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'Catastrophic': Arena shutdown latest hurdle for girls hockey

'We've got parents that are talking about taking the kids out of hockey and not bringing them back ... (which) is the worst possible effect,' says local girls hockey official

Ice time issues for local user groups are beginning to stack up as Rotary Place remains closed for an indefinite period of time.

Les Blackwell, president of the Orillia Girls Hockey Association, fears the recent closure will turn girls away from playing hockey – especially as it comes on top of extended shutdowns through the pandemic.

“We've got parents that are talking about taking the kids out of hockey and not bringing them back,” Blackwell told OrilliaMatters. “The shutdown has had, what I would say is the worst possible effect, which is it's turning girls away from girls sports.”

Rotary Place has been closed since Oct. 7, when issues with its heat exchanger caused the city to shut down the two ice pads. Numerous hockey and figure skating clubs had to make do with the single-pad Brian Orser arena while city staff worked to address the issues at Rotary Place.

Once the heat exchanger issues were resolved, city staff raced to get the ice pads ready for the annual Orillia Minor Hockey Terriers Jim Wilson Classic tournament.

However, on the eve of that event, city staff once again announced the ice pads would be removed after the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit matched a Legionnaires’ disease case with a legionella sample collected from Rotary Place’s cooling tower, forcing the tournament to make use of other area arenas to move forward.

Blackwell said girls hockey, with 14 teams ranging from age four and five to senior girls' teams, has fared relatively well compared to other user groups, but that the effects of this fall’s extended closure have been “catastrophic.”

He estimates the organization is losing dozens of hours of ice time per week, but pointed out that girls hockey was never given a “fair share” of Rotary Place’s ice pads and had already relied on Brian Orser Arena and surrounding communities for practices and games.

“Two thirds of our ice, or more, was allocated to Orser (this year), so we never did get a fair share of ice at Rotary,” Blackwell said. “When Rotary closed, the impact to our club was probably a little bit less than it was on other clubs, but this is in a situation where we were already short on ice, so it has been catastrophic.”

Blackwell said Orillia’s various users groups have been experiencing a shortage of ice time for years, which has only been exacerbated by the recent shutdowns.

“There's just a fundamental mathematics problem here, which is the total number of hours of ice that is needed by (local user groups) just far exceeds what the city can offer on three pads,” he said. “Before any of the shutdowns happened, we were given 150 hours of ice less than we needed, so we had to go looking for ice outside of the city.”

He expressed frustration at the city’s inaction on creating additional rinks in the city, and on its policies for allocating the available ice time.

“I really do think that organized team sports is probably one of the best things for young people to do and obviously, not allowing as many people to do that as you can, this is something that the city should be … a little bit ashamed about,” he said.

Regarding the organization’s lower proportion of Rotary Place ice prior to the closure, Blackwell said he has made two requests to speak before council in search of more ice time for girls hockey – a request, he says, that has yet to be granted.

“For some of the clubs that get more time at Rotary, good for them for getting the ice and being able to have the ability to showcase their club and their sport –something that girls hockey has not been afforded,” he said. “Since I took over as president earlier in the year, I've asked the city twice to … come to council to talk about this, but so far, I have not been booked for a meeting.”

Despite issues with ice times, Blackwell stressed the city’s scheduling staff have worked hard to make ice times work for everyone.

“The people that we interact with all the time, they're great; they're very supportive; they do everything they can,” he said. “I think their heart’s really in it, it’s just I think they need some better support and direction from council."

Now that the two-pad rink is closed for an indefinite period of time, Blackwell is also worried about whether the annual Orillia Hawks tournament, scheduled for Jan. 13-15, will be able to go ahead as planned.

Blackwell said the tournament has record enrolment this year, with nearly 100 teams registered from across the province, with a large amount of its proceeds going to support girls hockey in Orillia.

“It helps us pay for programs, like the goalie clinics and the player skills clinics and things like that really make the club shine and make people want to participate, but if they don't get Rotary up and running I'm not sure how we can run that tournament,” he said.  “I've got 100 teams … and if I lose those two pads I'm not sure how this tournament goes forward.”

Given the recent closures on top of the previous two years through the pandemic, Blackwell fears the city’s reputation could be damaged.

“All of these teams from across Ontario have taken a chance on us, and they've booked hotels and they've booked their limited time to come to our tournament,” he said. “If we have to turn them away, I mean, it'll be catastrophic this year. Downstream, the effects will be much, much worse because we're just going to be known as the city that cancels hockey tournaments.”

He questioned whether the threat of Legionella outbreaks at Rotary Place outweighs the loss of team sports for kids.

“I don't know what's happened behind closed doors, but when one looks at what the potential level of harm is, for this Legionnaires problem at Rotary – what could potentially happen versus what is absolutely happening – which is there are young people that are turning away from sports, I think that the long-term effect of the harm that is categorically and guaranteed being done now, is in my mind greater than the potential harm,” he said.

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Greg McGrath-Goudie

About the Author: Greg McGrath-Goudie

Greg has been with Village Media since 2021, where he has worked as an LJI reporter for CollingwoodToday, and now as a city hall/general assignment reporter for OrilliaMatters
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