Fallout from images and videos captured of Winnipeg Blues and Freeze players hosting practices at Warren Arena earlier this week has led 50 Below Sports + Entertainment – the owner of both Manitoba Junior Hockey League clubs – to release a joint statement on behalf of the ownership and staff of both the MJHL teams.
Within the lengthy statement, the two clubs touch on certain ambiguity in the provincial health orders, while delivering apologies for their lack of openness and clarity on the situation from the beginning of Winnipeg’s ‘Code Red’ initiation. The variance in ‘sanctioned’ and ‘unsanctioned’ hockey events appears to be the main point of concern from 50 Below and Co.
In reflecting upon the decision made to ‘immediately book practice time in Warren’ the Blues and Freeze have since said that it was a poor choice, in large part due to the fact that neither team had received the ‘go-ahead’ from Hockey Manitoba to do so. Within the explanation statement, the organization admits that practicing under the training and supervision from Laker Academy may have looked suspicious, but it was never the intent.
Although claiming to not be an attempt at “skirting the rules”, 50 Below said in its statement that its teams did participate in training operated by a private company. This was done so “to ensure that training was provided in an unsanctioned environment to avoid conflict with the Hockey Manitoba directive,” – a clear way around the rules.
The intent of the practices, according to the Blues and Freeze, was to avoid player injury potentially sustained when returning to hockey following the mandatory two weeks off (during the previously announced ‘Code Red’). Although teams were scheduled to have plenty of break weeks throughout the season, the thought by 50 Below was to eliminate any injuries players may receive due to lack of exercise while under heightened restrictions.
Despite confirming the event was not one sanctioned or approved by Hockey Manitoba or the MJHL, the ‘training event’ was considered optional – contrary to a number of player reports from within the program. The players and staff members involved were put at risk, while also putting those within the community of Warren at risk for COVID-19. And the only explanation for this behaviour was that of language used as to what exactly ‘sanctioned’ and ‘unsanctioned’ hockey events include.
The Manitoba Junior Hockey League, Hockey Manitoba, the provincial government and or any other health authorities have yet to comment on the heavily anticipated penalty in line for 50 Below – a̶p̶o̶l̶o̶g̶y̶ explanation or not.
The full statement from the Winnipeg Blues and Winnipeg Freeze is as follows:
On November 9th, players from the Winnipeg Freeze and the Winnipeg Blues participated in a hockey program at the Sunova Arena in Warren, Manitoba. The program was not one sanctioned by Hockey Manitoba or approved by the MJHL but was a private program. To the best of our knowledge, including confirming with a public health inspector in advance of November 9th, we did not breach any Manitoba public health order. Still, considering the circumstances in Manitoba, we are sorry for our decision to proceed with any unsanctioned hockey activity. In hindsight, it was an error in judgment that will not be repeated. Our intention has always been and remains to support the community generally and the hockey community in particular, most especially our players and their families.
Below is a full timeline of events leading up to the Monday, November 9 unsanctioned training event in Warren, Manitoba.
1) On October 30 a Public Health order was issued moving Winnipeg to a restricted red classification on November 2nd. The public order included the closure of all arenas in the Winnipeg capital region. All on and off ice activities were immediately cancelled by the Blues and Freeze on October 30 in advance of the public order being implemented.
2) Ice time was immediately booked by the Blues and Freeze organizations on October 30 for training and games until December 18 at the Sunova Arena in Warren, MB (outside the restricted area) to ensure that the players could continue to train and be ready to play games in the MJHL. There was a significant player safety concern related to how the players could re-integrate into competition if they were not training for the full duration of time while other teams were training and playing games.
3) On November 2nd Hockey Manitoba issued a statement directing all sanctioned hockey activity within the Winnipeg Capital region would not be permitted to travel to less restrictive orange zones for sanctioned hockey activities. The Winnipeg Blues and Freeze were aware and adhered to Hockey Manitoba’s directive and did not participate in any sanctioned events.
4) Ice time from November 2nd – 6th was cancelled in Warren as we assessed our options. During this time the MJHL did seek clarity from Hockey Manitoba to identify if teams located in the red zone were able to train in the orange zone if following the MJHL Return to Play Phase I Guidelines (non-contact, modified drills, socially distanced on the ice, etc) Potential player safety concerns were identified and it was important for those teams to keep players in their established cohorts and protocols. It was determined by Hockey Manitoba that this would not be an option for sanctioned activities.
