The puck stops here

After darkened arenas for two years, a glimmer of hope for local hockey and its fans

By Mike Puffer

Photo: William McGinn.

It was several days of exciting special events, community profiles, and reasons to display important bits of local history and culture – but it was so much more. That’s because the game of ice hockey has resonated profoundly in our community for more than a century.

When the Rogers Hometown Hockey festival rolled into Lindsay last fall, our area received national exposure. Hometown Hockey presented the opportunity for local sports fans to celebrate a deep, rich hockey history and culture that Lindsay has proudly built, preserved and nurtured.

During the event, and in the days leading up to it, we naturally honoured locally-produced players whose names are engraved on the Stanley Cup. However, just as important was the acknowledgment of this community’s hockey roots that reach throughout all levels of play. After all, minor hockey leagues are where every player starts. They also give local fans and supporters great entertainment and reason to cheer with pride and enthusiasm.

So, we decorated storefronts and homes with displays of hockey memorabilia. We proudly waved the flag of hockey tradition and excitement for the future. We stood in the cold rain at the Lindsay Recreation Complex parking lot as Sportsnet told viewers nationwide about our hockey heritage. We cheered our wet, sopping lungs out to show our community spirit to the entire country. And then, in the first few weeks of the 2021-22 hockey season, we returned – as allowed under COVID protocols – with pleasure to hockey arenas across the City of Kawartha Lakes to revel in a new season of play. It didn’t matter whether we cheered on our local junior squads, our travelling all-star teams, or to encourage our atoms, peewees and all ages of recreational minor league play. It just felt so downright great to be back in the arena after the challenging conditions that led to shutdowns, attempted start-ups, and more lockdowns since the spring of 2020.

Photo: William McGinn.

Then, just as it seemed that hockey fans could dare to consider that a tiny sense of normalcy was returning to their sport after COVID had compromised operations for so long, things crashed to a halt. COVID lockdowns meant that public arenas and hockey leagues got shut down. Again.

By the end of the 2021 calendar year, local arenas were dark and silent. Just as they had been for so many months since lockdowns came into play the previous year, leagues at all levels were affected for the second consecutive year. It was discouraging for participants, and depressing for fans, families and supporters. It was not what anyone wanted, but regulations called for the suspension of play, just like in 2020.

Teams did what they could to provide ice time for players to keep sharp, but guidelines and restrictions were imposing, requiring steps such as:

  • Limiting teams to split squad practices and exhibition games
  • Wearing N-95 masks under helmets and visors
  • Limiting the number of people attending games
  • No showering at the arena after games
  • Having to change into hockey equipment outside the arena
  • Arriving no earlier than 15 minutes prior to the start of games
  • Disinfecting team benches and dressing rooms after every use
  • Limiting the number of players per dressing room
  • Screening people who were allowed to attend games and requiring people to sign in for tracking purposes
  • Playing minor hockey games with 3-on-3 or 4-on-4 matches in an effort to give youngsters at least a bit of playing time
  • Being unable to get into closed arenas to empty out lockers and retrieve equipment

Though such strict COVID protocol practices were not unique to our country, there’s been a certain resilience displayed by those affected that can only be described as “Made in Canada.”

Steve Trumbull, coach and general manager of the Little Britain Merchants Junior C hockey club, knows all too well about recovering from challenging circumstances.

Photo: William McGinn.

“Only in Canada would we be able to handle such rules and protocols that COVID brought on us, and come out stronger in the end,” he said when discussing the conditions that his team, along with those at many different levels, have had to cope with the last two seasons. The Merchants are enjoying one of their most successful seasons in many years in the Provincial Junior Hockey League. As of the end of February, the team was in first place in its division and Trumbull had high hopes for the Merchants in the playoffs. After a month-long shutdown prior to Christmas, the league began play again in the new year under protocols necessitated for public events.

With an excellent record and a roster comprised mostly of local players, the Merchants are now drawing strong, supportive crowds to their games. With recent further loosening of public guidelines for events such as hockey games, more fans are expected for what the team hopes is a long and successful playoff run this spring.

Similar optimism exists with the Junior A Lindsay Muskies. The Ontario Junior Hockey League team is playing well and is in playoff contention with a month or so to go in the season. After the past few years of less-than-stellar results on the ice, Muskie coach Brendan O’Grady and president Sal Polito feel good about the team’s current chances, and are especially optimistic for the 2022-23 season. Though several Muskies moved on with non-hockey priorities when the initial shutdown came into effect in the 2020-21 season, this year’s team has impressed the coach. “We want to make the playoffs this year, but we will definitely challenge for top spot in our division next year,” O’Grady says.

When protocols were first enacted, some players grumbled, but team officials made it clear that if they wanted to play, they had to accept new rules.

“The players get it. They have been great to be careful, to follow protocols whether they’re at the rink or at school and in the community, because they want to play,” O’Grady says.

“We have worked with the City’s protocols, and everybody from the City to the staff at the arena have been great through this. The league itself has been excellent with its guidelines and protocols and has worked hard to ensure that we get a full schedule,” despite having to suspend play for a few weeks,” Polito explains. “We worked through COVID with a whole different attitude than the general public. Safety protocols and measures that were initiated were even more cautious and strict than those that the general public had to follow.”

Parents of minor hockey players were faced with situations never anticipated when they enrolled their youngsters a couple of years ago. With the first enaction of protocols in 2020, a maximum of 40 people were allowed into the arena, Paul Duncan of the Lindsay Minor Hockey Association points out. “That included players, coaches and officials, so that didn’t leave much room at all for parents and family to come to games. But we have had a great group of people helping with everything, which has been really appreciated.”

Though there was a “normal” start to the 2021 season in the fall, and minor hockey executive members went above and beyond screening protocols, some youngsters elected not to play this year. Games were once again shut down for a month and only resumed in February. All players 12 and older must be vaccinated, according to Ontario Minor Hockey Association mandates.

Despite all the challenges in terms of crowd limitations up to the present, the public has strongly supported the game.

“Our fan base has grown this year and will increase even more if we make the playoffs,” Polito adds.

“People are definitely finding a way to come to the rink and watch and support us,” says O’Grady. “As much as COVID challenges have been bad news, it’s been good for people to come together around the team, to rally for the club and the community. We have reason to be positive about the future.”

A local sports fan remembers a time, not too long ago, when Friday nights in the winter meant Lindsay Muskies games at the old Kiwanis Arena on Russell Street. Saturday nights would be spent at the Little Britain Community Centre for Merchants contests. The games provided not only good entertainment value, but were important elements of many fans’ social lives.

All participants, teams and fans have been through a lot in the last two years. Now, as glimmers of hope give people reason to be optimistic about hockey’s future here, perhaps more people like that above-mentioned fan will consider heading out to games once again.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.