Players & Coaches Hope for Return to "Near Normalcy" as NAHL Season Opens
By Scott Lowe - MyHockeyRankings.com
The last 18 months have been extremely difficult for all of us, and coaches are no different.
Unfortunately, after blindly navigating an unprecedented pandemic and trying to provide as much normalcy and support for their athletes as possible, so many coaches in every sport at every level look back and wonder if they could have done more.
They ask themselves if they did enough to keep their teams together and provide them with the physical and emotional outlets they needed to be happy, stay positive and remain healthy. They wonder if they made the right decisions about shutting down or pushing forward with practices and games. They question if they were accessible enough, and when they were accessible if they said or did the right things. And they ponder if they were able to teach enough and help their players continue to develop as athletes and people with 1,000 other things that coaches shouldn’t have to worry about taking priority.
Most coaches become coaches because they are perfectionists who probably wish they could have made it to an even higher level, or if they did get to the level they aspired, that they had done even more to play longer or have a better career. And they want to help other young athletes with similar dreams avoid the mistakes they made and provide them with an opportunity to advance as far as they possibly can in their sport.
They become coaches because they love to water those young plants and watch them blossom right before their eyes. They love to see that light bulb turn on inside a young athlete’s head. Simply, they love to teach and coach.
At about 7 p.m. Eastern Time Wednesday night in Connecticut, a referee glided to center ice at the Danbury Ice Arena, and as usual, he looked around to make sure both goalies were ready before signaling to the timekeeper that the game was about to get underway. Players banged their sticks on the boards in anticipation of another season getting started. Nothing tops the hope and optimism a new season brings.
If it wasn’t 2021, as we trudge through Year 2 of a deadly global pandemic, this scene would seem completely normal. But nothing has been normal these past 18 months, and it’s gotten to the point that we talk about a possible return to “near-normalcy.”
But finally, on the ice Wednesday night in Danbury – for the players, coaches and officials participating in the North American Hockey League’s 2021-22 season opener – everything seemed about as close to normal as it had been for a very long time. Once and hopefully for all, for a few hours at least, their total focus could turn to hockey.
What was it that made this game so special?
Well, as the referee scanned the arena before the opening faceoff, the Danbury Hat Tricks were about to play in their home rink against the Northeast Generals in September instead of being on the road and practicing or playing in another state because Connecticut wouldn’t let them play there. Players had dressed in locker rooms, not at their hotels or homes, and then returned to their friendly confines after warming up. Game officials and coaches weren’t wearing masks and were joined in the arena by maskless fans.
That’s right, there were fans in the arena. The atmosphere was back. NAHL hockey had returned in hopes of completing another full season and a return to at least “near normalcy.”
“It just felt a little bit different than the usual season-opener,” said Danbury Head Coach and General Manager Billy McCreary. “There were people in the building. Parents were watching. There was some atmosphere after pretty much being in the rink by ourselves all last year with no one there to support us. It was a little difficult to handle for us at first, but once we put that behind us and focused on playing hockey and got used to having people in the building and fans in the stands, it really was an exciting atmosphere. Last year the players had to create their own energy, but you can see already that the atmosphere creates emotions and energy and momentum that can really make a difference in a game.”
Being able to focus more on hockey also allows the coaches to do what they do best: coach.
“I don’t think I really did a good job coaching last year,” Northeast Generals Coach and President of Hockey Operations Bryan Erikson said. “I guess that I was okay, but with all the craziness of COVID and everything that was going on – testing, figuring out who was in and out of the lineup, worrying about this and that, players having to change at the hotel, being a travel agent – there was so much to do that I didn’t really get to do the things I need to do as a coach preparation-wise. It made me realize that we needed to make changes in how we do things this year. We needed to hire more staff. We may not win more games, but we want to be smarter and make some adjustments to how we do things.”
McCreary had similar frustrations fulfilling his duties as both GM and head coach.
“I absolutely agree with that 100 percent,” he said. “With so much to worry about, the time we were able to spend on the X’s and O’s definitely suffered.”
Many parents of young athletes would respectfully disagree with the self-assessments of these two coaches. Too many young people were stuck in their bedrooms, apartments or dorm rooms last year during the height of the pandemic. Their natural support systems were missing from the daily equation, and there was little or no human interaction. Some days there seemed to be no reason to get out of bed, get dressed or take a shower.
