Just one year after their comeback to the Central Interior Hockey League (CIHL), it is not looking good for the Smithers Steelheads for a second season back.
“We have to follow the guidelines set in place by B.C. health officials and at the moment we cannot host more than 50 people in the building including officials, players, staff, volunteers and fans,” said Danielle Nixon, Steelheads operations manager. “Considering the team itself usually has 22 to 25 players, we will not meet the recommendations.”
The Steelheads went four and 12 last year and were eliminated from the playoffs in a wildcard game against the Kitimat Ice Demons.
The CIHL championship got in right under the coronavirus wire with the Quesnel Kangaroos defeating the Terrace River Kings, but the Senior Men’s AA provincial championship Coy Cup, which Quesnel was supposed to host, was cancelled.
Nixon also echoed concerns of other user groups already struggling with COVID-19 restrictions about getting sufficient ice time.
“On another note, there’s a possibility of only one rink being open,” she said. “Between 19 rink users this is going to be very hard to accommodate.”
Rob Blackburn, the Town’s manager of infrastructure and facilities, confirmed the Civic Centre is currently closed, but assured The Interior News the Town is committed to “full and uninterrupted service in both arenas.”
He said the delay in opening the Civic Centre was unavoidable.
“We are currently experiencing a staff shortage as we have had three of our five certified refrigeration plant operators (required by WorkSafe to operate the Town’s ice plants) leave the arena for other employment,” he said. “The staff shortage is affecting our ability to maintain normal and/or minimal operations. Adding the COVID cleaning protocols further hampers our efforts.”
However, he said new operators have been hired and training begins in October.
“Town staff will continue to work toward fully functioning arenas following provincial guidelines, Worksafe, Technical Safety BC legislation, and the Town’s collective agreement,” he said.
Acting mayor Casda Thomas said council is also keen to get both ice surfaces functioning and has provided additional budget to expedite the process.
“I’ve heard some people who are concerned that we’re trying to close them long-term, but that’s definitely not the case,” she said. “There is a challenge with the Civic (Centre), but we’re doing our best.”
But Ted Owens, president of Smithers Minor Hockey, said while he remains hopeful the old arena will be opened eventually, the problems go well beyond just getting the it open. He said the measures the Town has in place are overly restrictive for Phase Three of the Province’s Return to Play program.
“The Town wasn’t overly responsive over the summer while we were trying to put together a Return to Play package for Smithers Minor Hockey,” he said.
Then, last week, he said, they got the COVID-19 procedures from the Town.
“They’re very firmly in Phase Two of the Return to Play program, like we don’t have access to the dressing rooms,” he explained. “They started wanting somewhere between 90 minutes and 75 minutes between user groups, that’s now down to 45 minutes, but it’s still impacting ice.”
It means inconvenience for goaltenders, who have a hard time dressing at home and for younger kids, who might not be able to get through a session without using the bathroom it also means having to play later than they have in the past.
Furthermore, he estimates players could be looking at getting 30 per cent less ice time than they normally would have, not enough to effectively run their programs and ultimately the organization would have to look at pro-rated refunds at the end of the season.
He said all the user groups, from figure skating to old-timers hockey, are in the same boat.
“Some of the frustration stems from, we have other towns around, still under the auspices of Northern Health, and their time between groups is 10 minutes,” he said. “The rinks are laid out so you can direct traffic and have the area that the previous group was in being free of people and get that space cleaned and not have to worry that much. We’re still maintaining physical distancing between the groups, it’s just sort of traffic flow and things like that. I think those kinds of solutions are going to be necessary in order to help everybody get as normal a season as we can under COVID.”
Thomas said making sure everybody enjoys as good a season as possible is a goal council shares, but the challenge may ultimately come down to money.
“Our staff is trying to find the line between making sure there’s less time between ice times and the only way to decrease that time is to hire more staff and I would say that’s probably a conversation we should have, but it does come with pretty significant additional costs,” she said.
“Council definitely wants to see the arenas maximized as long as we’re following safety guidelines, that’s the ultimate goal, is to have as much opportunity for people to play while also doing what we have to do.”
She said council has not met directly with the user groups, but she is amenable having such conversations.