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New Normal: Newmarket sports clubs rebounding after COVID-19 pandemic

From the pitch and the pool, to ball diamonds and the ice, local sports organizations work hard to make comeback, with a shift in focus from competition and performance, to participation and fun

As we embrace each phase of the COVID-19 pandemic reopening, NewmarketToday is exploring the latest developments in our "new normal" for sports, business, shopping, dining, entertainment, culture, recreation, worship and (hopefully) socializing in a regular series of articles. 

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When Evan Hopkins took the reins as president of the Newmarket Soccer Club in November 2019, he didn’t expect the 4,000-member strong organization that’s been a fixture in the community for 60 years would have to launch a fundraising campaign to stay alive and kicking.

But as the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic hit the community mid-March and forced the cancellation of house leagues, and closed sports fields and indoor facilities, that’s exactly what has happened.

On July 24, Hopkins and general manager Matthew Kassabian launched a $15,000 GoFundMe campaign to help get through a tough time that found refunds going out and no revenue coming in, with a mortgage and bills to pay on the club-owned Newmarket Soccer Centre on Newpark Boulevard.

So far, $750 has been raised of the $15,000 goal. 

Unlike other clubs that rent space, the local organization owns the indoor soccer centre that is a key source of revenue generation from rentals to community groups, schools, other sports clubs, and children’s camps.

“This fundraiser is to try and get us through a time where we have no revenue,” said Hopkins. “The government offered rent relief, but we don’t pay rent, we have a mortgage and we still have to pay hydro, gas, and many costs that are still ongoing, and losing the outdoor house league, which is the bulk of our programming and our revenue, it puts us in a tough spot.”

One draw on the not-for-profit club’s finances can be found in refunds offered for cancelled programming, which includes recreational, competitive, adult and special needs programs.

“We didn’t want to give credits and hold onto people’s money because everybody is in different financial situations, some are struggling and a lot of people were out of work,” said Hopkins. “If they asked for a refund, we gave it. We would like them to hold a credit, but if they needed that refund, then we gave it.”

In the meantime, as Newmarket and the rest of York Region moved into the third and final stage of Ontario’s reopening plan mid-June, players were allowed back onto the pitch to train and practise with a raft of safety protocols in place.

The new normal of playing soccer includes screening for COVID-19 symptoms, avoidance of non-essential contact, no handling of balls, sanitization of hands before and after practice, arriving dressed and ready to play, no congregating at exits and entrances to the field, and no spectators pitchside.

Hopkins is also hopeful that as the indoor soccer centre reopened this week, rentals will return for its two indoor fields.

“We’re doing everything by provincial regulations regarding safety protocols, so hopefully everybody feels safe and they come back and want to play soccer again,” he said.

Planning is also in the works on modified indoor sessions and programming, Hopkins said, adding that regional club presidents are meeting bi-weekly to discuss protocols to keep everyone safe on the pitch.

“Things are looking positive for the club and we expect to be back in the soccer centre come September, but it will take us a number of years to get back to normal,” he said.

For more information on the Newmarket Soccer Club, visit their website here.

For Newmarket Stingrays Swim Club head coach Dave Ling, who moved to Newmarket amid the COVID-19 pandemic to take the helm of the 200-member group, the past four months have been a “trial by fire”.

“We were about three weeks outside of Olympic trials, which is the apex of our four-year calendar, and we were doing the final preparations getting ready for that, and then mass uncertainty,” said Ling, who is fresh off of coaching provincial team champs the St. John’s Legends in Newfoundland’s capital city from 2016 to 2020.

Like other local sports organizations, the Stingrays took a hit financially as a result of the pandemic’s economic fallout and issued refunds for members, as well as credits. 

The not-for-profit organization took advantage of Ottawa’s wage subsidy program for some staff but also had to lay off part-time workers who were mostly high school students. 

“And, like everybody else, the activity itself was taken away,” said Ling. “It’s sad for the kids. Our sport runs on an 11-month calendar for the best kids, and they haven’t had four months off like this in a long time, since they were young children.”

The Stingrays have been back up and operating for the last four weeks for a select test group of 30 kids in an outdoor pool in Markham, where a camp partner agreed to rent the club its outdoor pool.

The swimmers’ usual local pools remain closed, including at the Magna Centre and Ray Twinney Recreation Complex. But as pandemic restrictions ease, the Magna pool is on track for a mid-September opening.

Ling said the opportunity to use the pool in Markham gave officials the chance to test the club’s extensive COVID-19 protocols in preparation for a return to swim meets and other programs in fall 2020 for those aged five to 18.

The protocols include a COVID-19 self-assessment health screening, ground markers to ensure physical distancing, masking outdoors and indoors until swimmers get in the water, no shared equipment or water bottles, and strict protocols about entering and exiting the facility.

