VANCOUVER -- Normally, at this time of year, minor hockey teams across the province would be gearing up to hit the ice, but the COVID-19 pandemic has put a chill on the start of this season.

The Vancouver Minor Hockey Association has a synthetic solution that’s helping players maintain their skills while waiting until it’s safe to get going.

An artificial ice sheet, made of plastic, mimics the feel of real ice and allows players to use their regular hockey skates.

“It’s a bit hard and it sticks a lot. But other than that, it’s really realistic and fun,” said 12-year-old Jacob Amos as he and two teammates worked on their shots.

The synthetic surface is the centrepiece of VMHA’s new, state-of-the art training facility in a converted warehouse in an industrial park on Mitchell Island.

The space also includes a classroom area for off-ice instruction and a fully-equipped gym where older players can work on their strength training.

“We’re spread out in our community through four rinks and we don’t really have a home base,” said Jay Aikenhead, VMHA’s Director of Hockey Operations. “So for us to have this here and be able to bring all of our teams together is a really big boon for us.”

The facility has been in the works for a while, but its opening couldn’t have come at a better time for VMHA.

All of the rinks the group normally uses through City of Vancouver community centres remain closed due to COVID-19.

“What we’re doing right now is having small practices with smaller groups, but working with our governing bodies to open up to larger and larger groups as we move forward,” said Stephen Gillis, one of VMHA’s coaches.

The hope is that city rinks will reopen in late September or early October for tryouts and practices, with an eye to playing actual games in November if pandemic conditions allow.

“I will be wearing a mask and trying to distance as best we can,” said Gillis. “But just trying to adhere to all guidelines and playing it safe for everybody. So not only can we get back to the game we love but we can also be safe at all times.”

Until then, small groups of players can work on their skills at VMHA’s new home, where the ice never needs resurfacing.

“There’s no Zamboni so you can play as long as you want,” Amos said.