The Fort Frances Lakers season starts this weekend with a game in Dryden Friday night, amid COVID-19 restrictions and a continued hunt for billet families.
After the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the 2020-2021 season of SIJHL hockey, the league is getting underway for the 21-22 season this Friday with the Lakers in Dryden against the Ice Dogs.
Shoring up the lineup has been a bit of a challenge for team president Gary Silander.
“We actually had a camp early this year, the league is starting a little earlier,” Silander said. “We realize now we shouldn’t have done that as a group. Other teams were just having their camps last weekend.”
Some players who might have said they’d play for the Lakers have opted to join other teams that had later camps.
“We were a little bit worried to start with,” Silander said. “You know we had some kids say ‘yeah we’re coming, we’re coming’ then they decided to go elsewhere and you know it’s really tough because they wait till the last minute before they tell you that.”
But the team is also benefiting from other teams holding their camps later.
“There’s a trickle down effect from some other places, which is benefitting us now,” Silander said.
As more teams fill out their rosters, players are coming around to the Lakers looking for a place to play.
The other issue the team is having is finding billet families for the players that have joined the team.
“We could still use some more billet families,” Silander said.
The team is hoping to add another four or five families to its roster of billets, which would help house the rest of the players and have some backup as well.
“If we don’t have billets, we won’t have hockey because we need places for these young guys to stay,” Silander said. “I know through COVID it’s trying times but they are double vaccinated and they wear their masks and we have protocols in place. So if we could get a few more people to step up it would be greatly appreciated.”
Vaccination has been stressed to the players.
“Most of the boys knew coming in that they had to be vaccinated,” Silander said. “It wasn’t something we were pressuring them for. We just told them, the U.S. (teams) are going to be vaccinated to come here, you can almost bet your money we’re going to have to be (vaccinated) to go that way.”
Canadians are not allowed to cross the border to the U.S. yet, but if and when they are many assume vaccination would be a requirement.
Playing under COVID restrictions
Silander says most of the players have been cooperative with getting vaccinated and he is hopeful the ones who have been slightly resistant will get vaccinated.
“We’ve been very fortunate with the group of players we’re dealing with,” he said “We’ve had a couple that are a little bit shy (about vaccination) but we’re confident that they’re going to work out in the end.”
When it comes to COVID-19 restrictions, Fort Frances Town Council voted unanimously Monday evening to require proof of vaccination for anyone accessing services at Memorial Sports Centre, which includes Ice For Kids Arena, the home of the Lakers. This restriction starts as of Sep. 21, 2021.
Players already go through screening on a daily basis when they go to practice. They wear masks until they put their helmets on to get on the ice.
Silander will meet with arena staff this week to determine logistics around hosting games with COVID-19 in mind.
“Right now they’ve got us coming in a single door then going upstairs,” he said. “ We can’t put 300 people through that door, we’ve got to try and do something different.”
One proposed idea could see spectators answering screening questions by email before the games and check names off on arrival.
As of right now Canadian teams and players cannot cross the border into the U.S. so the plan for right now is for the American teams to play their home games at the arenas of their Canadian opponents. The Thief River Falls Norskies and the Wisconsin Lumberjacks will both have to play “Home” games north of the border. This means giving them last change before a face-off and the other in-game advantages that come with home ice. Silander also hopes to work out a share of ticket sales for the American teams as they are losing money while they can’t host games in their home rinks.
While he wasn’t sure on the exact capacity numbers for the arena Silander expects that with attendance normally in the 300-350 range they hope to have close to that many allowed in when they drop the puck at home opener on Sept. 24.
“We’ll probably be able to have a crowd on our behalf. It’s a whole lot better than the 50 we were allowed last year.”