The Halifax Mooseheads struggle to get through an unusual hockey season

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n a year full of unknowns, another twist in the Halifax Mooseheads‘ regular season has left the team wondering what’s next.This past weekend, the second half of their Quebec Major Junior Hockey League season came to a halt because of Nova Scotia’s tightening of public health restrictions, with no clear indication when or if play will resume. Editor’s Note: Halifax Magazine published this story on March 2. On March 4, the provincial government announced an easing of public health restrictions, allowing the Mooseheads to return to play at Scotiabank Centre on March 9, with a small number of fans in attendance.The pause is the latest obstacle in a season full of uncertainty for Halifax Mooseheads forward Senna Peeters.

After the pandemic kiboshed the season last March, the 6’0″, 168-pound import player went home to Belgium, hoping to return to Halifax in July to join his teammates for training camp.

But travel restrictions left Peeters with no idea when he could rejoin the team. So he had to find other options to fill the time and stay in shape as he waited for the go-ahead to fly out to Canada. He joined Swedish team Rogle BK until COVID-19 shut down its league mid-season.

“Sweden is a great hockey country,” Peeters says. “Being able to practise with a pro team in the top of the league in Sweden was just a great experience. You get to meet new people in a new place, new coaches … You get a new opportunity to show yourself in a new country in a top league. It was great to compare myself with the level there; it’s also a motivational boost because you work hard there to come back and show what you learned over the summer.”

The uncertainty took a toll, though. Weekly high hopes that he would fly out to Halifax lead to repeated disappointment. Peeters tried to stay focused on the eventual return to play.

“I had a good setup at home to workout because my dad is a personal trainer,” he says. “I was also able to take advantage of that area that I have at home to workout because I know a lot of guys don’t have that setup. It was tough, but I got through it, and it made me a better person and hockey player.”

In early December, Peeters finally flew to Canada in early December to play in the 2021 World Junior Championships in Edmonton as a member of Team Austria. “My dad lived in Austria for a year and I lived there for two years,” he says.  “I never represented a country so they allowed me to receive dual citizenship.”

After that tournament, he was able to travel on to Halifax and rejoin the Mooseheads.

Also, at the World Junior Championships was Mooseheads captain and defenceman Justin Barron. He represented Canada at the tournament, winning a silver medal. Despite three positive tests in the Team Canada community, Barron felt safe.

Justin Barron. Photo: Submitted

“They were doing all the protocols like putting a mask on 24/7 unless you were in your room or eating,” he recalls. “We were getting tested every day for probably the 60 days I was there. I don’t think there was a point where I never felt safe.”

Back in Halifax, Barron and all his teammates wait for the season to resume. Meanwhile, the precautions continue.

Players must complete a daily questionnaire, screening for symptoms. Once that is completed, each player goes through a temperature check. There are strict limits on the number of players allowed in the gym. Players mask except when on the ice and eating, and aren’t allowed to go to restaurants. If they were on the road, the players were subject to rapid testing.

“It’s been good so far this season,” Barron says. “We’ve been fortunate there hasn’t been very many big outbreaks here or positive cases with the team.”

When play resumes, fans will likely remain noticeably absent. Gone are the packed arenas, kids’ skates, autograph sessions, and school and hospital visits. “The players miss it,” Barron says. “That stuff is really fun because it makes you feel special and part of something … We’ve been so focused on trying to stay away from COVID and not risk any exposures, so we haven’t been able to do a whole lot this year.”

Aaron MacRae has been a diehard Mooseheads fan since moving to Halifax from P.E.I. in 1997. Being a season ticket holder has meant a much different experience this year. With capacity slashed (when fans are allowed in at all) the atmosphere is much more subdued. Even getting a pair of tickets in the same section was hard.

“I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t feel different because it definitely does,” he says. “You have got those zones, but you are not supposed to cross from one to the other … There’s only one set of concessions and bathrooms you have access to, and there are way fewer people in the building, and I am not even in my normal seat.”

As for the on-ice performance, MacRae hoped for better.

In 29 games, the Mooseheads are 14th in league rankings, with a 10-13-3-3 record. They’re fifth out of six teams in the Maritimes Division, having played the most games out of all the other teams in the group.

