By Dale Woodard on February 14, 2021.
Normally, the Lethbridge Hurricanes on the ice holding practice on a weekday afternoon at the Enmax Centre would be a common sight at this time of year.
However, nearly a year after the COVID-19 pandemic chased the Canes and the rest of the Canadian Hockey League off the ice, the term “normal” has been chucked right out of the playbook.
On Friday afternoon at the Enmax Centre, the first step back was taken as the Hurricanes — fresh off two quarantines and a round of COVID testing — got back on the ice to begin preparing for the 2021 Western Hockey League season that was benched back in early-March.
The next step will be the biggest one, starting their oft-delayed 2021 season Feb. 26 after three start dates were called off back in October, December and January as the Canes play a Central-Division exclusive, 24-game schedule against their other Alberta opponents.
“It was pretty special,” said Hurricanes head coach Brent Kisio. “There has been a lot of work put in behind the scenes by Peter (Anholt, Hurricanes general manager) to help us get to where we are with the protocols. All of the work Peter has done with the league and the other general managers have done to give us a chance to be back together as a team is a pretty special moment. There were a lot of smiles from coaches and players included. I’m just happy to be back with the group and start the process again and playing together.”
In what’s going to be par for the course this year, the team underwent COVID testing and had to await the results before taking the ice.
“There are going to be a lot of changes and things going on,” said Kisio. “(Friday), we couldn’t skate until we had our second negative tests back. Luckily for us, we got it at around 10:30 a.m. or 11 a.m. this morning.”
On Friday, the WHL released the first two weeks of the schedule.
The Canes kick things off Feb. 26 in Edmonton against the Oil Kings before the rematch comes back to the Enmax Centre Feb. 27 at 6 p.m., minus the fans of, of course.
The time off had the coaches itching to get back just as much as the players.
“On the plus side, we got to spend a lot of time with our families,” said Kisio. “But we love the game of hockey and we want to be back coaching and developing the players on our team.”
“There were some setbacks along the way where we thought we would be getting close and then something would happen. I think it almost made it even harder this time to not expect something like that to happen again. We got through it and we got the clear it was a pretty special moment.”
Friday’s practice marked exactly two weeks until the season opener in Edmonton.
As long as everything stays good, we’re getting ready for our first game,” said Kisio. “Some guys have been on the ice lots and some guys haven’t been on the ice for two or three months. It’s just getting guys back and comfortable. We’re not judging them too much early, we’re just letting them work the kinks out.”
In a press release Friday the WHL stated enhanced screening for all WHL players, billets, team staff and officials will take place on a daily basis, including regular temperature screenings as well as symptom monitoring through the WHL Athlete RMS Mobile Application.
As well, masks must be worn by all WHL players at all times with the exception of when participating on ice for games and practices. WHL coaches will be required to wear masks at all times, including while conducting practice and while behind the bench during games.
If a WHL team has one or more players or staff test positive for COVID-19 at any point of the season, the club will be required to suspend activities for 14 days.
While no fans will be allowed in the WHL venues, the league said “WHL fans can look forward to the launch of a brand-new live streaming service that will deliver the excitement of WHL hockey straight to their home. Details on the new WHL Live will be announced at a later date.”
Also on Friday the WHL announced it had completed the first week of its first phase of return to play with no positive test results for COVID-19 among the 245 tests administered in the Central Division.
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