Winnipeg Blues, Freeze fined thousands, docked draft picks following COVID-19 practice scandal

The ownership group representing two Manitoba Junior Hockey League teams is out $5,000 and a pair of first-round draft picks after failing to comply with Hockey Manitoba COVID-19 protocols.

The league came down with its punishment for the Winnipeg Blues and Winnipeg Freeze following a scandal that surfaced earlier this month, when the teams held practices at the Sunova Arena in Warren, Man.

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Hockey in Winnipeg at that time was halted because the city was under level red restrictions — which banned all sports and recreation activities.

However, the Interlake, Northern and Prairie Mountain regions of the province were under level orange restrictions, leaving rinks in those areas open for business.

At the beginning of November, Hockey Manitoba publicized the following directive:

“For the safety of all members, both hockey teams and individuals (players, officials, and team staff) residing in the Provincial Response Level: Critical (Red) are ineligible to participate in hockey programming beginning Monday November 2, 2020 and will be revisited on Sunday November 15, 2020.”

The league says the ownership group made an independent decision to operate privately outside of the Hockey Manitoba restrictions, without the necessary approval, by directing players and staff to travel outside of the Winnipeg Metro Region to participate in private unsanctioned hockey programming, knowing the above directive was in place.

Click to play video 'MJHL’S Blues and Freeze admit ‘error in judgment’' MJHL’S Blues and Freeze admit ‘error in judgment’

MJHL’S Blues and Freeze admit ‘error in judgment’

However, the review made clear the actions of the teams did not go against Public Health guidelines, only the governing body’s own restrictions.

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“The group did seek guidance from Public Health prior to the practice being held on the necessary protocols required, specific for the Warren, MB. Facility, to enable them to participate safely in the training session.”

Read more: MJHL’s Winnipeg Blues and Freeze admit ‘error in judgment’ after unsanctioned practice

In a short statement released not long after Hockey Manitoba’s punishment went public, the Blues and Freeze accepted the findings of the review.

“[The organizations] are grateful that the review acknowledged that they had contacted public health in advance of the practice to be sure they complied with COVID-19 restrictions, as written. This fact demonstrates that every effort was made to be transparent with the best intentions in mind for the players.”

“That said, the organizations continue to be sorry for their decision and have learned from this unfortunate incident.”

The team’s owner will pay the $5,000 fine immediately and in full, and Hockey Manitoba will use that money to fund personal protective equipment relief efforts for Manitoba’s front-line workers.

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Read more: Manitoba, Winnipeg partner on dedicated coronavirus testing site for front-line responders

Both forfeited draft picks will come in the 2021 MJHL draft.

The teams will also be required to complete a community initiative.

Hockey Manitoba reiterated in its statement the punishment is directed solely at team ownership.

“It is important to note that the above penalties are a result of the decision of the ownership and management group and not that of the players and/or staff of each organization,” the statement reads. “Their participation does not merit any sanctions as a result of this unique, unprecedented and difficult set of circumstances.”

The governing body is also asking all Manitobans to refrain from stigmatizing players, coaches or their families.

“These young athletes have seen how unforgiving individuals can be.”

With the entire province now under level red restrictions, the MJHL season is paused with a tentative restart date of Jan. 1, pending approval from Public Health officials.

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