Hockey This Fall? You Betcha!
By Scott Lowe – MyHockeyRankings.com
USA Hockey Photo
While ice rinks across the continent slowly come back to life in some areas – and prepare to open soon in other locales – the ultimate goal for all of us is the same: to do everything in our power make sure we have a 2020-21 hockey season.
Whether that season starts Sept. 1, Oct. 1 or at some later date, we want to make sure it happens and is as close to “normal” as possible.
Of course, nothing will really be “normal” anymore; we are going to have to get used to the “new normal,” at least for the foreseeable future. And when you consider that the “new normal” includes observing many safer and more sanitary practices that we probably should have been following all along, it really shouldn’t be that bad.
There are going to be some minor inconveniences and some requirements along the way that take a little getting used to, but those will all be in the name of playing hockey again. And that’s what is most important.
So as we head into summer and rinks are beginning to open with a number of restrictions in place, before you get frustrated, complain or disobey a rule, please remember that whatever we are asked to do is done in hopes of maximizing the odds of having a full hockey season. While you may not agree with everything, it’s important to respect the regulations and guidelines so that we can continue to move forward and get to a point where rinks are operating at least close to “normal” by September,.
There may be other people out there who aren’t as confident or fearless as your family is when it comes to leaving the house, being around others and facing the possibility of contracting COVID-19. Other folks may have health issues that make it necessary for them to proceed with extreme caution. Also remember that many people who have contracted COVID have shown no symptoms, so you never know who might be carrying the disease and should never let your guard down.
While we have made great strides in terms of flattening the curve since March, we don’t want to take a step backward. A spike in COVID outbreaks because of a failure to adhere to state or local guidelines or a large number or people in a given area showing little regard to social distancing and other restrictions enacted by a jurisdiction can bring everything to a screeching halt.
None of us wants that.
Enjoy getting back to the rink and seeing kids on the ice again while understanding the big picture. The only way we are going to get what we really want – a complete 2020-21 hockey season – is through a process that includes a gradual reopening of ice rinks with a lot of guidelines in place to keep everyone safe.
Respect the process, as well as the health and safety of those around you, and we will be on track for a great hockey season this coming fall and winter.
And here is what that season might look like when it gets started. And it WILL get started!
The Rink Routine
No doubt things are going to be different, at least to start the season, when it comes to something as simple as just going to the rink.
Ice rinks will be looking to restrict the number of people allowed inside their facilities as well as the amount of interaction between people from different families. Since fans and spectators are not essential to conduct practices, families likely will be required to drop players off and pick them up at designated times and locations on practice days.
Players may not be allowed to dress at the rink other than to put on their skates, gloves and helmets, and the days of arriving 30 to 60 minutes in advance of a practice are in the past. Parents may have to drop players off no earlier than 15 or 20 minutes prior to a scheduled ice slot.
Coaches who want their players to complete an off-ice warm-up session before taking the ice probably will have to send out those routines via email or discuss them on a team Zoom session so that players can warm up at home before getting dressed and heading to the rink. Even though there may be plenty of room to warm up outside at a particular ice rink, it is doubtful that players who are sweating after a team warm-up session will be permitted to congregate and dress inside a locker room or similar designated area.
Coaches might have to get creative when it comes to off-ice warm-up sessions on game days, too. Players on host teams can warm up on their own at home, while visiting teams might warm up outside the rink and get mostly dressed in their cars.
Upon dropping players off, parents likely will have to leave immediately and return within a prescribed time period following the scheduled end of practice. Players won’t be permitted to hang out and talk to teammates or coaches while undressing in the locker room for extended periods of time. They most likely will be expected to leave the facility within 15 or 20 minutes following a practice or game without having undressed completely.
There will be one set of doors designated for entering the building and another set for exiting, and a similar system may be put in place for actually entering the ice rink area from the lobby or other common areas. If a rink has multiple ice sheets, the operators probably will look to create separate entrances and exits to the outside of the building from each sheet since there is a good chance the number of people allowed in each area of the facility will be limited for quite some time. This will become more of a necessity when the rink hosts games and tournaments.
