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Barrie Sharkfest tourney ushers in economic rebound for sports tourism (6 photos)

'The bonding that the girls had this weekend doing events at the hotel, (like) swimming, just doing fun things together I think is important,' says Milton mom

Wearing a fresh coat of teal-blue fingernail polish reflecting the North Halton Twisters team colours, applied during her weekend stay in Barrie, 10-year-old Malina Mazzocato left East Bayfield Community Centre after her last game with a hockey bag full of happy memories.

“This is the first away tournament where we came to the hotel and slept over,” explained her mom, Milton resident Lisa Mazzocato.

“It felt nice because I got to spend time with my teammates and in the hotel we got to do a lot of things,” said young Malina, who plays right wing on the U11A North Halton Twisters. “The games are really fun, but then it’s really fun at the hotel, too, spending time with my friends.”

Due to the pandemic, Malina hasn’t spent a weekend hitting ice pads outside of her home rink for 21 months.

But this past weekend they spent three nights in a local hotel, ate at local restaurants and her mom even slipped in a shopping trip to the Georgian Mall.

While the Mazzocatos were delighted that pandemic rules have eased enough to allow them to play in the Barrie Women's Hockey Association's Sharkfest tournament, where precautions such as mandatory vaccinations and masking were enforced, the event also proved a shot in the arm for the community.

With 148 teams from across Ontario descending on the city, Tourism Barrie estimates the local economy got a much-needed $1.5-million infusion.

Another hockey tournament next weekend, with 60 teams, is expected to result in another $1.1 million in visitor spending.

All the area’s hotel rooms are booked up, and occupancy so far this year is up 17.5 per cent.

Tourism Barrie’s Kathleen Trainor points to a continuing upward trend since June. August hotel occupancy was 81.3 per cent, up from just 26.9 per cent last year. September’s occupancy was 76 per cent, up from 38 per cent, and October saw 70 per cent occupancy, which is up from 27.9 per cent. 

Additional hotel occupancy translates into an increase in additional local spending overall  something that’s been missing since the worldwide health pandemic put a halt on travel.

“In 2019, the visitor economy from overnight visitors in a Barrie hotel was $56.8 million and in 2020 it was $29.5 million,” Trainor said.

Tournaments and sporting events are critical for the local economy and events like Sharkfest represent the start of the return of the area’s sport tourism as we rebound from the pandemic, said Steven Bowie, Tourism Barrie’s new sport tourism development officer.

“I think we’re going to see another spike in tournaments once the kids can get vaccinated,” he said, adding that other team sports are gearing up to host events as well.

Area operators are also preparing for the snow season. Sales of annual lift passes at ski resorts around Barrie are selling briskly, Bowie said.

“Everybody wants to get out and do something,” he said. “That’s the good thing about sport. It’s there for everybody. It seems to be one of the safer activities to participate in right now.

“It’s going to be the first part of tourism that’s going to rebound.”

Organizing Sharkfest, however, was a bit like swimming against the tide.

Even though it was the 29th tournament, the pandemic isn’t over and putting together 348 games on 11 rinks involving 2,000 players, while also navigating fluid rules, meant getting the pieces in place early could have been more of a hindrance than a help.

“Typically, we would have all summer planning the event, whereas this year there were still so many unknowns as we came into late August, early September about whether the tournament would continue again this year,” said tournament director Jason McKenna, who also coaches two teams. “What normally would be done over a six-plus-month period of time had to be done in closer to a six-week period of time.”

At the end of the day, he said the economic infusion is a great byproduct of the event after the health crisis disrupted almost every aspect of our lives.

But the focus on the players is what the event is all about, he added.

“It’s great having that economic impact; it’s also great for the girls,” McKenna said. “A lot of us have struggled from a mental-health standpoint during the past year and a half from COVID.”

Lisa Mazzocato, meanwhile, was delighted to hit the road again and have the chance to explore Barrie. And given the precautions, the Milton mom felt comfortable, acknowledging the important consideration is the girls on the teams.

“Tournaments are really important for team bonding and building,” she said. “Those are the memories she has watching her brother play away tournaments, so it was a big deal for her.

“The bonding that the girls had this weekend doing events at the hotel, (like) swimming, just doing fun things together I think is important," Mazzocato added. 

“After this weekend, I think they will wish to do another one, which we’re not going to be doing this year.”