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Dropping the pandemic puck

A lot of organizations gave up.

A lot of organizations gave up.

A lot of organizations couldn’t see the possibilities.

Burns Lake Minor Hockey Association (BLMHA) studied the rules, implemented the necessary changes, and still had a hockey season through the COVID-19 crisis. They complied with health orders, they took the risks seriously and mitigated the dangers, and dozens of kids still got to enjoy the sport they love.

For their efforts, BLMHA was awarded the Northwest District award from Hockey BC for the Minor Hockey Association of the Year.

“The thing that led us the most was the fact we were able to drop our registration fees by more than 50 per cent,” said association president Steven Bayes. “We applied for grants. We received one through the Village of Burns Lake, from Chinook Community Forest, Burns Lake Community Forest, Lake Babine Nation - these were big sponsors so we were able to drop our registration fees down to $200 a player when usually we charge $450. These grants kept the kids into it.”

When the season started, only about 30 kids signed up for what was certain to be an insular, modified season. When word got around that the costs were ultra low and the fun was ultra high, there ended up being about 75 players.

“We could not have done it without our coaches, because they led our association through the pandemic,” said Bayes. “All the new rules, the regulations they had to follow, just to overcome the adversity and see us through to give all these kids the opportunity to play hockey and have fun - it was amazing.”

When Bayes unveiled the award the league had won, he called on three coaches in particular - Brad Abietkoff, Chris Solecki and Duane Crouse - to be part of the announcement.

“Those were our most dedicated coaches that led us through,” he said. “There were just four kids showing up for a practice, sometimes, but they got them out there and made sure their skating and playing skills were developing. They never gave up. I really wanted to acknowledge them for their dedication and hard work.”

Abietkoff admitted he got a lot out of it, himself.

“Me as a hockey coach is one of the best things that has happened to me,” Abietkoff said. “My dad coached me my whole hockey career and I have always wanted to coach my own son. The opportunity arose and here I am. I love helping our youth learn about teamwork, good sportsmanship and having fun and doing it in a positive environment. About the award, it was the whole hockey community that deserves it. If it wasn’t for the parents and all the team volunteers we wouldn’t have been able to do it without them.”

Solecki agreed that it was a special group of people that surrounds the sport in Burns Lake and he was lucky enough to be a part of it.

“To be a coach for minor hockey is a privilege for me,” Solecki said. “I grew up playing hockey in Burns Lake and I had a great experience and I learned so many skills that have helped me in my life. I continued playing in Junior-B and university and I’m glad I have the chance to give back. I really enjoy working with all the kids I’ve been able to coach and I get to be on the ice coaching my daughter as well which is really special for me. I think it’s a great sport to help build community and teach kids a lot of important life skills and build their confidence. We are lucky in Burns Lake to have some dedicated volunteers and Village staff that work behind the scenes make it all happen for us. I hope that more families will join us at the rink in the future so we can grow our minor hockey family and get more kids involved in this great sport. The award is a nice recognition but it is the entire minor hockey board, village staff, and volunteers that deserve commendation for continuing to make hockey affordable and accessible for our community.”

Bayes said the enrolment numbers still aren’t back to their pre-pandemic levels but events like the rec hockey tournament in November and the Junior-A Timbermen starting up in Burns Lake all draw people back to the rink and stoke those fires for the ice.

For a large group of pandemic pioneers, though, there is the special knowledge that they stuck with it through thick and thin. Bayes said, “when we were able to show that we could make hockey games and practices work safely, people made the effort to come back. Having the parents trust us with their child’s safety made a huge, huge difference.”