COVID-19 leaves Legionnaires season in jeopardy

The Sarnia Legionnaires’ play a home game at Sarnia Arena during the early part of the 2019-2020 season. Troy Shantz file photo

Troy Shantz

If fans aren’t allowed in the stands this season, the Sarnia Legionnaires won’t play, says the team president.

“I’ve already told the league that we will not play with no fans,” said Cliff Smith. “Financially we could, but it’s just not in our make-up to play without fans present.”

The Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League announced a Dec. 2 start date for this year’s season, but restrictions on gatherings due to COVID-19 make the Legionnaire’s 2020-2021 season anything but a done deal, said Smith.

Indoor gatherings in Ontario’s arenas were limited to 50 people at press time. That barely makes room for two teams and their support staff – let alone any fans, he said. A few clubs in the 25-team league have said they’re open to playing without spectators, but most clubs won’t take the ice without their fans, he said.

“At the end of the day it’s not about 20 teenage hockey players. It’s about the health of the community. We have to protect our own.”

But a lot could change between now and then, and the Sarnia’s board of directors has instructed the coaching staff to prepare for the season whatever it may look like.

League discussions include operating arenas at 30 per cent capacity, Smith said. Physical distancing could be done at the 2,000-seat Brock Street arena, with certain seats blocked off and marked pathways to the concession stands, he said.

It’s also been suggested that league divisions are reduced, he noted. Sarnia’s regular nine-team division could be whittled down to three or four teams in an effort to reduce travel between communities.

“That still has to be approved,” he said. “And there will be no approvals coming from anywhere if we don’t get control of the virus.”

Team skates are under way this week, and training camp begins in November. Teams are also discussing potential rule-changes such as reduced body contact and a four-on-four format.

“There are a lot of teams that aren’t in tune with that,” he said. “It just takes away from the game although some fans may find it more exciting.

“Maybe it’s four-on-four hockey with no contact,” he added.

If there’s no season, then the team will continue with skill-based sessions all year, provided players can’t find another team in another market to play on, Smith said. No contact scrimmages may also be planned, he said.

“Right now it’s out of our hands.”