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Canada's starting pitcher Timmy Piasentin (9) gets hug from catcher Everett Bertsch during a pitching change in the fifth inning of an elimination baseball game against Curacao at the Little League World Series tournament in South Williamsport, Pa., Aug. 19, 2019.Gene J. Puskar/The Associated Press

Imagine youth sports with equipment and hands being sanitized repeatedly throughout games. Picture kids keeping their distance from one another on fields and benches, asked not to high five, huddle up, spit sunflower seeds or do postgame handshakes.

Imagine team parents spread apart from each other instead of banding together in bleachers, or being asked to apply ice packs and Band-Aids for their own children so team volunteers can keep their distance. Envision the teaching of intricate skills – such as a pitcher’s finger positioning on the seams of a ball – happening by video instead of through an up-close hands-on moment between child and coach.

If and when organized youth team sports can resume in Canada, these are a few of the ideas coming from provincial sports leaders to help limit the spread of COVID-19.

After COVID-19, we’ll never take vacations, watch movies or root for sports teams in the same way

A handful of individual sports, such as golf and tennis, have already received the go-ahead for recreational play across most provinces. Yet organized team sports for hundreds of thousands of Canadian children will start later than usual this summer – if they start at all – and will look different than you remember.

Provincial sport leaders are devising ways to retrofit their sports with physical-distancing adaptations, readying their return-to-play proposals for the day when health authorities ask to see them. If seasons can be salvaged, start dates will vary from region to region and sport to sport, based on provincial government timelines and approvals.

While their ideas vary, many sports bodies agree on one thing. When kids first return to fields and diamonds, the focus initially will be on individual skill exercises that maintain safe distancing, rather than formal games.

“We’re looking at a multiphased approach, because it wouldn’t be wise for us to go right back to competition and exponentially adding contact with many people outside of your family bubble,” said Jason deVos, director of development at Canada Soccer. “We will introduce the game back to players in a gradual way, starting with individual player work – one player, one ball – and maintaining the physical-distancing guidelines that each government is asking for. We have to be mindful that the traditional form of a game – a competition between one club and another – that might take some time.”

Each provincial soccer association – and each of their local clubs and academies – will submit their own return-to-play plans, based on what local health authorities advise. Soccer leaders across Canada have been collaborating on ideas, deVos says, such as players using only their own equipment, instead of shared balls and team uniforms, and doing activities that keep players spaced apart. Teams may need to add buffer times between sessions and enforce strict drop-off and pickup protocols. Masks may be considered if health authorities suggest them.

It won’t be easy for provincial and local associations to steer these changes – some have been financially devastated by lost revenue from refunded registrations, cancelled tournaments and clinics, and many are laying off staff. There are complex issues to navigate. Local sports bodies need to revisit insurance policies and liabilities in pandemic times. Each has to figure out how it could give refunds to families who no longer wish to play, when upfront club costs for things such as equipment and uniforms may already have been spent.

Ontario Soccer – Canada’s biggest provincial sports organization with some 500,000 participants – laid off 80 per cent of its staff, down to just 12 people. Only four of those are full time and they’ve taken pay cuts.

“Amateur sport is big business. We’re fooling ourselves if we think we’re going to return on whatever day it is and it will look anything like it was when we stopped – there will be a new normal,” said Johnny Misley, Ontario Soccer’s chief executive officer. “Return to play will be: get your ball, come back and simply be active in a controlled, safe environment and play the beautiful game, but forget about scheduled seasons right now. It will be very small steps back to competition, and then staying very close to home, with that circle for travel widening later on.”

Some provinces are closer than others when it comes to a resumption of team field sports. Softball BC, for instance, has created detailed return-to-play protocols, because they are shooting to start June 1, based on what the B.C. government has announced about its phases for reopening the province. But there are hurdles. Softball BC needs to view provincial health-and-safety guidelines for sport to see if their protocols are compliant. Then they’ll need municipal governments to grant them permits to use the fields.

Parents will be asked to drop off their softball players at specific times to avoid crowding. Shared softballs and bats will be sanitized throughout the session, and teams will leave the diamond immediately rather than hanging around for team meetings. Catchers and umpires – who are huddled closely behind the plate – will both wear some kind of mask over nose and mouth. Players won’t sit shoulder to shoulder in dugouts, but will space out around their sideline. They’ll have to find new ways to celebrate home runs and victories other than high fives and team hugs.

The five- to eight-year-olds at Softball BC will do a six-week skill-building program with no games, which maintains physical distance among children. Each child will be accompanied by a parent or older sibling to help maintain physical distancing between coaches and players, acting as throwing partner and tending to minor bumps and scrapes. Those children will hit off a tee or a pitching machine, and the bucket of balls will be sanitized after every batter.

“We just don’t think we can play games at that age without a mass of kids all running after one ball and we think this will be fun for families in that age group,” said Rick Benson, executive director Softball BC. “We don’t want parents or kids to have any reason to be afraid to come to the ball park.”

As with many sports, provincial softball associations across Canada are sharing ideas, but they will ultimately customize their plans to meet the health and safety protocols in their region. So softball in Canada may return at different times and have different modifications.

“If the umpire moves back from the catcher, the umpire is open up to injury, so we’re exploring everything from standing behind the fence to standing behind the pitcher,” said Dave Feener, executive director of Softball Newfoundland Labrador. “We still have to try and maintain the integrity of the game, too, so it’s not a mockery. The responsibility of our coaches is going to be massive, to watch out for kids – are they getting too close to one another or do they have a runny nose or a cough?”

Quebec Baseball Federation says its proposed plans include having the umpire, who is usually at home plate calling balls and strikes, positioned instead this season six feet behind the pitcher. Coaches and umps will wear masks, and every team will have someone in charge of sanitizing equipment. There will be no sharing of equipment, such as catcher’s gear and batting helmets. Players will be asked to bring their own hand sanitizer and to leave the sunflower seeds and bubblegum at home.

“I see a season starting maybe mid-July or beginning of August,” said Maxime Lamarche, Quebec Baseball’s general manager. “And maybe we can go a little deeper into the fall instead of stopping as we normally do in September.”

Rugby Canada and its provincial unions recently formed a working group to start developing a countrywide return-to-play strategy. That contact team sport will get pro-active about offering different ways to deliver rugby programming – tapping into ideas currently used in rookie rugby.

“We don’t want to be limited to the traditional definition of our game, which is 15-a-side and full contact,” said Annabel Kehoe, CEO of BC Rugby, who chairs the group. “There are a whole host of game variations, like flag rugby or training activities where everyone uses their own ball. We want to be so careful. We are rugby experts, not health experts, and we’re taking our time to get this right the first time.”

Canada’s football associations have been using this down time to conduct online coaching clinics and ruminating about ways to conduct football-related activities in small groups.

Provincial lacrosse leaders will have their annual general meeting by video conference this week. Each style – from field to box lacrosse – may need different modifications. Their decision making will eventually be guided by government rules about how many people can safely gather. They may consider a version with fewer players when children first return – perhaps 3-on-3. They also wonder if registrations will drop.

“Plenty of people are out of work, and so how will some households afford for their kids to play sport this summer?” said Shawn Williams, president of the Canadian Lacrosse Association. “On the other hand, will parents put a high priority on getting their kids active again, because they have been penned up for so long? Many will have tough decisions to make.”

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