MYHockey News

Feed Off the Kids' Excitement as We Return to Hockey

By Scott Lowe -
If nothing else, kids are resilient.
Facing a “new normal” as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, young hockey players from all over North America are returning to the ice under guidelines that vary depending on their location. But the excitement of being out of the house and back on the ice doing what they love with their friends and teammates seems to far outweigh any minor inconveniences caused by the virus-related rules and restrictions.
Sometimes, as adults, we can learn a great deal by observing how our children respond and react to situations that may cause us tremendous stress and angst.
“That’s absolutely spot on,” said Brian Troy, head coach of boys’ hockey at the Winchendon School in Massachusetts. “The national pause and hold that was put on everything actually turned out to be an incredible opportunity for people to step back and take a look at a lot of things. I’m seeing it now with our players. They are more eager to learn, more excited to participate in any hockey-related activities and hungrier. Yes, being shut down was a bummer and stressful for a lot of folks, especially our seniors, but it can be healthy to take some time away from the game and not be so stressed out about it all year long.”
In some areas of the United States rinks began opening with restrictions in late May and June, while for others the shutdown extended into July, August and even September. Only small-group skill sessions were allowed in the majority of areas well into the summer. A few locales allowed a return to full-contact game and tournament play much earlier than others, however, raising some concerns as players in more-restricted areas decided to make the short drive across state lines – or the long drive to another part of the country – to play in tournaments against kids from other states.
In Canada hockey pretty much was shut down across the country until at least mid-August, with players in many areas finally returning to the ice for small-group skills sessions only in recent weeks. And despite the differing guidelines across the United States, the majority of young players went without hockey for at least 3-1/2 or four months, with many being kept off the ice for five months or longer.
So, the excitement to return to hockey-related activities that Troy noted is understandable and has not been an isolated response.
Anthony Matarazzo, a New Jersey native who built his coaching and player-development resume working at the prep, junior and AAA levels in his home state, recently accepted a position with the Dubuque Fighting Saints’ organization as the Director of Player Development and Youth Hockey. A move from the East Coast to Iowa is going to require a lifestyle and cultural adjustment no matter when it occurs, much less during a pandemic. But as far as hockey is concerned, Matarazzo has noticed a similar reaction among his players to what Troy described.
“The kids here are loving it, because it’s a completely new way to practice,” Matarazzo said. “We take the 30 kids who are allowed on the ice, do 15 minutes of skating then break them off into three zones with 10 kids in each zone. The kids do a different drill in each zone for five minutes before we rotate them. I’m pushing the coaches to use simplistic drills with extreme attention to detail, so we’re really pushing skating, edge work, passing and shooting and getting out of the habit of using games to teach for the younger players. Instead we are focusing more on an in-house, skill-development model.”
Lincoln Flagg played at UMass when it was an NCAA Division II program in the mid-1970s and has coached at the youth, junior and collegiate levels for 40 years. This year he is leading the Carolina Jr. Hurricanes 16U program while also serving as general manager for their USPHL junior teams and the organization’s Director of Coaches. He is happy with how the “new normal” is working out for his players in North Carolina.
“All is well, and we are going strong,” he said. “We played the {Washington} Little Caps last weekend in Virginia and had no issues there. The only real issue we have here is that there are no parents or spectators allowed in the building. We are still in Phase 2, but that may change soon to Phase 3. Otherwise, things are good. I was able to bring in seven players from all over – Avon Old Farms, Saskatchewan, Virginia, Alaska, Ohio via Kazakhstan – and had nine guys from last year I brought back.”
Zach Vit, head coach of the Potomac Patriots USPHL Premier junior team from Woodbridge, Va., said things are starting to feel a little more normal for his team now that games have started, but there still are constant reminders of the pandemic.
Everyone travleling with Potomac's Premier and Elite teams is required to be tested for COVID before they leave for trips requiring an overnight hotel stay. As a result, the team is cutting back on the number of overnight trips and playing more home-and-home series than usual. Potomac nornally travels to play in a showcase in Septmber, but that event has been moved to November. Players were not allowed to use locker rooms and had to dress outside during training camp, and the coaches decided to cut back on team-building and other off-ice activities that normally would have involved full teams. Off-ice workouts that normally would include all team members are now being done in small groups. 
"All in all, the beginning of the season has felt different in those areas, but we are placing an emphasis on the most important things, which are on-ice practices and off-ice training," Vit said. "The guys have done a great job of following protocos and staying safe outside the rink. We want to make sure we do everything possible to ensure we get to play a full season without interruptions." 
The excitement for hockey’s return also has been seen by those in the ice-rink business after months of being shut down. Most rinks initially bounced back from the shutdown with a soft reopening that catered to small groups from local hockey and figure-skating clubs as well as private rentals.