“We’re mindful about everything along the lifecycle of entry into the facility and exiting of the facility, and in our sport, where you need to change from street clothes into a bathing suit, we ask the kids to come beach-ready,” said Ling.

The head coach said the pandemic has become something of a lesson to the club. 

“As an organization, it will be less about performance and excellence come this fall, and more about really, truly celebrating participation,” he said. “You’d like to be able to pursue performance and excellence and there’s a lot of kids who have very lofty goals, but priority one is it’s not ideal to have kids sitting at home playing on their phone on TikTok six hours a day,”

“It’s really a celebration of participation that we’re looking for,” Ling said. “We want to let kids be kids, but in this case, they cannot be so,” he added.

The Stingrays are currently working with the Town of Newmarket to offer its programs at the municipal pools. 

“The town has been a great partner for us, and our obligation and our mandate is to prove to the town we can offer our sport in the town facilities safely,” said Ling.

For more information on the Newmarket Stingrays Swim Club, visit their website here.

At the Newmarket Baseball Association, president Ted Williams said the most significant impact the pandemic has had on the organization was the cancellation of house league teams, which involves about 850 players who normally enjoy opening day in May and play to the end of August.

Only for its healthy reserves was the organization able to refund parents, and pay bills for uniforms and equipment already ordered. 

The club will have some revenue in 2020, but will end up with a big loss because it isn’t getting any base revenue for registration, Williams said.

“We knew we were going to run at a loss completely, so we had some reserves and we will be dipping into the reserves,” said Williams, who aims to have a new budget set by mid-August so the group will have a better handle on its bottom line. “But we’re in a healthy position compared to other clubs in the York Simcoe Baseball Association which we’re a part of, some of whom weren’t able to refund the parents.”

“We felt that because there are so many people not working at the time, we should make a full refund to the parents,” he added. 

Williams said a non-profit sports organization should have one year’s worth of expenses in revenue in its pocket in the event of a catastrophe such as the pandemic.

“Nobody saw this coming, or could have known how drastic it is, and for how long it is continuing,” said Williams. “We put a task force together in April to respond to this, and put off making decisions for a while thinking we would be playing ball by May, but it just kept going and it’s still going.”

Out of about 19 local clubs within the York Simcoe association, Williams said only about five or six found themselves in a financially healthy position when the pandemic hit.

The past few months foundvthe Ontario Baseball Association and local clubs developing strict protocols to keep players, umpires and coaches safe. That includes physical distancing, no contact or sliding, sanitizing hands and equipment, among other measures.

Rep/select players are back on the diamonds for training, and are permitted to play “bubble games” with a total of four teams, at the Fairgrounds, and George Richardson, Armstrong Family and Whipper Watson parks.

For more information on the Newmarket Baseball Association, visit their website here.

While the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t pack the same wallop to winter sports as it did to summer activities, Newmarket Minor Hockey Association president Lynda Carusi said that come September when the kids hit the ice, the organization will put the “fun back into the fundamentals of the game”.

A planned Sept. 21, 2020 restart of local hockey will see smaller teams on the ice, and strict safety protocols currently being drafted by public health officials, the Town of Newmarket and Ontario Hockey Federation.

But one thing is for certain, the focus of Canada’s favourite sport will be on having fun and taking the skaters minds off of the disruption that the pandemic has inflicted on their lives.

“There are no worries about trying to teach a special play, it’s just let’s go out and have fun,” said Carusi. “We’re back on the ice and we’re all alive, and let’s keep our grandparents safe.”

Newmarket minor hockey had only about two weeks left in its season when COVID-19 hit mid-March. The club had a healthy surplus of cash that would enable it to operate for the upcoming season, and be able to purchase things such as jerseys, said Carusi.

The new normal this fall will see a modified season with a total of 12 skaters and a goalie per team, and four-on-four play. Normally in house leagues, there are 15 players and a goalie. Rep teams will play within their own loop to reduce possible exposure to the coronavirus.

“It’s going to be a new normal, that’s for sure,” Carusi said. “We’ve got to get back to basics and start from scratch and see how people handle the new normal. But we’ll wait until after school goes back to start the season and see how comfortable everybody is.”

Carusi said she is seriously considering not including game statistics in their normal play-by-play recording of the games on its website. 

“We really want to bring the fun back into hockey because it’s so competitive,” she said. “Sure, we’ll put the wins and losses up, but stats to see how many goals little Johnny got, we don’t need to worry about that.”

The minor hockey association is also doing everything it can to keep the costs down for parents, and has launched an online fundraiser, Catch the Ace. Proceeds from the weekly progressive lottery will help offset the cost of hockey for parents who are in need. Instalment payments are also being considered by the executive for the 2020/2021 season.

To purchase Catch the Ace tickets, visit here.

For more information on the Newmarket Minor Hockey Association, visit their website here.

 

 




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