Tall Order

USA Hockey Takes On Its Toughest Opponent In Order To Stage This Year’s National Championships

Working in the construction business for most of his adult life, Keith Barrett has become somewhat of a creature of habit. He wakes up early, sits down with a cup of coffee and powers up his iPad looking for stories of local interest.

But lately the Vermont native finds himself scrolling through stories of how Covid-19 is impacting other parts of the country, and particularly its effect on youth hockey. 

"Even if they're not talking specifically about youth hockey, you know that if the governor has things locked down, there's not much youth hockey going on," he says.

Since stepping into the role as USA Hockey vice president and chair of the Youth Council in 2020, Barrett figured he would use the skills and experience he amassed over a lifetime as a player, parent, coach, official and administrator to help move the game forward. What he found instead is the crisis management skills he's mastered in his day job have better suited him to deal with the current situation, especially as Covid-19 continues to wreak havoc on plans to host its marquee event, the Chipotle-USA Hockey National Championships. 

"This has been a very challenging year for USA Hockey, but also for me as a newly minted vice president for USA Hockey and chair of the youth council," Barrett says. 

"What bothers me most is that every conversation that we've had has been Covid related. We haven't been able to really hit our stride and jump into the fun stuff that our committees are working on to create a great experience for the kids."

By his own admission, Barrett says there are days when he asks himself the same nagging question: "How the heck are we going to pull this off?"

After being forced to cancel Nationals last year, USA Hockey has spent countless hours on Zoom calls and virtual meetings with all sorts of interested parties trying to answer that million dollar question.

Working with medical professionals, state and local governments, rink owners, volunteers and youth hockey associations around the country, the plan is to stage the event as safely as possible with the health and welfare of all participants in mind.

"Although it sounds like a canned answer, safety is still going to be our number one priority," says T.C. Lewis, who is serving as the National Championship chair. "We have to ask ourselves, can we safely have an event that the kids are going to enjoy, that the participants will be proud that they went to and walk away with a good experience? That's our goal."

To accomplish that, USA Hockey's medical staff created a series of documents with  the necessary protocols to pull this off. One document will be for host sites, the other for participants. 

But it doesn't stop there. As Kevin Margarucci, the manager of player safety for USA Hockey, points out, "We have our suggested guidelines that each site is going to have to follow, but if things are stricter in their area, obviously they have to follow those stricter guidelines."

The challenge still remains that some parts of the country are slowly emerging from their hockey hibernation. Other areas haven't really missed a beat when it comes to playing games.

That dichotomy not only impacts which teams will have their ticket punched for a national tournament but which host sites will still be able to stage the event. USA Hockey set a deadline of Feb. 24 for Districts and Affiliates to commit teams to participating.

Several sites in hard hit states, including Irvine and San Jose in California, Grand Rapids, Mich., and Amherst, N.Y., were on the bubble. The committee has several alternative sites standing by if needed. The deadline for host sites to commit was March 1. 

Given the months needed to prepare to host a tournament and the small army of volunteers needed to run the event, that doesn't leave much room for error.

To give all parties a better chance to pull this off, the youth council pushed back the tournament dates from mid-March to late April. Moving it back even further is not an option, Barrett says, because of the impact it could have on other spring sports. In addition, a number of rinks begin to take their ice out at that time of year for scheduled maintenance.

USA Hockey has adjusted the minimum game count to qualify for National Championships and District Tournaments for Youth Tier I and II teams. To qualify, all Youth  Tier I and Tier II teams must have competed as a team unit in at least 14 games, while each youth player must have played in at least seven games during the 2020-21 season. The previous levels were 20 games for the team and 10 for the player. These requirements were reduced to relieve the stress that some teams might have felt to play ill-advised games. 

The game count for Girls Tier I and Tier II will shift to 11/7 and High School will stay at 10/5. 

Also weighing on the shoulders of the youth council is the fact that last year's National Championships were cancelled during the early stages of the pandemic. While it may not have been a popular decision with some, hindsight shows that it was the right call. 

But cancelling it two years in a row is a hard pill to swallow.

"I would be lying if I didn't say that not having it last year doesn't have some impact on our thought process," Lewis says. "I think we should try really hard to make sure we have the event because we didn't do it last year.

"With that said, it still comes down to, is it safe to do or not? If it's not safe, then we don't do it. If we think we can do it safely, then we do it."

Lewis added that a number of Tier I and Tier II teams are already playing now.

With so many moving parts, that's the central issue that keeps Barrett up at night. Still, he knows that if it doesn't happen it won't be for lack of trying. And if it does happen, he'll be happy that the talk may one day shift away from pandemics and back to things that are a little more fun.

"Lord knows if we pull this off with what we have to do in the way of protocols, it'll be a unique experience," Barrett says. 

"It will all be worth it if kids can look back and say, 'We went to Nationals in 2021 on the tail end of a pandemic and we were all wearing masks and the coach sounded like he had a mouthful of socks.' It's going to be one of those things where we can look back on and say, 'Holy smokes, we did it.'" 




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