The ice rink at Reisterstown Sportsplex near Baltimore, Md., was closed from mid-March until the first week of July. When the facility reopened groups were limited to 15 people on the ice at one time. Locker rooms were closed, and players had to dress at their cars or in a covered outdoor changing area. Masks had to be worn in the changing area and inside the rink by players when they were not on the ice and by coaches and instructors at all times. Each skater’s temperature was taken upon entering the facility, games were not permitted, contact was limited as much as possible and on-ice physical distancing was required within reason.
Similar restrictions were put into place by most facilities across the country, but in some locations rinks were permitted to return to more normal operating procedures almost immediately. On-ice participants at the Reisterstown rink were required to watch educational videos about COVID-19 and best practices to prevent its spread and to sign waivers. Sectators were permitted inside the rink only in extreme circumstances and for the youngest players who required parental assistance or needed a parent or guardian to be with them.
For most of the summer business at the rink was limited to one or two stick-and-puck sessions per day, one-or-two daily freestyle skating sessions and occasional private rentals. As the summer progressed, smaller day camps also were permitted at the facility with up to 25 skaters allowed on the ice at the same time. Now, with the fall upon us and youth hockey activities officially sanctioned in the area, business has picked up.
“If anything, we are selling more ice than normal,” general manager Kayley Romano said. “The numbers of players we can allow on the ice are going to go up again in October. High school teams can begin practice soon and can play games starting Oct. 30. We still do not use the locker rooms, and the groups who come in to use the facility are required to develop and enforce their own guidelines.”
The rink still isn’t permitting spectators except in special circumstances, but Romano expects that to change when high school and club games begin next month. Allowing games without spectators, or with spectators limited to one per participant with masks and physical distancing required, seems to be the most common practice in most jurisdictions.
That has prompted some families to get creative in hopes of making the best of the situation. Parking-lot tailgate parties have been set up at some rinks, allowing parents and siblings to hang out, eat and sometimes even watch the games being played inside if they are streamed on LiveBarn or a similar platform.
Even parking-lot access has been restricted by some rinks, however, and the no-spectator rules in general haven’t been received as politely as most of the other restrictions. Hockey at the AA and AAA levels often requires a great deal of travel, so parents who are driving their kids several hours or more to play games understandably aren’t thrilled at the prospect of being kept from watching their children play in person.
That point of contention has led parent groups and associations in some areas to circulate petitions in hopes of gaining access to the rinks to watch their kids play. Most of the spectator restrictions are based on recommendations and reopening plans set forth by local governments, so they are likely to be eased in the near future as more jurisdictions move into Phase 3 and beyond.
For now, the best plan of action for parents is to be supportive of the kids and any rules intended to keep them safe and healthy. Be happy for them, remembering how patient they have been and how excited they are to be able to do what they love while also understanding that there are still kids in the U.S. and Canada whose hockey activities are very much restricted.
“We have been able to practice in Massachusetts, but no games are allowed yet,” said Caleb Craven, an 18U defenseman for the Boston Hockey Academy. “We just go to Connecticut or New Hampshire most of the time to play, and we have our locker room now at our home rink, so it’s going pretty well.”
While nothing is “normal” in the world right now, it seems as though hockey continues to move toward more of a sense a sense of normalcy almost daily. Two showcases were held in Minnesota last weekend; large events have been held in Connecticut, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania already; and junior hockey league play got underway last weekend in the Northeast-based Eastern Hockey League (EHL) and around the country in the United States Premier Hockey League (USPHL).

Some of the largest showcase events are scheduled for October in New England; the North American Hockey League (NAHL), the North American Tier 3 Hockey League (NA3HL) and Quebec Major Junior Hockey league are preparing for October start dates; and more youth leagues around the U.S. are planning to begin league play in the weeks ahead. In other parts of North America preseason practices and tryouts are being held with an eye toward playing games in the coming months as restrictions in those areas are eased.
As has been the case since March when COVID took center stage, patience is necessary. Any progress toward getting all of North America’s youth hockey players back on the ice and playing games is a good thing no matter how small the steps in that direction might be. We can ensure continued progress everywhere as long as we remain positive and supportive while adhering to local regulations and restrictions.
“We all got tested before we came, and we wear masks in the rink,” Connecticut Chiefs 18U forward Ryan Powell said. “They come off during games and practice, of course, and we also try to split up our workout groups to keep them smaller. Everyone is very cautious about what they do when not at the rink, because nobody wants to be the guy who gets their team shut down for two weeks.”
More great insight from the younger generation.
If the kids can get through this, so can the rest of us. Share and revel in their excitement, and in no time we will all be back at the rinks together like one big happy hockey family.
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