Retired NHLer Steve McKenna said it broke his heart to have to ask the city to remove his Los Angeles Kings jersey from the Hespeler arena this week because he feels a provincial proof-of-vaccination mandate effectively excludes some kids from playing the sports they love.
“I can’t enter the very arena where my jersey hangs on the wall,” the Cambridge Sports Hall of Fame inductee told a small group of just over a dozen parents and their children gathered at the Com Dev Indoor Soccer Park in Cambridge on Saturday morning.
Now a Waterloo Regional Police Service constable, McKenna was there to support Cambridge MPP Belinda Karahalios who is calling on the province to include parents in an exemption to vaccine passport rules implemented last month.
She said the “divisive” policy, which keeps some parents out of city recreation facilities because they don’t want to disclose their vaccination status, is creating a two-tier society, “separating citizens from each other and creating tensions” where none existed.
The province, she added, needs to recognize natural immunities offer protection from COVID, and that social distancing, hand sanitizing and mask wearing are effective measures to keep the virus from spreading in these environments.
Some parents in Cambridge have pulled their kids from minor sports leagues because of the mandate.
Stephen Penney, who spoke to CambridgeToday.ca last month about his efforts to try to convince the City of Cambridge he wasn’t a risk, said he would take every precaution available, including submitting to rapid tests to watch his children play hockey.
He has since pulled his eight-year-old from the sport but continues to allow his 10-year-old to play under the supervision of a vaccinated family member.
The City of Cambridge said it is following direction from the province and joined municipalities across the region in requiring all individuals to provide proof of full vaccination along with identification when entering city recreation facilities.
McKenna, who played in a number of different leagues throughout Europe and Asia during his post-NHL hockey career, said he never would have imagined it would come to this, adding he never experienced anything in those countries like what he’s experienced in Ontario in recent months.
He said children, who suffered from the physical and mental health impacts of not being able to play sports for the past year, are now bearing the brunt of a provincial policy that keeps their parents from watching them play and making sure they’re safe.
“How can the province not see that,” he said.
Karahalios said the provincial rules are unreasonable because of the safety issue, adding coaches and volunteers cannot be expected to have their eyes on every player all the time.
Karahalios has sent a formal letter to Minister of Health and Long Term Care Christine Elliot and Lisa McLeod, Minister of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries, asking the province to reconsider excluding parents of young players from the proof of COVID vaccine requirement at sporting venues because of the safety issue.
The MPP said she’s heard from parents across the province who are upset with the requirement, including some who are fully vaccinated and don’t agree with the mandate or the environment it’s creating.
“We know (the vaccine) works, we know that it helps the severity,” she said, but it’s unfair to force it on people in this way.
Karahalios said the mandate is also pitting sports organizations against parents.
She has been in discussions with Alliance Hockey and the Ontario Hockey Association and said it’s unfortunate some organizations are choosing even stricter policies than outlined by the province.
Although the province doesn’t require anyone between the ages of 12 and 18 to provide proof of vaccination to play, the Ontario Minor Hockey Association does.
McKenna’ partner Angela said the rules have forced them to take their six-year-old daughter out of speed skating because they don’t have local family members who can help out.
Their 13-year-old daughter continues to play, but younger kids need the support, she said.
The policy has been particularly difficult for them because they’re such a sporting family.
Angela said it's confusing to see the province increasing capacity limits for events like Blue Jays games, where “15,000 vaccinated people sitting side by side” can unmask, when at the same time parents of children in minor sports can agree to practice safe protocols but are still denied entry into arenas.
“I don’t see the logic between these decisions,” she said. “And to call it in the national best interest is disgusting.”
Regional police have responded to McKenna's comments, saying they "do not represent WRPS' organizational values."
"The WRPS is aware of a member's comments regarding the Reopening Act of Ontario, as well as comments regarding the requirement of full vaccination to attend recreational facilities," they say in a statement.
"The WRPS fully supports all public health measures aimed at combatting the continued spread and impact of COVID-19 and will continue to enforce the Reopening Act of Ontario. The WRPS has progressively implemented health and safety procedures to ensure workforce protection as well as the protection of the community, including a workplace Vaccine Procedure that is aligned with the Region of Waterloo Vaccine Procedure."
With files from Doug Coxson.