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Pro athlete exemption in Ontario keeps the Six on the ice

Indoor sports face significant restrictions in Ontario as COVID-19 cases spike, here’s how the Six are able to carry on.

Michelle Jay

It’s not an easy time to play indoor sports in Ontario. New COVID-19 restrictions that will be in place until at least January 24 put heavy limits on if and how sports leagues are allowed to remain operational.

The Toronto Six may not be as big in Ontario as the Toronto Raptors or the Maple Leafs, but when it comes to these COVID restrictions, they fall into the same category.

Last year, when they were preparing to go to Lake Placid, the Toronto Six had to get creative when it came to practicing. There were limits on how many people could be on the ice at once. Their first practices as a team took place before even the NHL had begun their season and so team workouts sometimes took place in the parking lot outside their home rink on the campus of York University.

As time went on, the Six were granted a professional athlete exemption, meaning that they were able to have full-team practices in preparation for the 2021 Isobel Cup semi-final in Boston.

As Ontario has once again put in place similar COVID-19 restrictions to those that were in place in 2021, the Toronto Six have once again been granted the professional athlete exemption.

“I think that we’re so grateful for being pro hockey players and getting that pro exemption status. That means so much to us, that we’re valued at the same level as the Toronto Maple Leafs and get to keep playing,” said Six defender Stephanie Sucharda.

Sports leagues in Ontario have been permitted to continue playing through the professional athlete exemption, or the designation of what they have termed “elite amateur” status. The PHF as a league is allowed to resume activities as close to normal as possible thanks to the professional designation.

“It’s tough on everyone and our hearts definitely go out, especially to the younger girls who would love to be playing right now, and their leagues have stopped. So I think we’re all just hoping that we can get out of this safely and have everyone back on the ice,” said Sucharda.

Perhaps the biggest difference for the Toronto Six that’s come as a result of these restrictions is the lack of fans. The Six were playing in front of lively, near capacity crowds in the first half of the season, but that will not be the case for at least the remainder of the games in January.

There’s uncertainty about just how long these restrictions will last. As of right now, they’re set to be lifted on January 24, but that’s provided that cases and hospitalizations go down by then. This uncertainty has already led to the All-Star Showcase, originally set to take place in Toronto on January 27, being moved to Buffalo.

As with all other public indoor venues, the Toronto Six’s home rink has masking, vaccination, and physical distancing policies that have been in effect since the beginning of this season. Anyone who enters the rink at Canlan Ice Sports must wear a mask, show proof of vaccination and maintain a distance of two metres when physically possible.

As the PHF’s lone Canadian team, the Toronto Six are often subject to different policies than teams who operate south of the border. These differences are going to be especially pronounced as Ontario remains under a quasi-lockdown.

The team, for their part, haven’t missed a beat since coming back from the winter break. They improved to 9-2 with a 6-1 win on Saturday and an 9-3 win on Sunday, which puts them at first place in the standings.

The Six’s first home game after the restrictions are set to be lifted will be against the Minnesota Whitecaps on February 12, a game that was originally supposed to be played on January 8, but was rescheduled due to COVID-19 protocols affecting the Whitecaps. Whether or not the Six will be allowed to have fans in the stands when the puck drops is a matter that is entirely out of their hands.