Manitoulin Panthers prepare for limited season

Manitoulin Panthers

LITTLE CURRENT – The introductory rep-level Manitoulin Panthers Hockey Association is preparing to run a modified season to comply with COVID-19 health policies, one that will take place entirely on-Island and consist of games played among fellow Island league members once Northeast Town council okays the association for use of its arena.

“This year is just about offering a program that is going to develop the kids’ skills very well because we’re not really able to introduce that competition. We appreciate our members’ and our parents’ and our players’ patience through it all,” said Tamey McAllister, president of the Panthers.

This season will be very different from an average year, with an exclusively local schedule.

“We’re having no travel whatsoever, just playing within our own ranks. We’ve come up with a plan that will let us make small teams and play three-on-three hockey within our divisions. Hopefully when we hit the ice we still have the same numbers, because there is some worry from parents as the cases increase,” she said. 

Modifications to this year’s season began in the registration process. Guidelines stipulated that hockey associations could not hold tryouts, so this year’s program was available to previous players only.

“We had about 85 percent of our players return, so it’s about 45 members across the three age groups—U11 (previously atom), U13 (previously peewee) and U15 (previously bantam),” said Ms. McAllister.

Hockey leagues are limited to 50 participants, per Hockey Canada restrictions. The younger two groups have enough players for three teams and the U15 division has enough for three teams within itself. 

Further restrictions limit the number of people within the building to a maximum of 50, a number that includes staff and family spectators. Indoor gathering limits have put a strain on the normal feel of the hockey season.

“When we have practices, it’s okay to have the parents of the children in the arena. But when it comes to games, we might have to limit it to one parent per child to make sure there’s no more than 50 people under the roof at one time. But we’re not quite there yet because things keep changing day by day,” said Ms. McAllister.

Panthers players are normally on the ice in September but this has been delayed because of proposed ice-in dates.

In an average year, the Panthers will enter a team into the Nickel District Hockey League, based in Sudbury. About half of the team’s games are played in locations from Elliot Lake to Blind River to Sudbury.

That league will not exist this year, however, and all of the individual associations will formulate their own plans. 

U11 and U13 teams normally play 24 games per season while U15 teams play 28. Total game numbers are still undecided this year; the league has to follow a ratio of two practices per game and the amount of time in their season will dictate their ultimate number.

Hockey Canada told local associations this year that, in order to run their programs, they would have to limit travel and limit cost to families. The Panthers elected to set their fees for an eight-week block of play time, with fees covering ice rental only. This greatly reduced the fees from their typical levels, which normally include the costs of tournament registration and apparel.

Manitoulin Secondary School (MSS) has cancelled all of its fall sports, including hockey, which caused a rise in interest for the Panthers teams. Players cannot compete in rep and high school hockey at the same time.

The association could not find a volunteer coach for the upper age group, though, so plans for that team ultimately failed.

Ms. McAllister acknowledged that this will be a tough year for the individuals who have to be mindful of the public health restrictions, as well as those who will have to monitor to ensure everyone is staying safe. She said she felt the frustration from members who were focused on getting back to playing hockey.

“I do think that in the future, we’ll be fine,” she said. “We’re lucky; hockey is a sport that’s loved by all.”

Further details about the Panthers’ season will emerge once organizers confirm the status of ice availability.

Manitoulin Minor Hockey Association (MMHA)’s winter season registration closed on Friday, September 18, but news on how the season will unfold remains a mystery pending municipalities’ confirmation on when they will be installing ice in their arenas.

MMHA plans to follow a three-on-three format as well; now that they have finalized registration numbers they will work with the Northern Ontario Hockey Association to make up leagues.

The Municipality of Central Manitoulin debated plans to only open one of its two arenas—leaving the Mindemoya facility closed while offering ice in Providence Bay. The council has since decided to delay the decision to allow for consultation at a public meeting to be held by ZOOM and slated for tonight, Wednesday, September 30. Those wishing to attend must contact the town office.