A season that hardly got going in the first place has come to a disappointing end for Airdrie’s competitive minor hockey players.
On Feb. 2, Hockey Alberta announced the cancellation of the remainder of the 2020-21 season for tiered, AA and AAA teams, due to continued public health restrictions pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The earliest hockey could return would be March 1,” Hockey Alberta said in a media release.
“Our senior leadership team has been involved in ongoing discussions on what a safe and inclusive relaunch plan could look like for our sport. Hockey Alberta will continue working with government and health officials to develop a relaunch plan that allows for hockey activities and keeps our youth active for their physical and mental well-being.”
Following that announcement, the Airdrie Minor Hockey Association announced via social media on Feb. 8 it has called off the remainder of the 2020-21 season and would be issuing refunds.
While not necessarily surprising, the announcement was still a blow for Airdrie’s youth hockey players, according to Dustin Taylor, the head coach of the CFR Chemical Bisons – the city’s top-level hockey team for U18 players.
“As soon as the announcement was made, my phone started blowing up with inquiries from players and parents,” Taylor said. “There were a lot of justified reaction coming from multiple people, and understandably so. It’s just unfortunate that cancellation was the decision that was made.”
Taylor speculated Hockey Alberta’s decision to cancel the season was due to various factors, including the difficult logistics of arranging for elite-level teams to compete against opponents from other municipalities.
“Different municipalities could have different facility restrictions, which impacts the schedule and possible coordination from team to team,” he said. “The other thing to think about, even if they want to prolong the season into the later spring months, there’s a trickle-down and domino effect on other sports that would use those facilities, like indoor soccer, lacrosse and other sports that take advantage of those facilities.”
The Bisons, who compete in the Alberta Elite Hockey League’s U18 AAA division, played just five games last fall before the 2020-21 season was postponed due to growing COVID-19 cases province-wide.
Despite a lack of games since then, at least two Bisons players have been able to impress scouts from junior A teams and sign letters of intent for next season. Sixteen-year-old forward Cody Pisarczyk has committed to the Spruce Grove Saints, while 17-year-old defenseman Will Barrett signed his LOI to suit up for the Melfort Mustangs in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League next year.
Taylor said those are just the first two of multiple Bisons players who will likely commit to junior teams in the coming weeks and months.
“I’m confident we’re still going to be able to get these kids some exposure and opportunities,” he said. “It’s great for the two kids in particular who have gotten that early recognition, with [Pisarczyk] going to Spruce Grove and [Barrett] going to Melfort. It’s exciting for those players, and it provides an element of security in a sense.”
The cancelled season also affects the Airdrie Xtreme – the city’s U15 AAA team. Head coach Tyson Soloski said it’s been a tough pill to swallow for the team’s players.
“I know all the players are extremely proud to put on that sweater and go play for the Xtreme, or wear their Xtreme gear around the community,” he said. “I think that’s been the hard part, not being able to play for the Xtreme, which is something all of them have looked forward to doing since they were eight or nine years old and set the goal of making the team.
“I think that was probably the hardest part, especially for those kids who this would have been the only year they got to be a part of the Xtreme. They didn’t get to experience all of what it can be, as they didn’t get to play the games.”
Shortly after the season was cancelled, the Alberta government announced minor and youth sports teams would be allowed to resume practices with a maximum of 10 participants, including coaches and players.