Training camp for junior hockey players has never looked like this. Players putting on their hockey equipment in parking lots, wearing masks into rinks, carrying helmets, skates and sticks and then sitting six feet apart along the lower rows of the stands to fully get dressed for practice before taking to the ice. This is the new safety standard for hockey players as dressing rooms are off limits in the COVID-19 pandemic world that we are living in.
It’s all quite bizarre to watch as the Pembroke Lumber Kings experience a training camp like none other in their storied history, but the team’s coach Alex Armstrong is trying to keep things positive as he works to evaluate the crop of about 40 players who have shown up for this year’s camp. “It was different having players get dressed outside, walking into the facility with masks. However we are all very happy to be back on the ice,” says Armstrong.
The Central Canada Hockey League is still hoping to start its regular season on October 1st and so the league has given its clubs the green light to get back on the ice. The Lumber Kings have been skating and practicing at PEM ICE ll for the past couple of weeks, but they have been doing so in isolation. Only players, coaches and a few rink attendants are allowed in the building, parents and supporters denied the opportunity to be inside because of restrictions imposed by the municipality and team to ensure public safety.
All of the players were tested for the COVID-19 virus prior to participating in camp. Team captain Cameron Hough says as much as that wasn’t a pleasant experience, it was necessary to keep everyone safe within the bubble that the Lumber Kings have created. Hough has also been trying to find ways to build connections with the new and returning players. “I’ve set up a chat room and we’ve done some outdoor things like golf, paint ball and basketball,” says Hough, but he admits it’s been challenging.
More than half of the players in camp will not make the team. Some have already been sent home. Armstrong knows he has more time to make his selections this year with the delayed start to this season so he is taking the opportunity to have a good look. He also has a large group of returning players meaning competition for additional spots is stiff.
“Everyone is aware of the rules and we have followed them accordingly, but there is really not much difference once we hit the ice,” says Armstrong with one big exception. There is to be no body contact, but players are expected to compete hard for loose pucks. In a contact sport, that’s an adjustment for some players, particularly those who play a rugged game and embrace the physicality that happens along the boards.
While training camps are underway, there remains a lot of questions unanswered as the Lumber Kings and the other 11 teams in the CCHL await word on a schedule for the 2020-21 campaign. League Commissioner Kevin Abrams has indicated that until the province goes beyond stage three of its re-opening plan it will be very difficult for junior hockey to be played. The Ontario Hockey League has announced it doesn’t plan to kick off its season until December 1st, partly because of the challenges it faces with having three teams in the United States, but the Quebec Major Junior League has the same intentions as the CCHL, starting in October.
The CCHL had hoped to release its schedule by mid-August, but slowly the calendar is moving towards September. So for now, the practices will continue with the hopes that in a little over a month the puck will drop on a new season. But, like training camp, it might look very different from what the players, coaches and fans are used to. It’s the reality of trying to play Canada’s national sport during a pandemic, but for the players, they’re just happy to be back on the ice.