One question to ponder is if large hockey bags will be permitted to be carried into facilities. Certainly goalies have no choice but to bring their bags, but for the other players, are rinks going want 15-20 kids coming in and tossing bags in which they have been storing all of their worn gear and equipment onto locker room floors where items can intermingle?
We’ve all had players leave the rink with someone else’s gloves, helmet, socks, jerseys or elbow pads in their bags, and that seems like something everyone would want to avoid right now.
If players are required to come to the rink in full gear, minus their helmets, gloves and skates, it seems possible that they might only be allowed to bring a smaller duffel bag – maybe one that can fit in a locker stall or under a specific assigned seat – that holds just those items as well as tape, a water bottle and a few other small necessities. There also will be no more shared team water bottles.
Since players probably will be coming to the rink almost fully dressed and departing almost immediately after practice without fully undressing, there will be little or no time for pre- or post-practice meetings to discuss practice plans, practice performance, upcoming opponents or other team business.
One thing that quarantine has taught us is that Zoom is a safe and effective way to allow groups and teams to stay connected when in-person interaction is limited. It makes sense that, with rink restrictions certain to be in place, coaches might continue to use this technology to discuss practice plans, game video and any other issues that typically might be covered in person at the rink.
Teams also may be forced to hold their off-ice conditioning sessions via zoom if restrictions prevent them from working out at their rinks or normal workout facilities.
When will full teams be permitted on the ice all at one time for practices? Will contact be allowed? Will teams have to sub-divide into smaller groups spread across the three zones with little intermingling? Only time will tell.
It is likely that restrictions similar to these will be in place early in the season as practice is getting underway and will be eased as teams get closer to playing games as long as COVID numbers in your rink’s state or local jurisdiction continue to move in the right direction.
While USA Hockey has been clear that medical masks will not need to be worn by players when they are on the ice competing, as long as local guidelines require people to wear masks while in public indoor spaces, coaches and team staff members will be expected to wear masks while inside the rink. Players also will need to wear masks when inside the rink facility and not on the ice playing or practicing.
It appears to be certain that we won’t be seeing any post-game or post-practice locker-room showers in the near future. In addition, the amount of access teams will have to locker rooms and the approved team uses of those rooms may vary from facility to facility.
The goal, of course, will be to limit close interactions between players and coaches as much as possible. Locker rooms are one of the great and unique aspects of youth hockey that allow teams to bond, hang out, goof off a little and really get to know each other. These behaviors are pretty ingrained, so whenever you put a full team in a locker room together there is going to be a risk that players will forget or disobey any new rules and end up in the types of close-contact situations we are trying to avoid.
Those of us who have been around hockey long enough also realize that getting players out of the locker room quickly after a practice or game can be quite challenging.
It seems logical that a USA Hockey and SafeSport-certified coach would be required to monitor any locker rooms that are being used for all 18U and younger teams. There also would likely be assigned seating in line with social-distancing protocol as well as a limit on the number of people who can be in a locker room at any one time. The rooms would have to be completely disinfected immediately following usage before another team could enter.
On practice days, it may be easier for some rinks that have plenty of open space in lobbies or other common areas to close the locker rooms and set up public areas where players can put on just their skates, gloves and helmets. These would be open, easily accessible and roped off areas with appropriately marked social-distance seating so that players could get in and out of the rink as quickly as possible.
This type of setup would allow rink personnel to keep an eye on social distancing and also might alleviate the strain on the staff in smaller facilities with limited locker-room space that would need a complete disinfecting before another team could enter. By utilizing locker rooms and open public spaces for players to do the minimal amount of allowed changing before and after ice sessions, rinks would be able to adhere to tighter ice schedules during busy weeknight practice periods and for weekend game or tournament play.
For facilities that are built to handle large tournaments and have an abundance of available locker rooms, it probably would be easiest just to spread teams out in as many rooms as possible for practice to encourage social distancing. This will be more challenging on a busy tournament weekend when space is more limited and sticking to a tight schedule while getting teams in and out of locker rooms quickly – and cleaning them thoroughly – is going to be paramount.
