Minor hockey association pauses until new year

Mindemoya and Manitowaning U18 players scrimmage in three-on-three fashion last month. photo by Jackie White

MANITOULIN – Manitoulin Minor Hockey Association (MMHA) has suspended all games until the new year after a recent cluster of COVID-19 cases in Mindemoya, with a hopeful return date of January 4 as long as case levels resolve.

“We’re sad to have to shut down but we completely understand why it had to happen. I don’t think anybody is fighting to get (hockey) to come back before it’s safe for us to do so,” said MMHA president Mike Zegil. “We want it to be a safe, fun, healthy activity for the kids and give them something to do during the restrictions. We hope we’ll come back sooner than later.” 

A cluster of five COVID-19 cases emerged in the District of Manitoulin during the first weekend of December, many of which were in Mindemoya. Nearly immediately, the Mindemoya Thunder Hockey Association suspended all games and practices until after the Christmas break, at which point the group would re-evaluate its situation.

The MMHA executive had a meeting already scheduled for the following evening, December 8, at which the board decided that the best course of action would be to suspend games (and, by extension, inter-community travel) until the new year. Each club would decide for itself whether to continue practicing or not.

“The sad part of it is that, having adopted the three-on-three format and all the COVID restrictions, we were finally getting the league up and running and the kids were having a great time. There was a lot of laughter in the arenas and we were witnessing lots of good hockey and some great examples of sportsmanship between the teams,” said Mr. Zegil.

After the full shutdown in Mindemoya, Little Current suspended practices for a week, Manitowaning continued with its practice schedule and Gore Bay had intended to continue practicing before the municipality closed down the arena later in the week.

The association normally pauses for Christmas in line with school closure dates.

“If things are going well, we’ll try and get the season going again as of January 4. Once again, it depends on the comfort of the communities and the situation on the Island,” said Mr. Zegil. “The first thing we want is for everybody to be safe and healthy. The MMHA doesn’t want to be a source of anxiety or fear for anyone in the community.”

The associations that are able to do so will likely hold an occasional practice during the Christmas break.

The 2021 portion of the season remains uncertain. At this point, a playoff period is not likely to take place and organizers are deciding whether to add additional games or end the season at the usual time around March Break

“The focus of this year has been kids having fun, getting exercise and developing hockey skills,” said Mr. Zegil.

He said this has been a unique year in many ways, including how the teams have addressed player shortages. Ordinarily, local players would get called up (from a U13 team to a U15 team, for instance) locally to fill in for an absent player. Due to Northern Ontario Hockey Association’s directive to not mix cohorts, players have instead stayed within the same age division and filled in from other towns.

“It’s kind of neat because these kids normally only got to play against each other but now they’re getting the chance to play on each other’s teams. It’s a bit of a unique situation but we’re hearing positive things about that,” said Mr. Zegil.

He also cited exceptional displays of good conduct, such as teams that decided to switch goalies in the middle of a particularly lopsided game or an opposing teammate volunteering to sub in as a goalie for the opponents who lacked their own that night.

“I’d really like to thank all the associations and all the volunteers for the hard work they’ve put into getting this season off the ground. They’ve really gone above and beyond to provide a safe hockey environment for the kids to be able to play and get a bit of relief from all of the COVID stuff,” Mr. Zegil concluded.