By Dave Leaderhouse
A lot has changed since the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League last played a meaningful hockey game.
Just over seven months ago the first round of the 2019-20 playoffs were coming to a close with the Flin Flon Bombers being the lone team to have secured a spot in the final four. While the other three quarter-final match-ups were preparing to play the fifth games in their respective series, the NBA shutdown operations following a positive test of the Coronavirus and the next day the NHL followed suit citing safety concerns for players and fans.
Within 48 hours the governing bodies in various Canadian hockey leagues did the same and SJHL president Bill Chow says since then everything has been in limbo as the world tries to get a grip on a pandemic that has been almost unprecedented.
“Back in March the thought process was that we would be starting again,” explains Chow. “The governors were focused on their individual teams, but it wasn’t long before the reality was that this wasn’t going to be a short virus situation.”
“There were countless meetings with the Canadian Hockey League and Hockey Canada and by the end of May or early June the focus was ‘what are we going to do to be ready for next year’”, added Chow.
The cancellation of the 2019/20 playoffs was hurtful for a number of reasons, but none was more apparent than the financial strain put on the teams and the league in general. The playoffs are generally the time of season when teams generate most of their revenue and from a league perspective there was advertising money left on the table that can’t be recovered.
Rules put in place by provincial health organizations to try and curb the spread of the virus, along with the overall economic impact of the pandemic, severely limited – if not eliminated – the opportunity for teams to hold fundraising events, something that is a livelihood for financial success of Junior “A” franchises.
“There was a significant loss of revenue due to resources lost,” says Chow, who estimates the league itself has lost somewhere around $300,000 in dropped revenue. “There has been a significant cost to all teams especially with the loss of the playoffs.”
The league fell into a wait-and-see approach and when some professional leagues started moving ahead with their new schedules during the summer things started getting rolling for the SJHL.
“We were obviously working very closely with the Saskatchewan government, but when the Western Hockey League created its back-to-play protocols we were fortunate the WHL shared that with us,” says Chow. “We started to make a plan and about six weeks ago each team had to come up with its own list of protocols.”
These lists were to detail what each club would do regarding player checks, sanitization of equipment and facilities along with travel plans and fan safety should the latter be permitted.
“Each team has different circumstances, but the main focus had to be safety,” says Chow. “One of the main reasons we are where we are is that the number of cases in the province is still not very high. We all just hope to get this under control sooner than later.”
When the provincial government approved the league’s plan, a condensed pre-season and regular-season schedule was put in place and with strict guidelines such as a maximum limit of 150 fans per game and regular player checks to be conducted, meaningful hockey returns this weekend.
“At times it has felt like one step forward and five steps backward, but I think overall it is a pretty reserved mood right now,” says Chow. “We have to learn to crawl, then walk and hopefully it becomes a sprint leading into a marathon.”
“The coaches, along with myself, are excited to get things going,” adds Chow. “The finances are somewhat worrisome, but we have to do our utmost to make sure the fans, players and staff don’t get sick. We have the guidelines in place; now is not the time to be complacent.”
A full slate of games opens the season this weekend and if everything continues to progress the way it is hoped, then possibly more fans will be allowed to attend games in the not-so-distant future. Everyone is wanting a return to normalcy and the SJHL is hoping this a big step in that direction.