An Ontario bill that will make it hard to sue over COVID-19 — a bill designed largely to protect nursing homes — will also make it easier for children to play hockey this year.
When it passes into law, the bill will limit lawsuits over exposure to COVID-19 so long as the person was acting according to public health guidelines and federal, provincial or municipal law.
“It’s a game-changer for our volunteers in the game, and everyone in the game,” said Phil McKee, executive director of the Ontario Hockey Federation. “Our volunteers put their livelihood on the line to allow our youth to play sport and participate in sport.”
Attorney General Doug Downey told The Star’s Rob Ferguson last week the legislation was designed to provide liability protection for health-care institutions, businesses, charities, non-profit organizations, front-line workers and coaches and volunteers if they are blamed for “inadvertent” spread of the virus but made good-faith efforts to follow public health guidelines.
The Ontario Hockey Federation, which represents groups like the Ontario Hockey League, the Greater Toronto Hockey League and the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association, had lobbied for the protection.
“This is protection for them,” McKee said of volunteers and coaches. “They work very hard to act in good faith, and beyond good faith. This is protection and comfort.”
Minor hockey, at least as it has typically been played, is on hold in many parts of the province, including Toronto.
McKee said his federation and its member leagues were to hold meetings over the next two days to digest this week’s announcement of changing guidelines regarding what kind of gatherings will be allowed, and whether that means hockey can be played in coronavirus hot spots like Toronto, home to the largest minor hockey system in the world.
The GTHL, with typically about 40,000 registrants, is hoping to start up in some fashion in January.
McKee said he expects the province to follow up before the weekend with regulations that might make planning clearer, not just for Toronto, but all parts of the province.
“It differs everywhere. The requirements in Kitchener differ from those requirements in London, which differ from those requirements in Halton, which differ from those requirements in Peel, York and Toronto.
“The regulations are the details,” he said. “I’m hoping it becomes clear over the course of the next few days.”
Most of the province is moving to reduced restrictions on Monday. Toronto is waiting an extra week.
Regardless, it is clear that leagues at the recreational level will be limited to 50 participants, which could lead to a lot of three-on-three or four-on-four hockey.
It’s also clear that the province wants team sports to limit physical contact, which will be a challenge for hockey. Sports Minister Lisa McLeod came under fire for suggesting the OHL play a noncontact version of the game, while Premier Doug Ford expressed hope the major junior league could play as normal as possible when its COVID-shortened season begins Feb. 4.
One item of particular interest is an exemption to the rules for high-performance athletes.” That likely means looser restrictions on training for Olympic-level athletes, and professionals like the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators, and their Ontario-based minor-league affiliates (the AHL’s Toronto Marlies and Belleville Senators). It might include OHL players, and McKee hopes it includes 15-year-old AAA players who hope to be drafted into OHL teams.
“We’re making sure that age group is at the forefront,” McKee said.