Based on the expected restrictions that ice rinks are likely to be operating under in the fall, it doesn’t seem as though teams will get to do much more than finish dressing and partially undress in locker rooms before and after games. It doesn’t appear likely that rinks or local governments will want a group of sweaty, heavy-breathing hockey players in the same room for even a few minutes between periods during an ice cut, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see teams remaining on their benches in those situations.
While player benches can vary in size depending on the facility, each rink will be responsible for creating and marking a systematic approach to standing and sitting on team benches. One possible option is to have half the players on a team standing apart at designated spots and the other half seated apart at designated spots at any given time.
Hockey is notorious for its dirty, smelly equipment, and while we will never completely eliminate that smell from our kids’ hockey bags, it will be incumbent on everyone to clean and disinfect equipment after EACH usage going forward. This is probably something we should have been doing all along, but out of respect to everyone else, it is something that absolutely has to happen now.
Don’t worry, all of the gear can be cleaned safely and easily without harming it. Here is a good article on how to clean hockey equipment and related items.
Face and head protection are of utmost importance in youth hockey, and with the potential transfer of the COVID-19 virus between players in a competitive situation, face protection has become even more of a concern. Many hockey people have wondered if a full plastic face shield would completely prevent the transmission of the disease.
USA Hockey posted a statement on this topic a few weeks ago, stating that while there was no scientific proof that a full clear plastic face shield provides “better protection against infectious diseases compared to a visor (half shield) or cage,” it likely is more protective than a visor or cage since it can act as a barrier if someone nearby coughs or sneezes, is a deterrent to a player touching his or her face and likely suppresses the urge to spit on the ice or bench.
There is a strong possibility that some associations, leagues and teams will require their players to wear full plastic face shields for the 2020-21 season. Keep in mind that no matter what type of facemask a player wears, the mask and helmet should be cleaned and disinfected after each usage. And despite the protection provided by full face shields, there is a strong possibility that spitting will not be permitted during game play this season. Teams should enforce all health-related game rules during practices as well.
While hockey gloves absorb a great deal of sweat and can be a large contributor to the pungent smell of a player’s bag, they also are a deterrent from players touching their faces, which is a good for preventing the spread of COVID. Players likely will be asked not to remove their gloves during games this season. Gloves can be washed just like any other piece of equipment.
Spectators and Seating
At this point, many indoor facilities such as grocery and retail stores are allowed to operate at up to 50 percent capacity as long as customers and employees are required to wear masks and social distancing is observed. Appropriate signage also is required to coordinate a traffic flow that limits close interaction and designates where customers should stand when in line.
Once actual game play begins it would make sense for most ice rinks to operate in similar fashion, although it is possible early on that very few spectators will be permitted inside of some rinks during games, depending on where you live. When it is deemed safe to hold games and tournaments, however, it is expected that rinks will allow up to a specific number of spectators into their facilities at one time, with masks required to be worn by everyone not competing in the games.
Visible signage, floor markings and other indicators will be used to control traffic flow and provide specific guidelines as to exactly where spectators are allowed to sit and stand to view the games to maintain social-distancing requirements as mandated by state and local governments. It is likely that spectators will not be permitted to congregate in one area and will have to enter the facility, go right to the designated seating area and leave the rink as soon as the game they are attending ends.
Here is the USA Hockey Returnining to the Rinks outline of recommendations for rinks, clubs and teams to consider implementing as they return to action.
As we have seen, the continent is reopening at different rates depending on location. Some areas may be farther ahead than others by September, which means there may be more limited opportunities for game and tournament play in some areas. Some teams may end up with fewer games when all is said and done than in the past, and some tournaments maybe be moved back in the season. It may be harder to fit as many games into a tournament or a weekend of league play with all the cleaning and disinfecting of locker rooms that will need to be done.
Whatever it takes. Be thankful for whatever we have.
As of today, it looks like there will be a hockey season one way or another this year. A few short weeks ago that’s all any of us wanted to hear.
Hang in there. Be patient. Follow the rules.
We’ll all be back at it very soon!