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JONES: COVID-19 shutdown hitting kids sports hardest

The Spruce Grove Cougars gang tackle a West Edmonton Raiders ball carrier in Capital District Minor Football Association play in September 2019. The association has announced the cancellation of the 2020 Spring season due to COVID-19 measures.
The Spruce Grove Cougars gang tackle a West Edmonton Raiders ball carrier in Capital District Minor Football Association play in September 2019. The association has announced the cancellation of the 2020 Spring season due to COVID-19 measures.

The saddest sights in sport for the next two, three or more months won’t be the closed confines of Rogers Place, Commonwealth Stadium or any other professional athlete playground here.

Or around the NHL, CFL, NBA, MLB, or big-event venues like Augusta National, Churchill Downs, Indianapolis Motor Speedway or Wimbledon.

Most pro athletes and fans understand and realize it’s the right thing to do during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the kids? Not so much.

In the peak usage months of the normal school year, they’ve been removed from school and their fields have been closed and cordoned off.

As the snow melts and kids switch seasons to participate in outdoor baseball, softball, soccer, lacrosse, tennis, track, games with family, friends and neighbours lining the sidelines.

The joys of witnessing that first base hit, goal scored or ribbon won, the shared community life sitting together on lawn chairs and in small sets of stands won’t exist.

You only get to be 12 once.

Gary Shelton, the executive director of the Edmonton Sport Council, estimates the number of kids who had that opportunity stolen from them by the COVID-19 pandemic in north-central Alberta is well into six figures.

“Minor soccer alone has in excess of 20,000 in Edmonton alone. Then there’s baseball, softball, tennis, lacrosse, football and the kids you don’t see so easily participating indoors in pools and gymnasiums.”

What that number might be nationally is hard to compute.

And they’ve virtually all been shut down for April, May and June.

It’s not news anymore when any event postpones, but you should know the highest profile kids event in this part of the nation is the latest to fold the tent.

The Brick Invitational hockey tournament organizer Craig Styles has sent out a letter to all involved that the 31st edition of the event — which has produced 205 NHL players with a total of 60,613 NHL games played — has been postponed from early July with little hope of avoiding complete cancellation.

“Not to appear pessimistic, but the advice I am seeing from Alberta Health Services and my two sons, who are both doctors, is that it would be unlikely to be able to hold an international event this year, let alone to allow children to go back to school. One other unfortunate issue is from a sponsorship perspective. We have very little commitment due to other pressing issues our sponsors are dealing with including company layoffs.”

It’s not just the end-of-school-term sports being cancelled. Edmonton Minor Football just shut down the entire season. And the Alberta Summer Games, which were scheduled for late July in Lethbridge, have been delayed until 2021.

Shelton says the situation inspired a special conference.

“Earlier this week I attended a Zoom meeting presented by the Aspen Institute’s Project to Play titled Coronavirus and Youth Sports: What the Future Holds. It featured some of North America’s most respected sports experts and the belief of more than 3,000 sport leaders that youth sports is not going to return as we know it for some time.

This reality, Shelton explains, will be driven by several factors. First is that the financial realities of families will place more kids on the sidelines — some forever.

“Second, many parents will be apprehensive of the close quarters involved in most team sports.

“Third, many parents and their children are adapting to having more time together and enjoying it.

“And fourth, many not-for-profit sports organizations are never going to return as they have been because they won’t have the fiscal resources and will lose valuable volunteers and employees forever.”

Shelton believes youth sport continues to be undervalued in terms of the contributions it makes to a community.

“It has played a major role in strengthening communities by bringing people together, building social capital and fostering greater inclusion of excluded groups. It’s also been an economic driver through everyday play, event hosting and family sports tourism.”

Shelton stated in every downturn in the economy over the last 20 years, there have been cuts to sports, especially in Alberta.

“The phrasing has always been along the lines of, ‘We have other priorities today and we’ll reinvest when times get better.’ When they do get better, the phrasing becomes ‘We have other priorities for reinvestment.’

“As a result, the funding of sport provincially is less than it was in the early ’90s.”

Shelton for one believes that looking ahead to when kids can return to those abandoned playing fields, youth sports could mean a great deal.

“Sport could do so much to help us recover from COVID-19, but it’s going to take guts from all levels of government to make this happen through appropriate resourcing for sports.”

It’s something to think about as you drive on those deserted roadways past those disturbingly empty and silent sports fields, no matter where you live in Canada.

Think of the kids. They’re really what sport is all about.

E-mail: tjones@postmedia.com

On Twitter: @ByTerryJones

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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