With September just days away, many hockey players are eager to return to the ice. Hockey Manitoba's executive director, Peter Woods, is excited for another season to begin, and he's glad that the COVID-19 obstacles are behind them. 

With certain senior hockey leagues in the province amalgamating and others going on a full hiatus in recent years, Woods outlines his concern for their last level of competitive hockey.

"We've been in touch with several groups that could possibly rebound. We'd like to see players that enter the system as a five or six-year-old have a lifelong commitment and involvement with the game. If that extends to senior hockey, I think that's great," Woods explains. "We're always looking to grow the game and reevaluate how to keep those players involved in the game because it is a great sport. We're always looking at how to provide a better experience for all of our members."

The Ste Anne Aces and Ile des Chenes Northstars joined the South Eastern Manitoba Hockey League last season after the Carillon Senior Hockey League went under.

Woods is encouraged by the growth in quality referees in the province. He says COVID forced many veterans to retire, but after a few seasons, the younger officials are finding their footing.

"One of the things we look at is celebrating the strength of our officials. COVID took its toll on our officials, with some of our top ones moving out of the sport, but that gives an opportunity for officials who are further behind in the system to move up to the next level. Everyone has to take a piece of the responsibility to make sure that officials are not only in a safe but comfortable environment, so they can apply their trade and be able to deliver that."

Hockey Manitoba was thrilled to celebrate hockey's greatest achievement with a few local players as Mark Stone (Winnipeg), Zach Whitecloud (Brandon/Sioux Valley Dakota Nation), Keegan Kolesar (Brandon), and Brett Howden (Oakbank) helped the Vegas Golden Knights capture the Stanley Cup.

"It's not only thrilling for those players, but you have to give accolades to the other people involved in that program with Manitoba roots. Kelly McCrimmon (general manager) leads the way there. Bobby Lowes (assistant director of player personnel) played for the University of Manitoba, as did Vaughn Karpan (assistant general manager), who's from The Pas. You have Shane Hnidy (team broadcaster from Neepawa) and Gary Lawless (team insider/reporter) has strong roots in Manitoba," Woods continues. "You have to point the finger where it's deserving, and that's with Kelly McCrimmon. He put that team together, and he recognized the value and the importance of Manitoba and home-grown players. He has an abundance of them and other players throughout Western Canada. I think everyone has to take a lot of pride in the development of these players. It's really exciting for those members, not only to win and get their name on the Stanley Cup, but to share that excitement with all of their friends and family."

Hockey Manitoba is hosting its season-opening conference on September 29 and 30.