Bell MTS Iceplex is a place of gathering where the community comes to play, watch, and learn the game of hockey. Naturally, June 1 was a very exciting day as hockey programming was allowed to resume and people made their way back to the facility after nearly three months of the venue being closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gathering the hockey community at the Iceplex looks much different now than it did prior to the closure. New health and safety protocols are now becoming standard as activities and access resume in all sorts of venues across the city. At Bell MTS Iceplex, this means each visitor now needs to complete an online health screening survey and sign into the facility, and once inside, capacity is limited and access to some amenities has been affected. These measures are all in place to accommodate the required physical distancing and other safety protocols mandated by the province, along with True North’s commitment to an enhanced cleaning and disinfection regimen.
“We have housekeeping staff around all the time, consistently cleaning the washrooms, cleaning high-touch areas, disinfecting the stands several times during the day, and more,” said David Sattler, General Manager of the Bell MTS Iceplex. “As we begin hockey games, we will be cleaning the benches several times per day. Basically, anything that could be touched is being cleaned multiple times a day.”
The venue’s protocols are continuing to change too as health authorities further evolve their restrictions. Iceplex staff are committed to not only stay in tune with government and health authority mandates, but also to provide the best hockey and training experience and restore convenience when able.
“Originally, players were required to come in their full gear and they were allowed to put on their helmet, gloves and skates in our dressing rooms so that people would stay within our 15-minute limit of using dressing rooms before and after their on-ice sessions ,” said Sattler, noting that the time limit was created so that proper cleaning measures could be taken in the dressing rooms between groups. “With summer approaching and warmer weather outside, that didn’t make for the best experience. We made the decision to let people get fully dressed in our dressing rooms, as long as they are staying in the 15-minute limit before or after their on-ice session. If we extend that time at all, there just isn’t enough time to properly clean the dressing rooms. The safety of our guests is clearly our number one priority, but within those restrictions, we still want to give people who come to our venue the best experience possible.”
Other restrictions have been dialed back as well. Though initially, the Iceplex required all visitors who would be sitting in the stands to wear a facemask while at the facility, parents and fans now have the choice of whether or not to wear a mask, though mask use is still encouraged. Iceplex staff will continue to wear masks throughout the facility when not actively coaching or training.
Sattler notes that these protocols can certainly be reversed just as quickly, but the Iceplex staff are all very grateful for the progress the province has made.
“We really are thankful for the hard work that Winnipeggers and Manitobans have put into flattening the curve of COVID-19,” said Sattler. “It’s because of everybody’s diligence in distancing and the resulting low infection rates that we can open our building and start to offer programming again.”
For Jets Hockey Development (JHD) programming, which is the Iceplex’s hockey training program, drills and on-ice sessions have been adapted to minimize the amount that players are in close proximity. Even the health orders note, though, that physical distancing won’t always be achieved while playing sports.
“The newest revision of the public health order says that facilities must reasonably maintain distance between people in the facility, except participants actively engaged in sport,” said Sattler. “Right now, we aren’t doing any contact drills, but JHD is still doing group drills. We’re asking that players try to maintain physical distancing when they can, but we know that hockey is a close contact sport, so there will be times when players are closer than six feet.”
Andy Kollar, Manager of Goalie Development at the Ice Lab goalie training facility in the Iceplex, noted that they’ve changed the way they do things as well to ensure as much distancing as possible.
“We’ve created a gap between goalie sessions that we don’t usually have, where we are trying to create less traffic for people coming in and leaving. Usually we do three straight sessions, then a flood with the Zamboni. Now we’re doing a session, then a 15-minute gap.
“We’re not using gender specific changerooms either. We just alternate which room is getting used with each session, which gives our housekeeping staff time to clean the room properly.”
Kollar noted that as a goalie coach his on-ice sessions haven’t had to change as much, since they are one-on-one and distancing is easier to maintain.
“As goalies, our sessions are non-contact, so we do have that spacing. But I’ve started to use my stick as a gauge of distance when I’m talking to participants so I don’t get too close.”
Focus Fitness, the 8,500 square foot gym on the second floor of the Iceplex, is operating well below capacity to allow athletes ample space to move within and is also undertaking careful cleaning measures. Users of the space are expected to clean the equipment they use after each use, and after each group session, the gym staff thoroughly clean all the equipment before the next group can use the space.
Greg Husson, an Iceplex customer with two boys in JHD programming who also works out at Focus Fitness and helps out the JHD team when they need a goalie, appreciates the added safety measures along with the effort the Iceplex has put in to making this a smooth transition for everyone.
“With all of the things that the Iceplex has in place now, they’ve made it seamless to come back,” said Husson. “You check in on the website and get everything cleared, and then you get to just walk in, sign in and say hello, and you’re off to whichever rink or amenity you’ve come to use.”
The new restrictions haven’t phased Husson’s boys either, as they are just happy to be back on the ice and playing the sport they love again.
“The smiles on their faces when they got back on the ice was great to see. You can see that they’re happy and motivated, and it’s getting back to a piece of normality in life.”
To Kollar, the fact that parents feel comfortable letting their kids back on the ice and back into their programming, along with the joy that the kids have for being back isn’t possible without a team effort from the Iceplex staff that focuses on patience and attention to details.
“Everything we’ve done to reopen has been well thought-out,” said Kollar. “We really look at the community and it’s safety first. We don’t want to put anyone in jeopardy, and I think our team has done a great job coming up with a protocol plan. We wanted to get the right details in place before opening up.”
These efforts are now providing opportunities that can improve the physical and mental health for all their guests – something that has surely been missed.
“The majority of people that we have in our programs are youth, who have been stuck at home and separated from their schoolmates and teammates for almost three months at an age where we are trying to keep people active and engaged,” said Sattler. “I think it’s important for us to be open to give kids something they enjoy doing and a sense of normalcy. For parents too, being able to see their kids skate might allow them to have that moment of mental calm.”