If Ontario gets it wrong on COVID-19 again, what are we supposed to tell our kids?

OPINION: My son is set to hit the ice for his first-ever hockey game, and there are more scheduled for the weeks to come. But I can’t honestly reassure him that they’ll happen
By Matt Gurney - Published on Nov 15, 2021
Youth-hockey leagues across Canada experienced shutdowns during the pandemic. (FatCamera/iStock)

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Regular readers of this column at TVO.org have probably noticed that youth hockey is a theme I return to often. I’m not sure I really have a good explanation for why that is. If I had to produce one, I guess it would simply be some version of: it’s an issue I am personally very invested in, thanks to my son, but I also think it’s a useful symbol of some of the challenges we are facing as a province in these difficult times.

My interest in the sport goes back even before the pandemic. Right as we were learning about a strange new pneumonia in Wuhan, I wrote a series of articles here about the difficulty the sport is facing in recruiting new talent and keeping up with the changing population. Once the pandemic arrived, it became for me almost a personal barometer for normalcy. My son’s hockey league going on hiatus — as it turned out, a season-ending one — was among the first tangible signs, alongside the shuttering of the schools, that our civic leaders were belatedly waking up to the danger the virus posed. Efforts to get hockey back to something close to normal have remained useful to me as a symbol of our slow, often inelegant effort to restart a society we hurriedly shut down 20 months ago.

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There’s good news, so let’s put it at the front: leagues have reopened. The kids are playing again. Good.

The process of starting the leagues was ... interesting. As I’ve been driving from arena to arena, I’ve been noticing little signs of the confusion that has marked Ontario’s entire pandemic experience. What the “reopening” looked like tended to differ depending on whom you asked. Once the rinks were open, could leagues use them? If the leagues could use them, how many people could use them at a time? Were parents allowed to watch their kids play? If spectators were permitted, how many were permitted? There were multiple organizations involved in each of these decisions, in every jurisdiction, and none of them seemed in agreement on anything. Confusion reigned.

One particularly interesting little moment of discordance: one day, when I arrived with my son at a rink for a practice, I took the time to look over all the various sheets of paper containing emergency information that had been taped up at the entrances and exits. It became clear to me that none had really ever been taken down — new ones had just been added along the way. This struck me as an interesting little bit of living history, but more to the point, it was wildly confusing. The directives have changed so many times that I can’t blame facility staff for missing a few. But leaving up different sheets explaining the different rules — many of them in outright conflict with one other — goes some of the way to explaining both why people are often confused about the right thing to do and why I suspect we are likely to start seeing compliance with rules drop. Who has time to figure out which sheet of official paper tacked up at a government facility is the right one at any given moment? Who hasn’t gotten lost in all the details?

But, mostly, as the leagues reopen, I just think of the kids. This should be my son’s third year of hockey. In a way, he’s still in the first. His first actual year was cut off by the pandemic’s arrival. There were months left on the schedule that were never completed. The second year, in Toronto, was lost entirely. The third year has really just gotten started in the past few weeks. So how long has my son been playing hockey? For three years. How much actual hockey has he been able to play? As of today, not quite a full season’s worth.

And this has had an effect. Around the rink, I’ve been talking with other parents and coaches and league officials, and something that everyone universally agrees on is that these kids are not at the skill level they normally would be. The first few weeks of the season were given over to very basic practices so that the kids could rediscover and hone the most fundamental parts of playing the game. They’re kids. They bounce back quickly and have a blast doing it. But not every part of Ontario was shut down as long or as fully as Toronto. When you see kids of comparable ages from parts of the province that were not shut down, you very quickly notice the difference. The Toronto kids are going to have to get caught up quickly, or else they’re going to have a very discouraging season in which they get thumped by kids from areas where the rinks and leagues stayed open.

More broadly, I do wonder about the long-term psychological toll all of this will have on kids. I don’t mean the pandemic broadly; I’m talking about the shutting down of once-routine events and facilities. School, athletics, and organized sports are known contributors to healthy outcomes for children. The loss of all that will obviously have some aggregate impact on this young generation in ways we might be able to quantify and track. Will we ever be able to quantify or track what it does to a child when school and activities and seeing family and playing sports become things that can just suddenly get shut down, for reasons beyond their control? When I was a young kid, school just ... was. It was a constant. It was unbending. It never even occurred to me to question it, and I suspect I’m not alone. For this generation, school and sports and church and all the other things are just things that can stop one day and stay closed for months. That has to have some effect.

I wrote here a week ago that some of Ontario public-health metrics are moving in the wrong direction. I had hoped by now to be able to say that it looked like a blip. Unfortunately, it does appear that the recent turn-around in cases is for real. We may find ourselves at the beginning of another wave.

My son’s first-ever proper, organized hockey game is tonight. It took us two years to get him to this point, with a whole damned pandemic dropped right in the middle of that process. He already has more games scheduled over the coming weeks. I have to admit to a sick feeling of dread. I’m not honestly sure I could tell him in good faith that I’m confident those games will be played. In the coming weeks, the government is going to have to make some difficult decisions in a high-stress environment. I find it impossible to have faith in its ability to do so effectively and cautiously.

If my son loses a hockey game due to this, or if both of my children face another long spell out of school, I don’t know how I’ll be able to explain that to them. And I don’t know how I’d forgive the people, the politicians, and the anti-vaxxers, who seem set on letting it happen. 

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