LETHBRIDGE, ALTA. -- Unless the province provides new information by Feb. 1, a decision will have to be made on whether planning should continue for minor hockey this season in Alberta, officials said Tuesday.

"Please note that any decision regarding league play will not mean the end of hockey activity for the 2020-21 season," read a release.

"All timelines of when hockey will be allowed to return and the required safety protocols that may be in place if that happens are still uncertain. Hockey Alberta Members should discuss deadlines and options for a return with their facility/ municipality."

The release adds teams should "consider options for flexible programming, such as skill development programming and/or exhibition or mini-league games (ie: three-on-three/four-on-four, that could be implemented to complete the year."

Hockey Alberta officials met with the province and AHS, as recently as last week, to discuss relaunching in a safe way.

"Hockey Alberta remains focused on working with government officials to develop a plan that will permit teams to return to practice and eventual game play and keep our youth active for their physical and mental well-being," read the release.

The announcement comes as nearly a dozen rallies were held across Alberta on Tuesday, calling on the provincial government to lift restrictions for minor hockey and youth sports.

Hockey parents in Bentley, Bow Island, Vulcan, Medicine Hat and Indus were among those who participated in local events.

Bow Island Minor Hockey Association President Chantel Timmons said the COVID restrictions need to be regionalized, so they make sense in communities where the number of cases remain low.

“We’ve done our part. We’ve lowered our numbers. Let our kids play the game.”

Timmons points out in communities like Bow Island, the kids are already divided into cohorts for school.

“These kids in essence are doing phys-ed class together, so why can’t they go play hockey after school, or any kind of youth sport.”

Bow Island has 52 kids registered for minor hockey, but already nearly 1,000 people have signed a petition they started, calling for the Alberta government to adopt a “smart return to play strategy.”

About 60 people gathered at a similar event in Indus, just east of Calgary.

“These kids need this,” said Chantelle Unger, who organized the Indus rally.

“This is so important for them for their physical health, for their mental health. They need it.”

Team sports have been prohibited in Alberta since November when the province announced health measures to try and reduce the spread of COVID-19 as case numbers climbed. 

Health officials have since eased some restrictions in Alberta, including allowing personal service businesses to open and permitting outdoor gatherings of up to 10 people. 

“(The children) just want to play hockey or whatever sport they’re in,” said Unger.

Kyle Wickstrom is on the Vulcan Minor Hockey Association board, and Vulcan’s representative on the Central Alberta Hockey League Board of Directors.

“A lot of people made home rinks this year, so their kids could skate,” said Wickstrom.

Wickstrom says while it may be too risky for kids to be playing games against teams from other towns, he would like local players to have an opportunity to skate and practice together.

“The kids like hockey, but even more they love to play together,” Wickstrom added.

“It would help their mental and emotional state, I believe.”

Timmons said timing is critical, because many small towns are talking about pulling out the ice and shutting down the rinks for the season, if the restrictions aren’t changed soon.

Hockey seasons on the line

The Indus Minor Hockey Association announced last week it is cancelling the rest of its season "due to the financial obligations that would be required to keep the ice in at the Indus Arena.”

“I think the decision is pretty imminent here,” said Kevin Kobelka with Hockey Calgary.

“We need to make a final call in the next week or two. Once again, we’re waiting to work in partnership with Hockey Alberta, our governing body.”

A typical minor hockey season ends in early- to mid-March due to ice availability and other sport seasons starting, Kobelka said.

He understands the need for health measures and the importance of having to have restrictions in place to slow the spread of COVID-19, but Kobelka adds there’s a lot of frustration among members.

“We believe it is important for the youth to stay active for their physical and social well being, and unfortunately through this pandemic they have been deprived of this opportunity,” he said.