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Squamish sports groups look forward to arena reopening

With pandemic restrictions, then vaccination clinics, then arena safety upgrades, local arena users are anxiously waiting for space to open up again.

It has not been a good year for arena sports. 

With COVID restrictions limiting play, then a vaccination clinic putting an early stop to ice time, then a delayed restart as the arena's ammonia plant is upgraded, local leagues are eager for a return to normalcy.

When it was announced in April that Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) would take over the arena on April 15 for a vaccination clinic, the early ice closure meant that 14 Squamish Minor Hockey Association (SMHA) hockey camps were cancelled, affecting about 75 to 100 kids. 

"It did affect us, but at the same time, we were glad to step aside in the interest of public health, to get our population vaccinated as quickly as possible, particularly because we were a bit of a hot spot at the time," said SMHA president Chris Green.

The vaccination clinics will move out of the Brennan Park auditorium on Aug. 25. 

Due to provincially-mandated orders, the arena — along with other arenas across the province — will then undergo safety upgrades to its ammonia plant in early September, which is usually when minor hockey pre-season camps and tryouts begin. 

With the ice installation set to be complete on Sept. 27, this puts the season's start a full month behind schedule.

Green says this can have real consequences for some players.

Summer hockey camps can be pricey, with the added cost and time of travelling that is often involved, and this is a barrier for some families with many kids or two working parents.

For a lot of players, especially at the "A" level, the pre-season tryout phase is an important time to get back on the ice and get warmed up. Without that time on the ice, kids who didn't get to attend summer camps may be at a disadvantage.

"You want your kids to have the opportunity to skate two, three, four times before you even get there, because some kids have already gone to camps; they may have been to multiple camps throughout the summer," Green said. "Other kids don't have that opportunity. Either financially, it's a barrier, or they do other things. So, we like to try to give at least a week for kids just getting on the ice, so it's not a huge advantage for kids who can go to all these camps. It gives kids a chance to shake the rust off and get used to skating again, because some of them haven't skated since March," he added.

"So we won't be able to do that this year. We'll have to go right into the tryouts."

The delay causes a further disadvantage in that other minor hockey associations will already be a month into their seasons when SMHA is just getting started. 

"Our teams won't even be formed yet, and other associations will already be playing tiering games. I don't even know what that's going to look like, but that could impact their entire season this year."

The delay in the completion of the upgrade project is due to a "shortage of supply of the specialized parts" needed, according to a statement from the District of Squamish. Other ice users who have had their play on pause due to the VCH clinic and ammonia plant upgrades are the Squamish Oldtimer's Hockey, Squamish Women's Hockey, Squamish Men's Hockey League, Skate Sea2Sky and Hilltop Hockey.

Roller derby stop

Winter users aren't the only groups affected by the VCH clinic; the Sea to Sky Sirens, the women's roller derby club that has been using the dry arena slab for practice and games for over 10 years, is now going on two years of absolutely no play. 

Before the pandemic, the team enjoyed ample space at the arena, practicing for three hours two times a week, and hosting games throughout the summer. They have not been able to play as a team since the very beginning of the pandemic, and their numbers have dwindled because of it.

"We're a full-contact sport; roller derby consists of a lot of physical contact, so COVID was a huge one for us," said Ashley Slawson, a member of the team.

Even with restrictions lifted, the vaccination clinic taking up the arena space has left the team with nowhere to play, and they remain adrift and looking forward to the fall when they can hopefully begin practice in the Brennan Park gymnasium and get their numbers back up after a two-year lag in recruitment. 

"Definitely, we were hoping to grow our team a few years ago, but that hasn't happened yet," said Slawson. "We're pretty low at the moment, so we'll hopefully regain that momentum in the fall when we can get back in there. We're still here; we're just taking breaks."

But with so many more groups vying for space as the community grows, it's a waiting game.

"There's more people coming here, they want to have more activities and it's really not that big of a community centre. We'll see what we can hopefully fit in and get our spot back," Slawson added.

District response

In response to this story, the District issued the following statement:

"Our community is growing and to meet current demand and future community needs, Brennan Park Recreation Centre requires significant upgrades and renovations. The cost of expanding Brennan Park Recreation Centre will need to be funded through various ways. The District of Squamish is actively exploring innovative funding models, including sponsorships, partnerships and grants," reads the statement.  

The spokesperson added that the District is focused on meeting current needs while a funding model to expand and upgrade the Recreation Centre is developed. 

"We recognize user groups in our community, particularly our Minor Hockey and skate club and men's and women's hockey user groups, have been impacted due to an unconventional programming year. We thank them for their patience and look forward to welcoming everyone back on the ice."