Health rules, border situation complicate season start for Bombers

Bomber fans know the team’s maroon and white colours, but they may be seeing two other colours more - red as in red tape and black as in being left in the dark.

The team is facing a complicated start to a possible SJHL season this year, dealing with both Manitoba and Saskatchewan rules and a lack of input directly from the league and health officials.

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As of Sept. 4, the team is planning to hold its main camp at the Whitney Forum later in the month. The Bombers are expecting most players to arrive in Flin Flon beginning Sept. 16, with an altered, COVID-19-conscious training camp to follow two days later and a short preseason schedule. The camp, which usually starts at the end of August, was delayed to the first week of September earlier this summer, then to Sept. 10, then later to Sept. 18 where it currently sits. All players will need to be tested for COVID-19 before hitting the ice.

“We want our families to feel comfortable with the players coming in and known that they’re going to be good to go,” said head coach and general manager Mike Reagan.

The team will play a short preseason schedule, starting with a game in Nipawin Sept. 20. Another game against La Ronge has also been set up. At least one possible preseason game against the MJHL’s OCN Blizzard is in the works, but not yet confirmed.

“We are looking into potential games with OCN, upon approval. That’s where the interprovincial problem exists. OCN really wants to play us and we really want to play OCN, but I’m not sure the MJHL wants us to play or if they’re reading it as interprovincial play, even if we’re a Manitoba team,” said Reagan.

“It’s kind of one of those things where we might be told, ‘You can’t have your cake and eat it too - you’re either playing in the SJHL and you want to be considered strictly eligible to play there or you’re playing OCN.’ We may be given an ultimatum there and we’re obviously going to pick playing in the SJHL over playing against OCN.”

Once training camp gets underway, on-ice training will likely look different. The Saskatchewan Hockey Association (SHA) currently has restricted the number of participants on the ice during one session at 30. Aside from that, many rules are left up to interpretation, with little official guidance having been given from the league or the Saskatchewan Health Authority (Sask Health).

“We’re all kind of left in the dark because you hear about camps being run one way, camps being run this way,” Reagan said.

“Why we pushed it [training camp] back is because we don’t have any specific answers. We thought delaying it another week would benefit us, to get our ducks in a row and get some guidance because the SJHL had had meetings lined up with Sask Health and they’ve been delayed and delayed and delayed. Until we get direction from Sask Health, we can’t really do too much right now.”

Four SJHL teams started their training camps much earlier than the Bombers, as early as Sept. 4.

“It’s going to be interesting because we’re going to let that play out and talk to them, see how they ran it. They’re almost like a little bit of a guinea pig for the rest of us,” Reagan said.

“We could have continued on with the camp last week or any week, but we didn’t want to bring our players in too early. Let’s say the season gets postponed two more weeks - now they’re up here, six weeks in advance of the season, and everybody’s kind of in limbo.”

As late as mid-August, plans for the start of the season were beginning to clear up for the Bombers - the SJHL was touting a return to play as early as the second week of October with teams operating training camps, exhibition games and regular season cohorts with northern and southern halves.

Some big hurdles have suddenly appeared on that track.

Flin Flon’s status as a border town may play havoc with the league plan. While the SJHL has planned to hold discussions with the Saskatchewan Health Authority over return-to-play rules, it is unknown if the league has had discussions with the Northern Health Region (NHR), which covers Flin Flon and all of northern Manitoba.

Adding to that is interprovincial travel. Neither the SHA nor Hockey Manitoba will authorize permits for out-of-province travel for their member clubs until approval comes from provincial authorities. As a team playing in a Saskatchewan league but with a home rink less than 300 metres over the border in Manitoba, these rules put the Bombers in an awkward position.

Will the Bombers be considered a Saskatchewan team by the SHA, receiving a special dispensation? Will players need to be billeted only within Saskatchewan? Will the team need to temporarily move to the Creighton Sportex for home games? Will visiting teams only be able to stay in hotels on the Saskatchewan side of the border?

None of those questions yet have firm answers.

“I don’t know, to be honest with you, because we can’t really get a definitive answer on how it affects us,” said Reagan.

“From my understanding, we’re going to be allowed to play in the SJHL as long as Sask Health approves the start of the season.”

The changing circumstances have had impacts on everyone around the franchise, Reagan said, causing stress for players and their families, board members, fans and others. With no confirmed season start date, the team has not been able to sell season tickets, one of the Bombers’ prime revenue makers.

“We have a number that we need to bring in per game for this team operate. Whether it’s 500 fans or 1,000 fans, those numbers have to add up for us in order to pay for the bus, for the hotels, for food on the road, for billets. Those are all things we’ll have to consider when putting out the season ticket package,” said Reagan.

“There’s no playbook for a pandemic. We’re trying to do our best we can to keep everybody happy, but I’m hoping that our community and fans are going to be understanding and supportive of however it ends up playing out.”

Travel restrictions for northern Manitoba were previously a burden in getting some players to the Whitney Forum - four players eligible to return and at least three recruits reside in southern Manitoba communities in the offseason. Last week, the province announced junior hockey teams and players could travel from the south to the north to play, allowing the southern players to come to Flin Flon with minimal hassle.

Some Bomber players from eastern Canada have already headed west and are self-isolating in Saskatoon, doing dryland training and booking solo ice slots at a local rink. Eligible eastern returnees from last year’s squad include goaltender Cal Schell and shutdown D-man Cole Vardy, as well as highly touted offseason pickup Nathan Gagne. The easterners will be heading north Sept. 16. Vardy will not be making the trip west just yet - he’s still recovering from an offseason surgery and is not yet ready for play.

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