In the second half of the season, the team has only been able to play Cape Breton Eagles and Charlottetown Islanders because of provincial travel restrictions and quarantine requirements. In a typical season, the Mooseheads would also host the league’s other teams, from Quebec and New Brunswick.

“Playing against Maritime teams more often should have given them a better chance,” he says. “They’re far too slow moving the puck. I can see other teams come in here, even from the other Maritime Division teams—their power plays seem to be more effective. It’s better rehearsed or practised. I find that the Mooseheads are too predictable and too slow … They’ve had so many injuries, personnel issues this year. The coaching staff is doing the best they can in trying to find what lines have some chemistry.”

J.J. Daigneault. Photo: Submitted

Coach J.J. Daigneault attributes the inconsistency to inexperience, as the Mooseheads have the youngest (in terms of average player age) team in the league. With the pandemic’s uncertainty, it’s been hard to take the time needed to spend with the younger players to help them work on their skills and learn their systems.The team has had to adapt to a training camp that started two weeks later and ended the first half of the season in early December, leaving the players with a six-week holiday break instead of two. There’s no indication how long the current break will last.

All things considered, Daigneault is satisfied with the team’s play. A silver lining has been that three out of the four 16-year-old players on the team are in the top five goal-scoring rookies in the league.

“It’s a good sign that they are playing a lot of hockey, and they have responsibilities,” Daigneault says.  “It’s been a challenging season … They came back, and they had to get right back into the grind of being on the ice 90 minutes a day, being in the gym … A season like this with a young team, you could take a look at your season and base it on wins and losses, but I think it’s better to gauge everything on the improvement of your team as well as individual improvement of your players.”

Keeping the team focused and motivated is Daigneault’s challenge, especially during the current break from play.

“I think it’s just mixing things up and having the kids wanting to come to the rink and making it fun for everyone,” he says. “Hockey is a sport of mistakes. It’s too easy for me and coaching staff to dwell on mistakes, but there is also that positive since September that we’re playing hockey … We have an opportunity to be on the ice, be together, improve together, and improve individually. It’s crucial and imperative that I keep a good, positive mindset, and hopefully, it will transfer its way to the players and keep a lighter side to everything that is done.

Justin Barron. Photo: Submitted

For developing players like Barron and Peeters, every season is a stepping stone. For the Mooseheads captain, this is likely his last season in Halifax before he turns pro with the Colorado Avalanche, who selected him 25th overall in the NHL draft. (Read more about this in the October 2020 Halifax Magazine story “Game on.”)

“I am just trying to make the most of it, enjoy it as most as possible,” Barron says. “Whatever the next step is for me next year, it’s exciting. And I’m excited to hopefully move on to the next phase of my hockey career.”

After quarantining at a downtown hotel for two weeks, Peeters rejoined the Mooseheads in January and played two games before being sidelined for 2.5 weeks with a shoulder injury. He returned to the lineup last week. In a year that would involve preparing for the draft, Peeters says only being able to play the Charlottetown Islanders and Cape Breton Screaming Eagles in the second half has changed the way the team plays.

“Everyone knows everyone, so now when we play Cape Breton, I know how every guy on that team plays,” Peeters says. “I know their systems. It’s a real playbook game we have to play now because we know what the other team does, and it’s the same with Charlottetown. They are a great team with great players, but now we’ve gotten to know the players, how they play, and we practise on that. It’s difficult, but we find a way with it, and obviously, it’s going to affect my draft year. If there’s not a draft, they will wait, but now I just have to prove myself.”

Knowing it’s unsafe to see them makes it easier for Peeters to be a continent away from his family.

“I talk to them on the phone every day about practices, always a little update,” he says. “I do that with my family. I live here with billets who are great people … so it feels like a second home, which is really nice … It’s not like I am in a stranger’s place suddenly. We have a group too where we talk after a game and show some pictures and stuff, so I stay updated about home too. We try to make the best out of it.”

MacRae just hopes to see the Mooseheads return and keep striving.

“Learning from some of the games that haven’t gone so well on putting forth a more consistent effort,” he says. “You just want to see them finish strong and put forth and put themselves in a better position hopefully for next year.”

Although Scotiabank Centre is now silent, Barron wants to keep playing for fans like MacRae.

“Even during the pandemic and not being able to have them at the games, we still hear their support … online,” he says “We hear all you guys, and we can’t wait to have all you guys back at the rink.”

Halifax Magazine