No more hockey in Alberta hamlet after pandemic forces ice plant to close for the season

Most hockey players are used to the occasional heartbreak over a lost game, but it really hurts when they can’t even step on the ice.

That’s the situation for more than 150 minor hockey players in New Sarepta, a hamlet about 50 kilometres southeast of Edmonton.

On Wednesday, the plant that provides ice for the rink at the community’s Agriplex was turned off for the season because revenues have dried up due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Officials say that means no more hockey at the arena until at least next fall. 

“We’re looking at now 10 weeks without any revenue coming into the building (and) there’s no guarantee that (on) Jan. 21 we can even look to get users back in,” said Taylor Knopp, president of the New Sarepta & District Agricultural Society.

That coupled with closure of the fitness facility and the inability to run other regular programs and events, including fundraisers, means finances are tight.

“We have, I believe, seven caretakers on this year … we’ve had to lay off six of them,” Knopp said. “We’ve just decided to take a step back, lick our wounds and work on doing some maintenance now so that next year we come back even stronger.”

Corey Nordin, president of the New Sarepta Minor Hockey Association, said parents and players will be disappointed. His sons, aged 11 and 13, have already had to give up baseball and jujitsu.

“I know they’re not happy about it, but they’re numb to it I guess,” he said.

The ice making machine at the Irma Arena is still running but officials say they are also struggling financially due to the COVID-19 shut down. (Mitch MacKay)

Nordin said hockey is a huge part of life in smaller communities.

“If anything’s important besides the economy and keeping the wheels rolling, it’s kids’ sports in my opinion,” he said. “I think it’s a very big, important thing for kids in their development.”

At the community’s arena in the village of Irma, the ice making machine is still running but the rink hasn’t been open since early December and revenues are dwindling.

“We’re getting to the point where if we’re not able to open it right away, we’re going to have to start refunding some user groups their money,” said Mitch MacKay, chair of the arena board and coach for his daughter’s team. MacKay, whose other two children also play minor hockey, said that would result in a pretty big deficit.

“It’s going to make opening up next year pretty questionable,” he said.

Arena is social hub

MacKay said about 90 kids are involved in minor hockey in the community and the arena is a big part of the social fabric.

“That’s definitely the place to be on a Saturday morning, there’s no doubt about it,” he said. “Especially in the winter, that’s one of the only ways the elderly people get out. They get out to watch the grandkids and great-grandkids, kind of the social hub of Irma.”

MacKay worries the closures of small businesses could also impact finances.

“It’s not as easy to go ask your small companies for donations and funding and volunteer work when a lot of them haven’t been working themselves,” he said.

The situation prompted MacKay to write a letter to Premier Jason Kenney.

“It was a little bit out of frustration, just watching the news and seeing all these other places that are busy and full and active right now, like ski hills,” he said. “I was kind of just trying to get an answer, more than anything, of what the difference is between these facilities, and what makes what we’re trying to do running an arena unsafe.”

He said he hopes the province will allow arenas to reopen before it’s too late.

“I do think that we’ve proven that we can safely operate with just the practices and the small cohort groups, and at least get that facility used.”

The province’s current COVID-19 restrictions are  in place until at least Jan. 21.

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