Members of the Indus Minor Hockey Association (IMHA) gathered at the hamlet’s recreation centre Jan. 26 to protest continued restrictions that prevent team sports from being played in Alberta.
Dozens of youth hockey players, along with a few of their parents and coaches, donned their team sweaters and hoisted signs in the rec centre’s parking lot, with messages like ‘Let us play!’ and ‘We want hockey!’ emblazoned on them.
“Our kids are going out there and they’ll stand six feet apart with masks on, so everything is totally safe, but they want to have their voices heard,” said Chantelle Unger, a mother of three IMHA players and the director of fundraising for the club.
“Their signs say what they want to say – each kid made their own sign – but they just want to play hockey or whatever sport they’re in. There are some figure skaters and ringette players and stuff like that out there as well, who want to play.”
The Indus event was one of several "Let them play" rallies that took place in Alberta Jan. 26, in addition to similar protests in Medicine Hat, Vulcan, Bow Island and Bentley.
Unger, who lives in Langdon, said the goal of the protests is to call on the provincial government to gradually ease restrictions that pertain to youth team sports.
“I understand maybe playing different towns isn’t feasible, but at least letting one team practice together would be great – anything to get them together, doing things and feeling like normal children,” she said. “With regards to other sports as well, it’s the same thing. My daughters are in dance and they can’t go in the studio to dance with their teachers. Have you ever tried to do a dance over Zoom? It’s not easy.”
The rally took place less than a week after IMHA sent a letter to parents that the club would not be able to continue the 2020-21 season, regardless of the status of team sports in Alberta, due to financial impacts associated with maintaining the ice at the Bill Heron Arena. According to IMHA’s website, the association includes 13 teams and approximately 170 players.
“We realize that this decision is upsetting and not what anyone wanted,” the letter stated. “We do feel we made the best decision for our members.
“In the coming weeks we will be sending out information regarding what credits/refunds will look like. Please be patient as we navigate through this process.”
Hockey and other team sports across the province were put on hiatus indefinitely in November 2020, as the second wave of COVID-19 in Alberta resulted in a huge spike in cases.
The two-plus months of inactivity since then have had a detrimental impact on youth mental health, according to Unger.
“It’s been a long time,” she said. “I know with my kids specifically, they’ve just sort of lost their drive, and that’s huge. But I’ve even heard a few stories come out of the woodwork in the last few weeks about kids actually having mental health breakdowns. My friend has a son in the hospital right now because he had a mental health breakdown, and he doesn’t have a bed because they’re so busy.
“We’re looking at long-term effects. All these kids, they’re our future. What are we doing to them? It’s not OK.”
Among the attendees at the rally was Roman Jensen, who plays for the Indus Hurricanes’ U15 B team. The 13-year-old said it has been tough to go through winter without being able to play his favourite sport.
“My life is built around hockey,” he said. “I’m a pretty athletic guy and hockey has made my life. I’ve loved hockey since I was a little boy and I’ve followed it every single year.”
Jensen said the cancellation of hockey has had a considerable impact on his daily life. Thus, he added he was pleased to see the turnout at the Jan. 25 event.
“It shows a lot of people really love hockey, and spirits get down when people don’t let us play, while a lot of other things are open,” he said. “[It seems] kids’ athleticism is not very important.”
Another rally attendee was Calgarian Lorne Heppner, a grandparent who helps coach IMHA’s U13 teams.
“[The players] are asking them to loosen some of the restrictions, because the evidence doesn’t necessarily say if it’s working or not working,” he said. “There are other areas that have suffered, like mental health, so this is a request to reconsider the impact on other aspects of our social wellbeing.”