Northeast Town pulls arena ice


Figure skating, hockey seasons uncertain

MANITOULIN – Minor hockey on Manitoulin had a tumultuous few days last week, with executives voting to extend the season on Tuesday followed by a Thursday notice that the Northeast Town would be removing the ice from its arena for the season, pending future demand.

“It’s obviously terrible news but completely understandable. I think right now all the communities are in a holding pattern,” said Mike Zegil, president of Manitoulin Minor Hockey Association (MMHA).

The hockey season is presently on pause because of the provincial stay-at-home order and extended lockdowns banning indoor gatherings.

MMHA has not staged any games since mid-December, when a handful of cases in a Mindemoya family prompted a shutdown until the new year. During that break, Ontario re-entered lockdown.

This past week, the MMHA executive met and voted to support continuing the hockey season from when the current restrictions end, on February 11, to March 21 (it normally ends in early March). Two days later, they found out the Little Current rink would likely be out of commission when they are ready to resume.

“The financial burden on the communities is real and we completely understand that, but we just want to try and give kids hockey if possible. We’re willing to be adaptable and flexible as much as possible,” Mr. Zegil said.

Last Thursday, January 14, Ontario Premier Doug Ford enacted a stay-at-home order to slow COVID-19 transmission rates, a measure that will stand until at least February 11. 

The new restrictions prompted the Northeast Town to notify MMHA on January 14 that it would start the ice-removal process the following day, January 15.

“The decision was predicated on the fact that, with the provincial orders in place, the ice wouldn’t be used for the next month at a minimum. The second element is we’ve had conversations with Manitoulin Health Centre (MHC) regarding the situation and the potential need to activate the field hospital,” Northeast Town CAO Dave Williamson told The Expositor.

Portions of the Little Current-Howland Recreation Centre have been turned into a field hospital to handle less-severe COVID-19 patients, should there be an influx on the Island.

The facility is now in a 48-hour standby state, meaning if there is a need to activate the centre it can be operational within two days. Ice removal can take up to a few days, said Mr. Williamson.

Many ice user groups told the Northeast Town that they would try to resume operations as soon as possible, but the uncertainty of future restrictions and the costs of maintaining an unused rink led the town to shut it down.

“Nobody should be surprised when we need to take steps, in the face of a provincial emergency, to respond to uncertain circumstances,” Mr. Williamson said.

Other Island municipalities are debating what to do with their ice surfaces. At a recent Central Manitoulin meeting, council agreed to wait a couple of weeks before deciding what to do with the ice in the Mindemoya arena, though some councillors expressed interest in closing both sites. The municipality has shuttered the Providence Bay ice surface for the season.

If the other townships keep their ice in place, said Mr. Zegil, his organization would try to schedule times for the Little Current teams at other venues.

The Manitoulin Panthers organization is also in a holding pattern at the present moment, waiting to see what other municipalities will do before determining whether to cancel the season.

Mr. Zegil said there may be frustration in the hockey world because the kids are missing out on socializing and exercise, but parents have been very understanding and the community associations have been actively sharing information with them.

Any fee adjustments will happen at the community level. If the lockdown ends and there is not enough ice available, Mr. Zegil said MMHA may try to explore activities such as ball hockey or other ways to keep active similar to the original game.

“It’s hard when I look at my daughter, knowing that hockey is one of her favourite things in the world, and saying ‘sorry, we have to hang up the skates for a while’,” said Mr. Zegil, extending his thanks to the participants, families and volunteers who have tried to make the season as successful as possible. 

“It really demonstrates what a group of committed people can do when they are all working together. We wouldn’t have gotten half as far as we did this year if it wasn’t for all their hard work and effort,” he said.

Skate Canada Manitoulin cancelled

The rink closure will also impact the Island’s Skate Canada Manitoulin programs, which take place in Little Current. Head coach Abbie Drolet said she was grateful for the eight-week fall session and that her group was not certain that they would have been able to skate at all in early 2021. She gave thanks to the municipal crews that made the ice available earlier in the winter.

“Happily, we live in the North and once it gets cold enough, water will freeze somewhere. We may get to skate outside. We would not have formal programming but at least we would get some exercise and have fun,” she told The Expositor.

Depending on when the lockdown ends, the team does have some tentative ice time booked in Manitowaning for smaller sessions. This, too, is contingent on the Township of Assiginack maintaining the ice in its arena.

The Northeast Town may possibly open its outdoor rink behind the recreation centre. This will depend on outdoor gathering restrictions and weather conditions. Up until now, temperatures have been too warm to consistently maintain an outdoor ice sheet, said Mr. Williamson.

The decision on that rink will be made closer to the end of restrictions, he said. The township may also consider re-installing the indoor ice at that time, if enough user groups come forward to cover the costs of that process.