5) At this time there was dialogue between the Winnipeg Freeze, Winnipeg Blues, the MJHL, and Hockey Manitoba. We made clear that we had a significant concern for our player’s safety and would be exploring privately run, privately insured, unsanctioned options. For clarity, these types of options exist all over the hockey landscape, and are used commonly by all members of the hockey community. These practices would not be put on by our clubs but by a private company that carries their own insurance. Although no approval was given by Hockey Manitoba or the MJHL, we did not hide our intentions to pursue a privately run unsanctioned option for the players. We assumed that since this was clearly unsanctioned and privately insured, no approvals were required. Having said that, in hindsight, we were mistaken. However, our misunderstanding as to whether privately run, unsanctioned training for the Blues and Freeze was in violation of the Hockey Manitoba directive despite the conversations around providing the training with the relevant parties does show there was ambiguity in this situation and that there was no intent to hide or deceive in our decision making process.
6) With the misunderstanding that private, unsanctioned training was an avenue that could be pursued for training, the Blues and Freeze participated in hockey programming run by a private company not owned by us or our affiliates to ensure that training was provided in an unsanctioned environment to avoid conflict with the Hockey Manitoba directive. Laker Academy, a well respected hockey development organization, provided private training including ice time, instruction and insurance coverage for the training that took place on November 9th. To be clear, the ice was booked and practices were run by Laker Academy in an effort to comply with the Hockey Manitoba directive. This was not to create deception in any way. Although our intentions were good and with the best interests of the players at heart, in hindsight, given the circumstances, we were wrong and for that we apologize.
7) In our decision making process on this matter, it was of critical importance to be in compliance with the Manitoba public health order. During the pandemic, we have a well documented history of being leaders in this regard, from implementing public orders in advance of the implementation date to being key players in drafting the Return to Play protocols for Hockey Manitoba and the MJHL. In this case, to be sure we were following the Public Health order, and considering the Public Health Order applies specifically to facilities, we requested that the Warren Arena engage the Public Health inspector to confirm that Laker Academy providing training was acceptable under the current Public Health order. The health inspector confirmed that training was permissible under the order so long as the arena followed all of the restrictions required by the order. These included reduced capacity to 25% (spectators and dressing room), mandatory masks when players were not on the ice, sign in sheets for tracing, social distancing and clearly displayed traffic flow. It was also made clear to us that there was nothing included in the public health order restricting travel for Winnipeg residents to Warren, MB. Once again, we were up front about our intentions, this time with Manitoba public health, which demonstrates clearly there was no intention to be deceptive.
8) On November 9th, the Laker Academy delivered hockey programming to Blues and Freeze players at the Sunova Arena in Warren, MB. This training was led by the Laker Academy. This was the one and only occurrence of Blues or Freeze players getting private unsanctioned training.
9) In the morning on November 10th a new public health order was announced, to be implemented on November 13th, and a further step was taken to shut down facilities in all of rural Manitoba including Warren. As a result of this order, and to continue our intention of being ahead of the Public Health Orders, we recommended to Laker Academy and our players that further private, unsanctioned training be cancelled immediately. Laker Academy agreed and immediately cancelled any hockey programming for Freeze or Blues players indefinitely. These changes took place early in the day on November 10th, prior to any outreach from the MJHL, Hockey Manitoba, or any reporting of this story.
In the end, after new code red restrictions were announced for the Capital Region of Winnipeg, the MJHL decided to continue the season without the Blues, Freeze and Steelers franchises being able to play games or practice in their home markets creating an unprecedented challenge where league play would continue for some teams and stop for an extended period of time for others. The challenge for our organization, like many businesses who have been hardest hit by the pandemic, was to tow a fine line in balancing what was best for our players, our business and our community. The actions we took in advance of November 9th show we took this task seriously.
However, with deep reflection it is clear to us that we did not find the correct balance in our decision making on this occasion. We were wrong in directing the players to the Laker Academy programming without a clear approval from Hockey Manitoba and wrong for not taking an even broader interpretation of the public health order than what was strictly enforceable.
Were we deceptive in our actions? Were we trying to hide our intentions? Were we trying to skirt the public health order or the Hockey Manitoba directive? Absolutely not, the facts are clear and speak for themselves. However, we are a business that depends on the trust and support of the community we play in and we could have done better. For that, we are deeply sorry.
The bottom line is that in an unprecedented situation, with honest intentions, we made a bad choice. Unfortunately, there is nothing we can do to change what occurred on November 9th. However, moving forward, we can be a role model for our players and our community by owning our mistakes whole heartedly, correcting course immediately, and being the best possible example for going above and beyond for the greater good for as long as this pandemic lasts and beyond.
Moving forward we will be extra vigilant when seeking clarity and ensure decisions are made in partnership with Hockey Manitoba and the Manitoba Junior Hockey League.