Coping with COVID: Ottawa’s community sports groups wait on uncertain path forward

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An empty Charmaine Hooper Fields in Nepean. File photo.

By Charlie Pinkerton

It’s been close to two months from the last time anyone in Ottawa heard the irreplicable sound of a spiked volleyball reverberating throughout a gymnasium.

Kerry MacLean, the president and founder of the Maverick Volleyball Club, is fresh off the phone with fellow club executives when he calls the Sportspage.

They had been discussing the club’s bookkeeping – going over expenses, talking budgets, etc. – such as would normally happen about two months from now. But this season’s circumstances are anything but normal.

The pandemic means there are member fees to reimburse, trip expenses to cancel and unused gym credits to be negotiated.

All that work comes with little reward for the club, whose teams’ seasons were brought to a swift conclusion because of the dangerous new coronavirus and the social shutdowns that have come with it.

“This is probably the worst way it could happen,” MacLean said.

This was supposed to be The Year for the club’s top teams.

Maverick squads attend the national championships every season. That was again the trajectory for the club’s defending provincial champions, its 17U and 18U boys, who were poised to return for another shot a nationals after silver medal and quarterfinal-making performances in 2019.

Add in cancelled year-ending celebrations and, in some cases, screwed up university recruiting, and you’ve got the antithesis to a sports movie ending.

In reality, in COVID-19-caused sports limbo, the Mavs followed a similar playbook as other community sports clubs; the club is informing its members as it can, and offering virtual training. It’s all it really can do. Meanwhile behind the scenes, MacLean and the rest of the executive are sorting through ways to make sure the nets get back up, when the time comes.

“We can’t be a bank, we’re a not-for-profit, so we don’t carry a large contingency fund. We have one – that’s only prudent. But maybe not as big as we need in this situation,” MacLean says with a nervous chuckle. “Like I said, this is all number crunching right now. That’s what we’re into.”

Nervous times for local sports clubs

Unlike the blast of a volleyball, the uncertainty the Maverick club is facing is very replicable – in fact it’s widespread across Ottawa sports at the moment.

No corner of the sports community has been spared from the shock waves of COVID-19. As the standstill of the sports world hits the two-month mark, the best many clubs can hope for is that the long-term impacts of the pandemic remain just ripples.

Leaders of athletic organizations in the city have been relegated to an unfamiliar position on the sidelines, resigned to a spectator role in the high-stakes, ultra-noncompetitive waiting game that is the pandemic.

“I think it would be very naïve to think that no sport is affected,” said Marci Morris, executive director of the Ottawa Sport Council, in an interview in late April.

Sports have been on hold across Ontario since early March when all three levels of government scrambled to quickly put in place restrictions on people’s travel and contact with each other to reduce the risk of spreading the new coronavirus.

On March 13, the day after the Ontario government shut down schools, the City of Ottawa followed suit for its facilities, including those that are used for sports. The virus, and the measures taken to slow its transmission, stopped play and practice at local fields, ball diamonds, courts, complexes, community centres, arenas and pools ever since. The ban has since been extended by the City to the end of June.

“The inability to provide programming has left many wondering how and if they will be able to survive the COVID-19 pandemic,” the Ottawa Sport Council, the umbrella organization that speaks as Ottawa sports’ collective voice, said in a message to its members in early April.

Sports that traditionally run in the springtime have been the most obviously impacted.

Nepean Nighthawks Field Hockey Club

The Nepean Nighthawks were close to finishing their winter training session when the pandemic forced the field hockey club to pause all activities. Shortly after, the club shut down a planned trip to Holland, which was scheduled for Easter, as well as its annual trip to Syracuse. The Nighthawks have since cancelled its spring/summer season in its entirety and offered refunds to all of its members.

“Our job in the first place is the health of the kids and the people who play for us,” Nighthawks co-founder Sandeep Chopra said in an interview.

The Nighthawks have applied for permits to hold games later than they usually do in the summer, but that’s the last it’s been able to update its members about potential play this season.

When asked about the financial impact of the pandemic on the Nighthawks, Chopra said the volunteer-run not-for-profit will be hurt by not being able to improve their programming, as they try to do year-after-year. The possibility of the club hiring summer students is maybe out the window, Chopra added. Summer 2020 would have marked the club’s 12th season of play.

The Nighthawks, and field hockey in the nation’s capital more generally, have gained momentum in recent years, Chopra said, and the club recently struck a deal with the City to provide land to build a field hockey-first facility in Nepean Creek Park.

“You never know what will happen when you start back up again. Maybe we’ll be wildly popular, maybe we won’t,” Chopra said.

East Nepean Little League

During the early weeks of the shutdown, the president of the East Nepean Little League, Bruce Campbell, said the league’s executive committee were holding planning meetings once a week but are now just “sitting back and waiting.”