None of that is healthy for young people in their teens or early 20s – or for people of any age, for that matter. So, for those of us with kids competing in athletics who had an opportunity to be with their teammates for practices – even if that meant they were in very small groups – or for small-group workouts or even just team meetings or zoom sessions, we will tell you that no matter what ultimately happened on or off the ice, the courts or the playing fields, those opportunities to have an emotional, mental and physical release were so important to our kids’ overall health and well-being. Those opportunities probably saved lives.
Many of us would argue that those coaches who were able to keep their athletes together and provide them with the outlets that are so important to a young person’s quality of life did the best coaching jobs of their careers – even if they may never be recognized for their efforts under unprecedented circumstances.
“It was such a challenging season,” McCreary said. “We didn’t really know what the day ahead would provide for us.” The main challenge for us as coaches was to provide an environment that would keep the kids competing, even if that meant we were in small groups on the ice, off the ice, inside or outside.”
McCreary said he was fortunate to already have a “culture and mindset” coach on staff in Vince Malts, a former mental-performance coach in the East Coast Hockey League. Malts was able to keep the players engaged off the ice and to provide mental-health and emotional support as needed.
“I think the experience of having to focus on the day at hand and do whatever we had to do to get through each day as a group actually was beneficial to our players,” McCreary said. “Hockey players are always worrying about the future and what’s ahead, whether it’s the next game, whether they will be in the lineup for the upcoming weekend, what lines they’re going to be skating on or where they are going to play next year. This can make them emotional to the point that sometimes they can’t just focus on the things they need to do day to day. In our situation we had to focus on the day to day, because we didn’t know what tomorrow might bring and if we would be shut down or practicing in small groups with three guys on the ice, practicing as a team or going to another state to practice. We had to make sure the players were mentally strong and used the opportunity to come together as a team and put the work in, whether it was in small groups, off the ice or on the ice.”
Now that we have an idea what the Hat Tricks and Generals had to deal with last season, imagine being NAHL Commissioner Mark Frankenfeld and multiply the issues faced by individual teams by 100 or more.
On Aug. 24, 2020, the Corpus Christi IceRays announced they would be taking a one-year hiatus from league play because of concerns and restrictions brought about in Texas by the COVID-19 outbreak. The Kansas City Scouts, a first-year franchise, decided to wait until the 2022-23 season to begin play, and on Aug. 26 the Fairbanks Ice Dogs announced they would be relocating to Marshall, Minn., for the 2020-21 campaign because of quarantine and testing restrictions in the state of Alaska.
The Kenai River Brown Bears, also based in Alaska, decided to move to Minnesota temporarily as well, and the New Mexico Ice Wolves decided that El Paso, Texas, would be their home for the season. New Mexico ultimately returned to Albuquerque in April and played at home for the remainder a season that extended into June before the Robertson Cup finally was awarded to the league-champion Shreveport Mudbugs.
Finally, in mid-September, both the Springfield Jr. Blues and Jamestown Rebels shut down operations for the season. All that turbulence left the league with 23 active teams competing, and despite varying restrictions and guidelines that had been put in place all over the country, the league announced an Oct. 9 start date.
Four games were played that night, and despite all the differing local rules, team relocations and in-season temporary shutdowns, every team managed to complete a full schedule of between 48 and 60 games by May 16, about a month later than usual.
Although the league and teams persevered, at no point was the ride smooth.
Assembling competitive teams at the NAHL level is a daunting task in any season, much less during a pandemic. Most teams were forced to shut down their 2020 predraft camps, which usually take place in May and provide them with a chance to see players they are interested in drafting or signing firsthand. Other showcase tournaments and combines that allow teams to scout players in person were cancelled. The league’s draft was pushed back from June to July, and team main camps that are held to help fund organizational budgets and determine who will be invited to training camp in September were delayed as well.
The Generals had to move their main camp from Massachusetts to New Hampshire at the last minute because of restrictions in their home state. Other summer showcases that are highly scouted were moved to nearby states that had fewer COVID restrictions. Some teams had to dance around frequent visits from local health departments to get through their camps. The process was even more difficult for Danbury, which already was dealing with the challenges of preparing for its inaugural NAHL season.
NAHL teams were able to bring more players to training camp than usual and to roster 27 players during she season, three more than in a normal year, with the understanding that there would be players forced to sit out for extended periods of time as a result of positive COVID tests and contact tracing. The extra bodies didn’t always make things easier, though.
