The Big Six Hockey League has been a staple in towns and villages throughout southeast Saskatchewan for decades, delivering great hockey and a place to be for hockey fans and others in communities.
But thanks to COVID-19 restrictions, the league won’t be able to finish its season for the second straight campaign.
The Big Six officially cancelled the rest of its season Wednesday. President Rae Wright spoke to all of the teams Wednesday morning, and he received unanimous support for pulling the plug on the season.
Most were relieved with the decision, he said.
“We have to abide by government regulations to do with COVID, and playing hockey isn’t one of their big priorities,” said Wright.
The league’s nine teams had been placed in two divisions. The Carlyle Cougars were in a division with the Kipling-Windthorst Oil Kings, the Redvers Rockets, the Wawota Flyers and the Carnduff Red Devils. The other division boasted the Arcola-Kisbey Combines, the Bienfait Coalers, the Midale Mustangs and the Yellow Grass Wheat Kings.
The Big Six started the 2020-21 season in early November, as it normally would. Teams played anywhere from two to five games in the few weeks of league play.
While there was a talent gap between the top teams and the lower teams, once the season did start, Wright thought fans were treated to some pretty good hockey.
“There were four top teams and four bottom teams, and one kind of in the middle. When the top teams played, there was really good hockey,” said Wright.
He enjoyed an early-season game between the Carnduff Red Devils and the Redvers Rockets – the two teams slated to play in the 2020 league final until last season came to a screeching halt due to spring COVID restrictions.
The 2020-21 season was halted on Nov. 27 when the Saskatchewan Health Authority paused games for team sports due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Big Six players also couldn’t practise to keep their skills sharp.
There weren’t any COVID outbreaks associated with Big Six games or teams.
When the provincial government announced Tuesday that it was extending the ban on games until Feb. 19, Wright said that was the final blow for the 2020-21 season, but they knew for some time that the season would likely have to be cancelled.
The league is usually in the second round of the playoffs by Feb. 19.
“With the players not even allowed to practice, most of them haven’t skated for 2 1/2 months. It’s tough to come back and go straight into the playoffs.”
Players were concerned about getting the disease while playing, and then becoming sick or having to miss two weeks of work while in quarantine.
“It’s a tough call for players to ask them to come and play and not make any money playing, and risk losing two weeks work,” said Wright.
Also, many communities are looking to turn off their ice plants soon and having natural ice for the rest of the winter.
“Without having any revenue, basically, for most of the winter, they want to look at cutting their power bills for the rest of the winter,” said Wright.
The Big Six only had games scheduled for 2020-21 until Dec. 17. Teams were split into the two divisions, because they couldn’t have more than six teams in a bubble. So the league planned to alter its bubbles after Christmas, with the top half of the league in one bubble and the bottom half in the other bubble. It would have continued into the playoffs.
Wright said the league and its teams are in good shape financially. He has been told the Saskatchewan Hockey Association will decide at the end of February how they will determine refunds for team registrations.
He expects the Big Six will be back on the ice for the start of next season in the fall, as long as the pandemic has eased.
The cancellation of the season also likely spells the end of Wright’s tenure as president. He has held the role for six seasons, and he expects someone new will hold the role next year.