The baseball association has now advised members that a 2020 season may take place in the summer only and has offered full refunds. If it’s not possible for a baseball season to proceed, East Nepean Little League’s revenue could be wiped out entirely. Its operating costs won’t be however, meaning that by continuing to pay for things like insurance and storage for equipment and uniforms, the club could end up down $20,000 for the year. Thankfully, Campbell noted, the almost-65-year-old organization’s “rainy day” reserve fund has enough to swallow the loss it expects.

“It’s a very unique situation and I hope it’s 100 years before we live through another one of them,” Campbell said.

Pandemic-effects are not unique to Spring sports, however, as each day further erodes away at the sports calendar.

Fortune Freestyle

Jay Moore is the president of Fortune Freestyle, whose competition season had just about reached its conclusion when COVID-19 ended sports.

The club lost its final mogul event of the season and had to put an end to its off-season airbag training not long after it had been set up, said Moore. The competitive ski club that operates out of Camp Fortune has shifted to offering virtual training (alike Maverick, and, as other examples, each of Ottawa’s biggest soccer clubs) instead of their normal summertime training.

While the pandemic has rattled the economy, Moore said Fortune Freestyle is not anticipating a dip in membership or planning for its core season starting in September to be impacted at the moment.

“We haven’t lost anything significant. We’ve lost momentum and a couple of bucks but nothing that we can’t recover from,” Moore said about how the pandemic had affected the not-for-profit group financially. “If it continues this way into the key season, that’s where we’re going to hurt.”

Committees struck to determine return to sport timelines/guidelines

Returning to play – whenever that may be – requires synchronicity of a series of complexities. Most sports are dependent on a combination of green lights coming from the National Sport Organization (NSO) they belong to, the City, which controls many facilities, and the province, the gatekeeper of emergency social restrictions. Each are ultimately reliant in some way on the advice of the federal government and the guidance it is relaying from the public health officials captaining the crisis response.

As provinces have started moving at their own paces to reopen their economies, it’s unclear how NSOs will juggle jurisdictional differences.

The City’s shutdown date of June 30 will all but surely keep amateur sport from resuming until then. A slight glimmer of promise came last week from Mayor Jim Watson, who trickled out the first lifting of restrictions, albeit in the most minuscule of fashions. He tweeted on Wednesday that the City’s parks would now be accessible to “enjoy fresh air and various outdoor activities.”

 

Public fields, courts and tracks are still a no-go for use, and the provincial limitation on social gatherings of more than 5 people are still in place.

The province’s re-opening roadmap, which it released in April, casts a grim outlook for sports (“sporting events” only mention is in the third-and-final stage of the plan, which says they will “continue to be restricted for the foreseeable future”), but the province has otherwise hinted a permitting some types of athletics sooner than others.

Premier Doug Ford announced on May 1 that while they must remain closed for use that golf courses could once again bring in staff to prepare for the season. A week later, the provincial government announced it would allow professional teams to begin utilizing their training facilities again. A press release from Sport Minister and Nepean MPP Lisa MacLeod was vague on details about the type of activities that pro teams are permitted to conduct, but for what it’s worth, the CEBL, the league that the new Ottawa Blackjacks basketball franchise will play in, will not permit practice until June anyway, a league source told the Sportspage. The Ministry of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture that MacLeod leads has also created committees to discuss safe post-COVID-19 sporting environments, in both amateur and pro sports. Former Ottawa Senators president and CEO Cyril Leeder is co-chairing the amateur advisory side, while also working with the professional-focused group, Postmedia reported.

For the Ottawa Sport Council, Morris says about “75 per cent” of its work has shifted to trying to find ways to support community sports organizations during the pandemic, which has included compiling funding programs that local sports organizations may be eligible for (which can be found here).

Of the clubs the Sportspage spoke to for this story, none said they had applied for additional government funding, but most annexed their comments by also adding “yet.”

The Sport Council recently put out an open call to the community to participate in its new working group to develop a structured pathway for organizations in Ottawa to follow to eventually restart play.

“We envision the roadmap will be a step by step guide on how to return to play and will be based on information from the City, the Province and Public Health as well as best practices from other jurisdictions,” she said in another message to members on Friday. Once its members are compiled, the group will meet biweekly beginning after Victoria Day and going through the summer.

In late April, Morris approximated a return date of sports of late 2020 or early 2021, but noted that even in giving that guess there still remains the question, “What is post-COVID sport going to look like?”

The troubling truth is that no one really knows when the recluse of society – and in turn sport – will end, or the answer to Morris’ further-down-the-line worry. Without a vaccine for COVID-19 – which many of those who are trying to develop don’t expect for the better part of a year, at least – Canada’s top health body has suggested social restrictions may have to remain in place in some way. Even in that case, lesser waves of the disease could precipitate throughout the population over the next year.

“Every sport has to follow the lead of public health. I don’t think anybody can plan a restart to sport and I don’t think that anybody has an idea of what sport will look like,” Morris said.

“Because if you’re an individual sport and you’re a diver, for example, that’s very different from being in a dragon boat with 18 people in the boat, so it’s very different. Soccer is very different from rugby, because in soccer there’s not usually a lot of physical contact… There’s absolutely no way to generalize it.”

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