North Stars not giving up on season, looking to play this spring

The Battlefords North Stars are not yet throwing in the towel on their hopes of resuming the 2020-21 hockey season.

On Monday, North Battleford city council agreed to the North Stars’ request to keep the ice at the Access Communications Centre (formerly North Battleford Civic Centre) for an additional few weeks to May 25, to allow the North Stars to potentially hold a spring season.

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That news provides a glimmer of hope to fans that the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League might return to play this season. But it also comes with a looming “drop-dead” date.

The city made clear it needs a commitment from the SJHL by Feb. 12 on whether a resumption of play is a go. Otherwise, the ice will come out in late March.

Three resolutions passed Monday at council. The first one called for Access Communications Centre ice to be maintained until May 25 to provide the North Stars the ability to play in a shortened spring league if Saskatchewan Health Authority restrictions ease.

A second resolution that passed on Monday set Feb. 12 as the date for the SJHL governing body to confirm in writing that they approve the spring season. This would allow the city time to properly plan and promote new ice bookings during that period.

The final resolution that passed Monday called for the city to enter a discussion with the North Stars board about a possible reimbursement of some or all of $8,200 of extra expenses.

The $8,200 is the amount that would be incurred to keep the ice in at the Civic Centre into late May. The thinking is the North Stars might be able to tap into the $1 million dollars being provided to the SJHL clubs as part of COVID-19 relief from the province.

Once there is a clearer financial picture regarding the SJHL relief funds, a plan would come back for council approval. Also, administration has indicated Monday they are looking at other rentals that could reduce that $8,200 number.

The discussion Monday comes at a critical juncture for the North Stars and the SJHL, whose season has been on pause ever since the province announced restrictions on Nov. 25.

Director of Leisure Services Cheryl DeNeire shed some light on the situation in her report to council Monday. According to her memo dated Jan. 25, North Stars club president Shandon Reichert had put forward a verbal request to the city regarding the Civic Centre’s availability.

DeNeire’s memo stated the SJHL is “considering a shortened spring season commencing at the end of March and ending around the long weekend in May.”

The tentative plan, according to DeNeire, is for the North Stars to host 10 to 12 home games during this period, with a similar number of away games.

“They wanted to know what our appetite is for keeping our ice in for that length of time,” DeNeire said of the request from the North Stars. This was contingent on the easing of restrictions by the province, she said, to allowing at least 150 spectators in the stands.

Should it go ahead, the hockey schedule would extend three weeks past the usual end date at the Civic Centre. Normally, ice stays in at the Civic Centre until no later than the first week of May.

That was the case two years ago, when the North Stars advanced to the Anavet Cup finals and their last home game was played on May 2.

The real issue is whether the SJHL can convince the rest of its member cities and towns to also keep their ice in. The indication Monday is that several other municipalities are under mounting pressure to pull the plug on the season.

DeNeire reported that on Tuesday, Jan. 19 there was a group meeting held via Zoom involving the SJHL’s host cities and towns to discuss the extension requests from a municipal perspective.

All 12 cities were in the meeting and discussed what their options were. The consensus that emerged from that call — and it was a little difficult to get that, DeNeire noted — was that the communities needed a date by mid-February from the SJHL to be able to go ahead with a spring season.

DeNeire noted that during the meeting a number of cities had been planning on pulling their ice in early February because they had lost their minor hockey already. Other cities were willing to wait, and a few have ice in year-round.

The main issue facing them, said DeNeire, is that they have not had a written request from the league about a spring season. Instead, they were getting verbal requests from the SJHL teams about ice time.

The result is that, as of Monday, everyone is going to their councils asking for a “finite stop date unto which the SJHL has to give an answer as to whether or not we are going to get a spring season,” said DeNeire.

“They all want it to be early to mid-February, so I chose arbitrarily Feb. 12. The likelihood of receiving a letter back from the SJHL by Feb. 12, I am not too hopeful. But the teams have to make the decision.”

If the SJHL season doesn’t go ahead, DeNeire indicated the Civic Centre plans to pull their ice at the end of March.

On a related note, while some communities are reporting their minor hockey associations are throwing in the towel on 2021, Battlefords Minor Hockey Association has indicated a willingness to keep going.

Correspondence to the city from Kyle Kellgren, president of BMHA, stated that Battlefords Minor Hockey board met on Sunday, Jan. 17 “to further discuss the remainder of our 2020-2021 season.”

The result from that meeting is that the association has committed to continue with hockey practices, which they are permitted to do as per provincial guidelines, through mid-March.

“Battlefords Minor Hockey would like to continue providing our membership practices at this time with the restrictions put in place by our government and Saskatchewan Hockey Association,” Kellgren stated. “We will commit to keeping our players practicing until March 14, 2021.”

What that means is that the Civic Centre would have an available tenant in the hockey association until mid-March. Should the SJHL resume play later in March, the indication from DeNeire is that BMHA would rent spring ice at the Civic Centre for practices in April and May as well, though they would not say how much ice time.

Those would be some welcome bookings and revenue for the venue. Apart from that DeNeire indicated to council there are no other bookings for the Civic Centre in those months. “We are looking at a very event free spring and summer,” said DeNeire.

BMHA made a request of their own to council Monday, seeking a 15 per cent rate reduction on ice rental at the Civic Centre and the Don Ross Arena from Jan. 25 to March 14 with the possibility of extension if spring ice is available at the Civic Centre.

The reason cited for the reduction is due to COVID-19 restrictions.

That motion was tabled, as the city looks into whether a grant from SaskLotteries might be available to help the association.

Meanwhile, a similar request from BMHA went before Battleford town council on Monday for a reduced rate at Battleford Arena; that motion was also tabled.

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