Rolling Out The Red Carpet

As Rinks Continue To Reopen, Plenty Of Precautions Put In Place To Keep Everyone Safe

Even before the first cup of Monday morning coffee kicked in, Eric Guzdek and his staff were greeted with a sight for sore eyes.

Impatiently waiting by the glass doors outside the Northtown Center in Amherst, N.Y., stood 20 eager youngsters and several coaches who were ready to hit the ice for the first time in four months.

The July 6th goalie clinic organized by long-time coach and instructor Bob Janosz would be the first group to grace the ice for what would be a long overdue session. 

"We're definitely happy to see people coming into the facility again. It's definitely been different, but it's a satisfying feeling that we're opening back up," said Guzdek, the general manager of the four-sheet facility.

"We all want to get back to normal. We want to get kids recreating themselves, and we want to give parents an outlet to get their kids out of the house and having fun again." 

That's the sentiment at rinks around the country that have slowly reopened in accordance with state and local guidelines. After months cooped up inside their houses or social distancing away from their friends, kids are happy to bring a sense of normalcy back into their young lives in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

"I think people were generally very happy to just be back on the ice," Guzdek said. "We heard a couple of grumbles because no spectators were allowed, but I think everybody was just generally happy to be back in the building and getting on the ice again."

 

Returning To The Rinks

To help rinks prepare to roll out the red carpet, USA Hockey teamed up with its partners at U.S. Figure Skating and the U.S. Ice Rinks Association to create a blueprint to get people back on the ice in a safe manner.

The Returning to the Rinks document encourages rinks to follow the guidelines created by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and other federal, state and local agencies as they create their own plans for reopening. 

"Programs that work well in the hockey world have solid relationships with their local rinks as well as their figure skating clubs," said Kevin Erlenbach, assistant executive director of membership who has worked with rinks and local associations to reopen around the country. 

"We all want the same thing and need the same thing. Rinks are the lifeblood of our sport and we need them to be profitable and able to stay in business in order to keep all of our kids on the ice."

Many of the protocols mirror those promoted to navigate daily life in the pandemic, including tips on practicing social distancing, cleaning facilities and encouraging good personal hygiene.

Other topics are more sport specific, whether it's managing the size and scope of a learn-to-skate program to creating practice plans that keep players moving, active and engaged.

"Bob Mancini, one of our [American Development Model] managers, always says, 'No lines, no laps and no lectures,'" USA Hockey Executive Director Pat Kelleher told ESPN.com. "You don't want kids standing in line, and you don't want them sitting there listening to a lecture on the ice."

 

One Size May Not Fit All 

As the coronavirus pandemic hit in March and impacted various parts of the country to differing degrees. 

Some states barely missed a beat and quickly became the envy of the hockey-playing nation as stories of leagues and tournaments taking place quickly hit the print and airwaves. Other parts of the country waged a prolonged life-or-death battle as the virus hit states hard. And still other areas that seemed to be spared in early rounds have found themselves in the grip of an early summer onslaught.

"The situation in Minot, N.D., is a lot different than New York City, which is a lot different than Fairbanks, Alaska," said Dr. Michael Stuart, USA Hockey's chief medical officer. "That's why we have to look to county health boards, state medical associations and different governmental restrictions and not just have a global policy for all of USA Hockey."

In New York State, which was hit particularly hard early on with Covid-19 cases, there was a more measured approach to reopening the state. The opening of rinks and other recreational facilities didn't take place until July 6 as part of Phase 3 of the state's reopening plans.

In Amherst, communication has been the key to getting everyone on the same page. Protocols are listed on the Amherst Police Department website and on signs positioned throughout the facility.

Masks are mandatory for everyone and must be worn at all times except when skaters are on the ice. And participants, many in various stages of dress, are escorted inside 15 minutes before their practice session. Social distancing is practiced in the locker room, on the benches and on the ice as much as possible. 

There are no competitive games or scrimmages. Instead, practices consist of skill enhancing drills that limit the amount of physical contact.

"Coaches have to be creative and use all the things they've learned in the coaching education process so they can utilize the time practically for a 60 minutes on a sheet of ice," Guzdek said. "By the time kids get off the ice, what we've seen is that they're exhausted because they're working hard for that full 60 minutes."

 

Back In Business In Blaine

Many of the safety precautions put in place in Amherst are happening at rinks around the country. 

Pete Carlson oversees the eight-sheet facility located on the sprawling grounds of the National Sports Center in Blaine, Minn. They opened June 1 for practices consisting of two pods of 10 players and two coaches each occupying half of an ice sheet. In keeping with the governor's orders, no games or scrimmages were allowed and no spectators were allowed in the building. 

"The good news was everyone was on the ice and you heard the whistles and the pucks hitting the boards and the doors were open," Carlson said. "But for hockey camps and hockey clinics, let's just say operating with those kinds of numbers doesn't pay the bills."

After three weeks, the number of kids expanded to 25 kids per pod and scrimmages could be held. And in early July the first tournament took place with a limited number of parents and spectators allowed into the building after passing a temperature check at the front door. 

As is the case at the Northtown Center, Carlson's facility requires 100 percent of its participants to wear a mask everywhere in the building but on the ice.

Carlson said comments about mask wearing tend to run along political and philosophical lines and run the gamut from "I can't believe you're making us do this" to "Thank you for being over protective and keeping our kids safe." 

"With everything that we've been through, I can't believe some people still feel this way," he said. "They should just be thankful that the building is open and their son or daughter is skating."

 

Back To Normalcy

For nine long weeks, the doors to the Aerodrome Ice Skating Complex in Houston were closed. When Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced the second phase of openings on May 18, it was game on for T.C. Lewis and his crew.

"It's good to start getting some normalcy back," said the facility's general manager. "They're happy to come back for the exercise, and they're happy to come back to see their friends. Without question, there's a camaraderie they all have that they've missed. They're tired of being cooped up."

Art Trottier has noticed the same thing as the Great Park Ice & FivePoint Arena in Irvine, Calif., finally welcomed back skaters on July 8. Capacity inside the sprawling 280,000-square foot four-sheet facility has been dramatically restricted, but the excitement inside its gleaming walls is noticeable.

"I think people were missing the camaraderie and skating. They hadn't been on the ice for a couple months down here," said the vice president of ICE Management that oversees a number of rinks in southern California for the Anaheim Ducks.

"People came back, we thought the demand would come and it has. We have limited capacity and limited ice times available. We really pared back the hours and the amount of people on the ice to keep it safe."

 

What Hockey Will Look Like

As rinks open and find their stride heading into the fall, it's hard to say what hockey will look like in a post-pandemic age.

Will travel teams still be able to jump on planes to compete in tournaments against teams from around the country? Do body checks and puck possession battles put players at risk for contracting Covid-19? And will the locker room scene that is such an integral part of the hockey experience will be dramatically altered? 

For those working on the frontlines of getting rinks reopened, there is little doubt that players of all ages will be back on the ice this fall. Things may not look the same as last year, but the seeds that have been planted this summer with measured responses at rinks around the country will continue to blossom into the fall.

"Hockey will be back," Erlenbach said. "It may not look like it did before the pandemic, but we are confident that kids will be back on the ice very soon."

 

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2020-08

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