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Susy Hota, an infectious-diseases specialist at the University Health Network in Toronto, says tournaments risk becoming the sites of outbreaks, as several have already proven to be.Cole Burston/The Globe and Mail

The latest: Greater Toronto Hockey League postponing all competitive games for rest of 2021 amid COVID-19 surge

Nearly 150 hockey teams from across Ontario were set to arrive in Oakville this weekend for the Harvest Classic, an annual tournament that was going to go ahead for the first time since 2019.

But with COVID-19 cases increasing among players, teams dropping out and the rapid rise of infections throughout the province, organizers decided Wednesday to cancel the event.

“The numbers are crazy, we’re going to expose all these people coming to our town. Christmas is around the corner, and I don’t want to be the guy who [is responsible for] a volunteer or a parent who is going to miss Christmas because somehow it got spread, because this thing is spreading,” says Mike Turczyniak, president of the Oakville Hornets Girls Hockey Association, the organizing body of the Harvest Classic.

The association also decided to postpone all practices and games until the New Year.

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Less than a week before the expected start of the world junior championships in Alberta, COVID-19 infection rates are rising across the country and new cases of the Omicron variant are being identified. In that environment, many hockey programs across the country are cancelling tournaments and postponing games and practices, at least until after the holidays.

Doing so, they say, is necessary to help stop the spread of the virus and avoid forcing players and parents into isolation over the holidays.

Last Saturday, Harvest Classic tournament organizers began talking about whether to go ahead. One team of kids under 12 had three or four players who tested positive for the virus. The situation worsened over the next few days. By Wednesday, 16 teams had dropped out of the tournament because players had either tested positive or been exposed to someone with the virus.

As beloved as the game is, hockey poses a high risk of transmission, with players gathered in locker rooms and breathing heavily as they sit side by side on benches.

Tournaments risk becoming the sites of outbreaks, as several have already proven to be, said Susy Hota, an infectious-diseases specialist at the University Health Network in Toronto. To manage this current wave, particular in Ontario, where the curve is “close to vertical,” the utmost caution is needed, she said.

“This is the time to really take a cautious approach.”

Several tournaments have been sources of recent outbreaks. At least 11 cases of COVID-19 have been linked to a tournament in London, Ont., and another 20 cases have been associated with a tournament in Markham.

“I suspect a lot of that is from the locker-room and times in between plays,” Hota said.

With players often travelling from afar to attend tournaments, they risk spreading the virus throughout the province.

“With something like that, where you have a lot of people interacting and sort of rapidly turning over like that, you can definitely become the epicentre of an outbreak,” Hota said. “The time to intervene more aggressively is in the very early stages of that exponential rise in cases.”

This week, the Maritime Junior Hockey League announced it is postponing regular-season games in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick between Dec. 17 and Jan. 2.

The move was prompted by new public-health rules that limit the number of participants and spectators at practices and games. As well, several teams in the league have reported positive cases among players in the past week.

On Friday, Nova Scotia reported a record single-day increase in COVID-19 cases, with 394. The previous record was set Thursday, when 287 new cases were reported.

“Our league is driven by fans and we need to have them in our facilities to be successful,” Steve Dykeman, president of the league, said in an e-mail.

Elsewhere in the country, however, things are still largely unchanged despite concerns over Omicron.

“It’s business as usual,” said Peter Woods, executive director of Hockey Manitoba. In B.C., operations are “status quo,” according to a spokesperson for the B.C. Hockey League, who noted that may change depending on what new restrictions come out of an expected provincial announcement on Friday afternoon.

The Greater Toronto Hockey League, the largest amateur minor-hockey league in the world, still open as of Friday, but several other leagues in the province have temporarily shuttered operations.

Earlier in the week, both the Guelph Minor Hockey Association and Guelph Girls Hockey Association announced they would be cancelling all games until at least Dec. 23 because of positive cases among players and several players having to isolate because of exposure to the virus.

“Even without anybody getting a case, we were starting to see teams missing three, four, five people because they’re close contacts with someone [who tested positive],” said Mike Ruthven, president of the Guelph Girls Hockey Association.

When the association announced on Monday that it was postponing games until at least Dec. 27, between 10 and 20 players were in isolation and at least two had tested positive for COVID-19, Mr. Ruthven said.

“I think it’s important for people in positions like us at the board to step forward and say, on behalf of all of those parents out there that are worried about this … you know what, I think everybody agrees that probably we shouldn’t be doing this any more.”

Some parents have complained, he said, but the majority have supported the decision.

Of the 146 teams that were scheduled to play in the Harvest Classic, some complained to Mr. Turczyniak about the decision to cancel the tournament. “We’re all safe, we’re all vaccinated,” one told him.

The decision was not an easy one for Mr. Turczyniak and his fellow board members, but none of them wanted to risk exposing players, parents or volunteers, he said.

“It’s really about the safety of everybody. It really sucks for those girls not to be able to play, but this thing is bigger than hockey.”