It speaks to the weirdness of 2020 that minor hockey in the Sea to Sky is getting underway the same week as the NHL handed out the Stanley Cup.
This season is set to look a little bit different, though, according to Squamish Minor Hockey Association president Chris Green.
“Things are very different this year, of course with the pandemic, for everybody, but specifically for us in the sports world, there’s been a great collaborative effort with member associations,” he said. “Everyone’s rowing in the same direction so that kids can play hockey in a safe manner.”
Green credited collaboration between the Pacific Coast Amateur Hockey Association (PCAHA) programs, which met regularly throughout the pandemic, for sharing ideas and helping to facilitate a safe return to play, which kicked off in Squamish on Sept. 28.
In terms of registration numbers, Green said the number of players is holding steady compared to 2019-20 while noting that prior years typically saw 7% to 8% growth. Speaking on Sept. 25, he added that registration was still open and players were eligible to withdraw.
One challenge, at least in the early going, is that restrictions limit the number of people on the ice to 15, and that will likely take the form of 13 players and two coaches at a time, Green said. While it means players have less time physically on the ice, he anticipates a trade off where the time is better spent, especially at younger levels where there can be “chaotic” situations of 30 to 40 players on the ice at a time.
“Now you’ve got to split those groups into two or three ice times. A team will actually see a little less ice than they would in previous years, but at the same time, there’s less kids on the ice, and there’s a better coach-to-kid ratio, so we’re hoping that even with a dip in ice … the development will be about the same or could even see some improvement,” he said.
Green added that the association has maintained its ice-time levels, even picking some extra early-season slots.
“We’ve actually picked up a little more ice this year, although we’ll lose parts of that as we get into the season,” he said.
When gameplay resumes, teams will form small four-team cohorts and play within those for three weeks, then take a two-week break before forming new cohorts.
There are some changes to the Sea to Sky Bears program, which saw both its bantam and midget teams qualify for their respective provincial tournaments before they were cancelled because of COVID-19. The Bears hosted players from both the Squamish and Whistler minor hockey associations.
This year, there will be no U18 team, but there will be two U15 squads.
There were a handful of reasons that the program was suspended, at the older level, for the 2020-21 season.
Firstly, without another rep team, the program created logjams further down the line in both communities.
“It’s really unfortunate that things didn’t come together for the U18 program. What it meant for Squamish is we didn’t have enough kids at that age group to have our own ‘A’ team,” Green said.
In Whistler, meanwhile, the house team could not dress all the players on its roster.
“What that resulted in was a really uncomfortable situation in the house teams for both organizations where they were oversubscribed,” Whistler Minor Hockey Association president Joe Baker said. “We had up to 30 skaters … We couldn’t even dress everybody to play games, so those kids had to go on a rotation and they weren’t getting a sufficient amount of ice.”
Complicating issues were that there was little interest in making a combined house league team between Whistler and Squamish and even if there was, having enough goaltenders would likely be an issue.
“Their lives are a little busier,” he said. “There was no interest in sharing a team, having a third house team that would be shared between Squamish and Whistler.
“The kids wanted to play with their friends and we were hearing from our board members who were most closely associated with that age level, they talked to their families, and there just didn’t seem to be the interest.”
In a letter of understanding to BC Hockey, which was approved by the Squamish association and the PCAHA, the WMHA expressed interest in bringing the U18 program back in future years provided that there is a second rep team.
“There’s a full intention to resume that program next year if we can get all the pieces in place,” Green said. “We are excited that the U15 level is going ahead and it looks like there will be two strong teams there.”
Several players from last year’s program signed on with Jr. ‘B’ or AAA teams across the province. This year’s Squamish U18s looking to play rep are auditioning for teams in either Whistler or West Vancouver.