By Darren Lum
This story was filed prior to the provincial announcement related to further measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19. A follow-up article about the latest development will appear in a future edition.
The Highland Storm Minor Hockey Association did all it could to ensure hockey was played this year, president of the Highland Storm Minor Hockey Association Jason Morissette said. Disappointed by the result of the provincial lockdown, which has caused a postponement to the second session of the Storm’s 2020-2021 year, Morissestte said there are no regrets about the hundreds of hours already invested by the many volunteers to enable the start and the completion of the first session.
“A heck of a lot of work went into getting this going. Obviously, I feel bad for the kids, the players because they’re not allowed to start the second session right off the hop, right? And then just looking, I guess the hard part is we always knew … when we were planning and doing things, getting things really organized and putting in all that work certainly the questions were, ‘Gee, you know, man, it would be kind of crummy, if we do all this work, all these meetings and all the hours we’re putting in, and all of a sudden it gets cancelled,’” he said. “However, the response obviously too is that, but we might not get cancelled.”
The 28-day provincial lockdown started on Dec. 26 and it has halted all activities at the A.J. LaRue Arena in Haliburton, including minor hockey until Jan. 23. With rising COVID-19 cases in the province, lockdown is likely to continue and jeopardize the Storm from starting its second season.
The president offered a silver lining to this situation.
The Storm’s executive committee, its volunteers such as COVID leads, coaches, managers and trainers, the players and their guardians and parents did everything they could to get the year started, which included the first session that ended with the start of school winter holidays, he said. Added to the Storm’s challenges included a lost week during the first season to an unforeseen water break at the arena.
Morissette said the focus for this year has always been on what was within the control of the executive and its volunteers and not on what might happen.
“If you’re not prepared and we’re not ready to go and we don’t have a product organized and do all that work, then basically you’re giving up, and saying, ‘no season at all.’ Of course, like anything, we can’t ever feel really bad ourselves about it because it’s out of our control. It’s not personally something we’ve done or that we didn’t do from the hockey point of view, the association,” he said.
He adds the committee acknowledges the frustration being felt by players, their parents and guardians, volunteers, and the coaches in light of the lockdown. However, this is bigger than Haliburton, as it’s being felt across the province and within all areas of organized sport.
“But everybody is going to be frustrated that is doing recreational stuff everywhere right now because everything organized is basically on hold for 28 days,” he said, referring to hearing about the lockdown initially.
Morissette said this could be an opportunity for players to spend time outdoors, building and playing on rinks to have fun and build skills.
“Just like it was back when I was a kid, right? Maybe we’ll see people out there. Again, it’s going to be kind of lonely though because you can’t phone up 10 buddies and say, ‘let’s go play shinny’ because you’re not allowed to do that. But you can certainly be out there with your siblings, or with your parent, dad, or mom, or whatever. Out there skating, practising your skills and your shot,” he said.
This was part of the training that helped the area’s most well-known and established hockey players, he added. Retired NHL players from this area include Ron Stackhouse and Bernie Nicholls. Current NHLer Matt Duchene is well-known for how his home workouts and daily shooting drills at his childhood Haliburton home contributed to his achievements.
The president said before the postponement to the second session there was a coaches’ meeting to acquire feedback about how to improve the player experience for the second season.
He estimates close to 85 per cent of the feedback about the first season was positive, but one area to improve was to provide greater motivation for the highest skilled players, particularly with the under-11 players. The skill disparity between players created a situation when the higher calibre players were disengaged. When and, if, a second season is held, players of equal skill and ability will play together for games. Another consideration would be to add four-on-four games to age categories younger than midget-aged players (midget-aged players were already playing four-on-four) instead of the three-on-three games, which were held in the first session. This wasn’t considered possible in the first session, Morissette said, because of added costs and a shortage of available officials in the province. This situation hasn’t changed, but officials are now open to refereeing the games without a partner as a “pilot project.” He expects feedback from officials on its long-term viability when games resume. He’s seen other hockey associations hold “organized scrimmage” games when a coach would referee the game.
Laying the ground work down to have a year was important not just for the present, but for the future of hockey in the community, Morissette said.
“The No. 1 goal was to keep us together. To keep our association united and together. Keep our numbers together and keep our numbers strong,” he said.
He adds there has been some hockey associations in the province that haven’t even started a season. In some of those places, he said, there has been a steady decline for player registration over the years. The pandemic has accelerated further decline. Part of the challenge for minor hockey associations such as the Storm has included staying relevant to all players, beginners, novices, intermediate and advanced. This means keeping players interested in playing with COVID-19 restrictions, which has included the elimination of travel for competitive play.
The return of the Storm for the second session of the year was supposed to have coincided with the return from winter holidays for students in the first week of January. Morissette said 95 per cent of the players were expected to return. He said this is owed to the hard work by the Storm and listening to the volunteer coaches.
Everybody involved has done their best to make hockey work this season in the face of COVID-19 restrictions. The message to everyone volunteering involved during this year is clear.
“Hey, we’re planning and keeping together, and we’re trying to keep our skill set together. We’re trying to keep our membership, our players and volunteers together in hope that in the fall we’re back to some type of hockey that you’re more used to,” Morissette said.
A lesson taken from session one was for transparency related to decision making despite any perceived inefficiency.
“Coming into session two we wanted to basically get more feedback from the volunteers. Get more feedback in terms of being more transparent on planning stuff so it makes practical sense as well to give ownership to the programming to the coaches,” he said.
The open-minded attitude adopted by everyone involved this hockey year has been a positive aspect that can’t be downplayed.
“The coaches and volunteers, the association and the refs too. They’re being open minded and that’s really good. In hockey, that’s not easy. You got a lot of people used to a certain way,” he said, referencing the high level of organization for hockey.
He recognizes not everyone will be happy, but the association is striving to do its best despite the odds.
Shared with coaches, the Storm’s “no return” date for a second session is Feb. 15.
“Really, for all the work and all the planning, all the stuff that would have to go into it, to turn around and go and do four weeks just wouldn’t be practical. We certainly do not want to have to do that. We’re hoping that this lockdown works and makes a difference and we can come out of this,” he said. “The extra time length in there is something we would have to go and see what the OMHA [Ontario Minor Hockey Association] is going to do because they have dates they have there. So, we’d have to go and see what they’re doing like a season extension.”
Morissette said if there isn’t a second session a refund will be given or the second session’s fees will be carried over to the next season.
If the lockdown ends as scheduled, then the second session will start with practices during the week, followed by games. There is hope for a second session this year.
“It will be a very happy day if the 28 days ends and we get to do a second season. Again, all the work,” Morissette said.