AJHL Commissioner Ryan Bartoshyk said ongoing relationships were key to the league’s ability to be allowed to play again this season.
During an interview in the first intermission of the Bonnyville Pontiacs first game back in three and half months on Friday night, a 3-1 win for the Yaks, Bartoshyk gave credit to the league’s staff and teams for staying optimistic down the stretch before getting the Return to Play document approved on February 19.
“There was continuous dialogue with Alberta Health and the government and our CMO [chief medical officer] as well, and just keeping those lines of communication open was key. I think just the relationships we’ve built over the past year I guess it’s been, has really factored into where we are today,” he said.
“Whether that’s with, again, the governments or other leagues, it’s been important that we sustain the relationship and understood and really learn from those various groups. And given that the NHL had their bubble here, the world juniors was here, and then the western league got going or got approval, we can learn from that.”
Testing was a major component to the AJHL’s return. Some 389 players and staff go through weekly PCR COVID testing protocols, which the AJHL acquired privately through DynaLife.
Through three rounds of testing, there have been no positive tests so far.
On Friday, regular-season games resumed league-wide in small cohort groups, minus the Canmore Eagles and Lloydminster Bobcats who opt-ed out for community or government restrictions.
The Canmore Eagles suffered a COVID outbreak in November, a precursor to the league being shut down with enhanced public health orders Alberta-wide.
If a test comes back positive, each team in the cohort will be forced to shut down hockey operations and gathering for two weeks.
Teams will play 24 season games and there is not a plan currently for a playoff format.
“Right now, we’re just really focused on the early conditional games here and excited to get through the isolation phase, and the training camp phase, and now competition. So we’re just gonna focus on that for right now and ultimately see what the upcoming weeks and then months bring us,” Bartoshyk said.
“We just really want to focus on the development piece for our athletes. And it’s really an accomplishment for them to get back on the ice and for us to have some form of competition here.”
In a league that relies on gate-revenue, the Alberta government partnered with the AJHL and Western Hockey League for Jackpots for Junior Hockey 50/50, an initiative that runs every weekend in March with proceeds going back to the member teams.
“In a normal year where we’re relying on our communities, and whether that’s through local sponsorship, and obviously attendance, it’s been a challenge,” said Bartoshyk on the financial impacts of two league shutdowns.
“We’ve got to be creative here throughout this year and then try and garner some support.”
As long as there are no sweeping restrictions in the province and country by the fall, there could be fans back in the stands for next season.
“We’re hopeful that we can engage our communities and have fans that are building for next season, but obviously we understand where we’re at as a province, and then where we’re at as a country to ensure that if we can do that we’re doing it safely.”
The Pontiacs split their first two of eight matchups against the Sherwood Park Crusaders over the weekend with games the next three Friday and Saturdays.