How P.E.I. minor hockey bucked national trends and pulled off provincials during a pandemic

PEI

Minor hockey players on P.E.I. might just be the only ones in Canada lacing up their skates this season for provincials and playoffs.

'This year we got to play provincials which was awesome,' says 13-year-old Petra Klimes. 'I always look forward to that, that's king of like the goal at the end of the season to win provincials.' (Cheryl Perry Photography)

Petra Klimes remembers the sound of the final buzzer at the end of her provincial championship game earlier this month.

Following a 6-0 win, the U15 AAA Central Storm hockey team was crowned Prince Edward Island's 2020-21 champions.

"We were so excited! We screamed and we threw our gloves up in the air and it was just a great experience."

The team managed to play every game this season without a single loss, said Petra, who's 13. But with COVID-19, she said there were still questions about whether or not they would get the chance to play for a championship title.

'The team was really great, we bonded well together, we worked well together and we always pushed each other to be better,' says Petra.(Cheryl Perry Photography)

"At that time, everything was going good but right before provincials we kind of had a little rough patch," she said referring to a cluster of COVID-19 cases confirmed in Charlottetown and Summerside in March.

"I was really excited we got to do provincials because last year was really disappointing."

Across Canada, just 145 hockey teams have so far had the chance to lace up for minor hockey provincials — and all of those teams are located on Prince Edward Island, according to Hockey P.E.I.

Thanks to stringent public health management and the province having controllable entry points, P.E.I. has weathered the COVID-19 pandemic so far with no deaths and no hospitalizations.

'The right decision'

It was March 10 when Hockey P.E.I. announced its bold decision to end the remainder of this year's regular season for minor hockey players on the Island.

"Looking back on it, I think we did make the right decision," said Connor Cameron, the executive director.

"It was an unpopular decision but at the end of the day, it's kind of one of those things where you just have to do what's right for the most amount of kids and the rest will come out in the wash."

'Our mandate as an organization was about the kids,' said Connor Cameron, the executive director of Hockey P.E.I. 'I think over the last year the kids are the ones that really kind of get the short end of the stick here with hockey.' (Tanner Doiron)

In the midst of a provincewide COVID-19 circuit breaker, the organization was stuck. On one hand, Cameron said, no one wants to be the person to tell kids on non-playoff teams that their season is over. On the other, provincials were slated to start March 19 and more than 250 regular season games still needed to be played.

"It wasn't possible," he said.

Then there was the issue of ice availability — specifically in rural P.E.I.

"As the weather gets warmer, the bill goes up significantly for those rinks," said Cameron.

"It's a struggle for those rinks every year, but this year especially, with a two-week shut down in December and another interruption in March — they were kind of hurting for money anyway."

My son is on the team and I know he was just dying to get the chance to play in provincials.

— Darcy Harris, coach

And to top it off, the unpredictable illness was lingering with the power to change everything in an instant.

"Say we pushed the provincials two weeks, which would give us enough time to make up the games from the circuit breaker," said Cameron.

"If we did that and there was another [COVID-19] case in the meantime, well then, maybe we would blow the chance to have our provincials and have our playoffs."

Postseason possible

Three days after the initial announcement about ending the regular season for young P.E.I. players, the province eased health restrictions and minor hockey later received the green light to go ahead with its post-season.

"No question, here on P.E.I. we played the most regular-season games out of anyone in Canada for sure, and we're definitely going to crown the most league champions in Canada," said Cameron.

For coaches like Darcy Harris with the Western Warriors U11 AA team, just finishing the season in general surpassed expectations.

"I was just glad that they were able to finish out the year, 'cause they worked so hard and learned so much," he said.

"My son is on the team and I know he was just dying to get the chance to play in provincials."

'We were fortunate'

The Western Warriors ended the regular season and provincial championships in second place.

"It was really exciting," said Harris. "It was just nice that everybody was able to get together and compete for a championship."

'It would have been easy for CPHO to just say you you're going to have that many people from different regions of the province coming together so we're just going to pull the pin on it,' says Darcy Harris. 'But they didn't.' (Submitted by Darcy Harris)

Harris knows that in some places that wasn't the case. He said one of his closest friends runs a hockey academy in Manitoba; its doors closed this year due to COVID-19.

"They never got the chance to play minor hockey at all. Here we were fortunate enough to be able to get basically a full season in and then playoffs," he said.

"That collective effort from everybody really allowed us to get that season in."

Positive impact on players

Cameron said it's too early to know the full impact continuing to play had on P.E.I. hockey players this season but he's certain it will be positive.

At the top levels, Cameron said he thinks the impact will be reflected in the QMJHL draft, "not only how high some of our kids go but possibly even the volume of kids that get picked."

And in other divisions, Cameron said the payoff is evident both on the ice and off.

"At the end of the day, when you see the pictures on social media of the kids and the coaches and — not just the trophy celebration but just the kids in and around the rinks during the provincial weekend — it's definitely worth it," he said.

"No question."

Petra was also named P.E.I.'s 2020-21 U15 AAA female top forward.(Cheryl Perry Photography)

As for 13-year-old forward Petra, she thinks this year's hockey season will help keep her on track to achieve her dream of one day playing in the Olympic Games.

"I've loved it since I was like six years old," she said. "Just the feel of when your skates hit the ice is just like the best feeling.

"Just to get more practice like shooting, passing, being part of a team — it's just going to help me."

More from CBC P.E.I.

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