“It was kind of a nightmare,” Erikson said. “Some games we just had too many guys sitting in the stands, and that isn’t good for anybody’s development.”
Danbury faced multiple two-week shutdowns because of changing health-department guidelines. Then, at times, they were forced to practice in small groups with no more than five coaches and skaters present at one time. Sometimes they had to cross the border into New York to get on the ice.
The Hat Tricks opened their season by splitting a pair of games against the New Jersey Titans Oct. 9 and 10. They hit the road for a few weeks then had another home game vs. the Generals Nov. 5 before being shut down until Jan. 22. Danbury played 47 games between Jan. 22 and May 16, including unheard of stretches of five games in seven or eight days on more than one occasion.
A few hours to the south in Maryland, the Black Bears were forced to move their first 17 games to a rink located about 45 minutes north of their usual home rink in Odenton, Md. Despite being in the same state, the two rinks and local jurisdictions had differing COVID regulations in place. Maryland’s longest layoff was from Dec. 11 until Jan. 8. The Generals didn’t play between Jan. 10 and 23.
Similar challenges were faced around the country and throughout the league. Eventual-champion Shreveport started its season a month later than Danbury and spent the entire month of November on the road. The Wisconsin-based Janesville Jets also began play in November and were off from Nov. 22 until Dec. 31. And the Minnesota Magicians opened play on Dec. 31 and proceeded to cram 48 games into 4-1/2 months. They played four games in four days March 3-6 as part of a seven-games-in-10-days stretch.
We don’t have the time or space to get into all the scheduling craziness here, but you get the idea. Nothing about 2020-21 approached being normal, but kudos for all the extra time, energy and patience shown by the league, its staff and the team personnel to provide so many players with the opportunity to complete their seasons at a critical time in their careers for development and exposure.
And despite all the headaches and challenges, some positives did come out of the experience.
With players in and out of the lineup all year and the Canadian border closed, the Generals were able to provide more kids from their North American Tier 3 Hockey League team and their 18U team with opportunities to play games in the NAHL.
“Normally we might pick up some kids who get cut from the B.C. league in Canada or the USHL during the season, but that really didn’t happen as much last year,” Erikson said. “We might have had 50 different players appear on our roster by the end of the season, but many of them were kids who came from within our organization – and many times they got more than just a game or two – and that was a great opportunity for them and should help our organization in the future.”
For Danbury, fears of bringing in players from other areas of the country and dealing with the local quarantine rules – as well as the possibility of players who were already on the roster becoming infected by outsiders and having to sit out – forced the Hat Tricks to stick mainly with their original 27 players. That allowed players to get more comfortable than usual in their roles and for some who may not have gotten as much of an opportunity to play at the NAHL level in a normal year a better chance to develop. Danbury had 10 returning players on its opening-night roster Wednesday.
“One of the positives that came out of last year was that as an organization we really committed to developing our own players,” McCreary said. “Because of COVID we had a smaller number of players that we used during the course of the season, so maybe some kids who normally wouldn’t have gotten to spend so much time playing at the NAHL level really got an excellent developmental opportunity.”
The hurdles didn’t end for the NAHL and its teams on June 22 when Shreveport defeated the Aberdeen Wings and got to lift the Robertson Cup.
Because of the delayed ending to the season, the league’s draft once again was pushed back to July, but most of the teams eventually did get to hold some sort of predraft camps to give themselves an opportunity to see players they previously had seen only on video in person. Eased travel restrictions and fewer rink regulations allowed many of the spring and summer showcases and combines that were cancelled last year to be held, which provided NAHL coaches and scouts with more opportunities to see players compete in person. Most teams were able to hold their main camps and select the players they would invite to September training camps in July as usual.
“It was really cool to get back out to the rinks for the summer showcases and see so many kids in person,” Erikson said. “Some teams really take advantage of that opportunity and make their kids really accessible and make it easy for us to talk to them. Because of that, we might partner with more of those teams in the future and put more emphasis on scouting those tournaments.”
Slowly but surely things are getting back to normal.
“Our guys have been here since Aug. 17,” Erikson said of his team, which is 100 percent vaccinated. “We wanted to get them back here early and to have them get back to as much of a normal routine and as much normalcy as they possibly can. Hopefully it will continue. You just never know, but we are hopeful.”
Hope became reality when that puck dropped in Danbury Wednesday night. Now, here’s hoping a less-challenging season awaits the staff, coaches and players of the NAHL in 2021-22.