This season has come with some significant challenges for leagues across the country. We had the chance to talk with Steve Brown of the Owen Sound Men's Recreational Hockey League about how their group has handled the restrictions and how they've embraced some of the positives! Read more below.
COVID-19 actually had a profound affect on our league even prior to THIS season. We were just about to start our playoffs back in March for our 25th Anniversary Season. Like so many other things (much more important than Rec hockey), our season got shut down and we were unable to complete our 25th Season in style. I have attached a picture of our ceremonial puck-drop. Players shown (from left to right) are me, Martin Clark, Jeff Brown and Martin DesJardine). The OSMRHL Executive. It was disappointing to not be able to celebrate this milestone.
This year certainly presented some new and different challenges prior to getting the season off the ground. Our league has been operating with a full draft system (new rosters every year) since our inception back in 1995. That turned out to be a blessing when trying to figure out what the league and teams would look like during a COVID-restricted season.
In order to keep our numbers under 50 in accordance with the Provincial Guidelines, we created 3 Divisional “bubbles” of 6 teams each with 8 players per team. 18 teams in total. The downside is that we did have to cap our registration at 144 players so we did have to turn players away since we actually had many more than that last year. Splitting into 3 Divisions also allowed us to test a format that we had been tossing around for a couple of years. We originally were a one-Division league. We split into 2 (Competitive and Recreational) a few years back. This year we were able to create 3. Competitive, Intermediate and Recreational. We immediately saw the benefit of separating players even more by skill level. The top tier got much better/faster…..the Intermediate is still very good hockey but just dialed down a bit and the Recreational Division is perfect for the guys who still love the game but who’s skills and speed aren’t what they used to be!
Due to the reduced roster sizes mandated by the 50-person bubble, we also moved to a 4-on-4 format and self-officiating. Players are taking turns reffing. It’s amazing how the players have developed a better appreciation of officiating a game of hockey! In order to keep the flow and pace…and to make the refs job a bit easier, we also adopted a puck-possession system for offsides, icing and freezing the puck. This has been used in many tournaments in the past and has really been embraced by our players. The only time we have face-offs is after a goal. Every other play that is whistled-down results in the non-offending team getting possession of the puck. We also had to change our approach to penalties. With reduced rosters it didn’t make sense to have one player in the penalty box while another player missed his turn by staying on the bench due to the team being short-handed. We are utilizing a full-chase penalty shot. Shooter starts at blue-line with the puck. All other skaters are at the center redline. Once the shooter begins, the play is now live again. I will say though, with the 4 on 4 creating so much open ice, there are not that many penalties! Our league is historically very clean to begin with. The creating of new teams every year has essentially eliminated any chance of rivalries or animosity. We haven’t seen an actual “fight” in our league in close to 20 years!
I think the bottom-line is that many people have had so many things taken away or restricted this year that every player in our league was happy just to be able to get out to the rink and play. Our local restrictions in Owen Sound limit the amount of time you can spend at the rink both before and after your game so it has cut back on the social aspect to some degree but it’s certainly much better than having no hockey at all.
Going forward post-COVID we plan to continue to operate with 3-Divisions. The 4-on-4 format has also been very well received and the idea of keeping that in place is gaining some traction.
We are very lucky that our area hasn’t been affected by the virus as much as many other places. Back in September we weren’t sure if the arena would even be open this winter. We got creative…..made some changes and had the support of 100% of our players who were pretty much open to whatever we could come up with. I think a lot of people were unaware of how important their weekly hockey game is for their mental health.
Hopefully our CARHA league in Owen Sound has played a small part in helping 144 people get through this challenging year.