We’re just hoping and praying that a miracle happens and that we can open up to be normal, or even if it could be back to sort of how it was just before Christmas."
So are the presidents of the Sundre minor hockey and Sundre recreational hockey associations.
Asked whether he was still reserving any optimism that at least a portion of the remaining season might yet be salvaged, Shawn MacNeil, rec hockey president, initially expressed skepticism.
But the recent announcement regarding the Feb. 8 relaxation of restrictions seems to have given him hope.
"It appears we will be able to start up right away but with restrictions. The main one being that we can't have more than 10 on the ice including the coaches," he wrote in a Feb. 6 post on social media, adding logistics were being sorted out and that updates would be impending.
From the rec hockey association’s perspective, the situation has been particularly frustrating this season because when the provincial government put restrictions in place to flatten the curve, there was widespread compliance, said MacNeil.
“They wanted to drop the curve, well it’s gone down,” he said, adding the government’s goal was to get the R value — which rates COVID or any disease’s ability to spread — below one.
“So, it’s really quite frustrating. Because in reality, the kids have basically been shut out of all their activities — not just hockey, but karate and dance and all that stuff — since last March when this first went in, other than a very small five-week window where we got to have some hockey before they shut us down again.”
Adding insult to injury, he said, “When we had to do our return-to-play (plan) to Alberta Health to get approved to play those five weeks, we told them that we weren’t playing any games or anything this year for our rec hockey. It was all just practising with our own individual teams, so we weren’t bringing in anybody, we’re not playing out of town.”
MacNeil also wondered about the logic behind the government’s earlier approach considering kids had already been back in class.
“Kids can sit together for six hours a day in school, and that’s OK. But the one-and-half-hour practice we had once a week puts them at risk?” he asked.
Although there have not yet been any requests to refund registration fees, he said the association is considering options such as either issuing a refund, or perhaps even applying a credit for next season.
Fortunately, the association is from a financial perspective doing all right and has not applied for COVID-19 related funding relief that’s available for non-profit organizations, he said.
“We’re not really anything out of pocket by not running because we don’t have to pay an ice bill,” he said.
As the waiting game continues to see what next steps the provincial government decides to take in the coming weeks, MacNeil said he’s glad the ice remains at the local arena.
“Because a lot of towns have already started taking their ice out,” he said.
“We wouldn’t blame the town if they did end up taking their ice out. I mean, it costs a lot to keep that ice in. And when you’re generating zero revenue, it doesn’t make too much sense.”
Wade Church, president of the Sundre Minor Hockey Association, is also crossing his fingers that players will be able to get a few practices in before the end of the season, but isn’t holding his breath.
“We’re hoping they can get back on the ice for some sort of play,” Church said.
“We’re not sure what that play will look like. Hockey Alberta is working with Alberta Health Services on that,” he recently said, suggesting that since tournaments are off the table there might yet perhaps be a chance to host a training clinic or in-house games.
Since the interview, Hockey Alberta announced league play was officially cancelled for the season.
As for registrations, there were so few this year anyway that Church did not expect refunds to be issued.
“We released 90 per cent of the players because we didn’t have enough to make teams,” he said.
The association was able to field only initiation teams this year, and that age category already has a low price point, he said.
“They have almost used up their entry fee anyway,” he said, adding the kids still managed to get a couple of practices on home ice plus about half a dozen in Caroline earlier in the season. But it's possible they will yet get a chance to practise before the end of the season.
"Our hopes are to get the initiation team on the ice for March," Church wrote in a post on the association's social media page.
Testing new ice plant
Also factoring into the decision to keep the ice in the arena is an effort to test the new plant to ensure there are no unexpected issues, said Nelson.
“It’s been doing awesome. We haven’t had any problems at all — it’s running very well,” Nelson said about the new unit that was installed late last year.
“I can hardly wait until next fall to see how early we can get the ice put in for minor hockey."
While the arena has for years not usually been ready until the weekend following Thanksgiving in October, Nelson said the aim will be to have the ice prepared about a month earlier by mid-September.
And although the facility’s closure has represented lost revenue in the absence of ice rentals from practices and games to tournaments, the shortfall has been offset by COVID-19 relief funding from the province, Chris Albert, the town’s director of corporate services, said by email in response to questions.
The municipality received a little more than $281,000 from the province as part of the government’s Municipal Operating Support Transfer program, said Albert.
“This program is to help municipalities offset the financial effects of COVID-19, whether it be for additional operating costs such as PPE or cleaning, lost revenue from facilities, or costs to retrofit existing spaces to accommodate restrictions,” he said.