Saskatchewan gives $4M to junior hockey after extending ban on team sports

·2 min read

REGINA — The Saskatchewan government is giving $4 million to help junior hockey leagues and teams that have had their play interrupted by provincial health restrictions.

It says it will send $1 million to support the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League and $600,000 will go to each of the province's five Western Hockey League teams.

Trade and Export Development Minister Jeremy Harrison says the existing support programs put in place for small businesses and the tourism sector wouldn't have provided enough dollars for these leagues, which depend on gate admissions for revenue.

He said officials have been talking to the leagues for more than two months and had hoped they would be able to return to play, which has been ruled out for the "immediate future."

"People, I think, have a high degree of understanding as to the reason why there is not the ability to have sports right now," Harrsion said Friday.

"Nobody likes it. It's not ideal."

Another 382 new infections were reported in Saskatchewan Friday. Health officials said four residents who were 60 or older also died, while 210 people remain in hospital. Of those, 35 people were in intensive care.

Under the province's public health order, athletes who are 18 and younger can practise or train in small groups, but team sports are banned.

The SJHL suspended its season in late November after the ban was announced.

On Friday, the Junior A league issued a statement saying officials tasked with helping businesses respond to the pandemic announced the government wouldn't consider allowing games to proceed for at least four weeks.

"We are grateful that our season has not been shut down completely," said the league.

The WHL has said it is committed to playing a 2020-21 season, but potential start dates were undecided.

Harrsion said the government wants to ensure junior hockey in the province survives the pandemic because of how important teams are to communities.

"Think of the Humboldt Broncos," said Harrison, referring to the SJHL team that was in a devastating bus crash in 2018.

The Saskatchewan Party government said it's working with both leagues on options for a safe return to play. The public-health restrictions are to expire Jan. 29.

Earlier this week, Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer raised the possibility that harsher restrictions could be on the way if the province doesn't lower its daily COVID-19 case count.

Dr. Saqib Shahab said the current average of more than 300 new daily infections is too high, and top Saskatchewan Health Authority officials also warned that the health system is at its most fragile yet in the pandemic.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 15, 2021.

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press