When the Commonwealth of Massachusetts released its guidance for this past week’s Phase 3 of reopening during the COVID-19 pandemic, ice hockey was among the sports classified in the higher risk category.
As part of the executive order from Governor Charlie Baker, hockey players or organizations were allowed to take part in Level 1 activities, described as “individual or socially distanced group activities” including no-contact workouts, aerobic conditioning, individual skill work, and drills.
Citing factors that include safety and health, development and competitive challenges, along with economic impact, ice rink owners and hockey organizers submitted a letter to the Massachusetts Reopening Advisory Board, led by Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito. The group proposes to make all Massachusetts youth hockey divisions non-contact, applying USA Hockey rules that exist in younger age classifications for boys and all divisions for girls.
The hope, they said, is that would allow the sport to be moved to the moderate risk category — opening up the ice for activities in Level 2 (competitive practices including intrasquad/group games, contact drills, and scrimmages) and Level 3 (competitions).
The letter has 16 signatures, including representatives of Massachusetts Hockey — the state’s affiliate to USA Hockey. Among the names are Scott Fusco, 1986 Hobey Baker winner at Harvard and president of Edge Sports Center in Bedford, and former pro player Scott Harlow, president of the Bridgewater Ice Arena and Foxboro Sports Center.
“We believe we can show that we can create a safe environment for the kids, while still having the competition of games,” said Kevin Kavanagh, executive director of Massachusetts Hockey.
Rob McBride, president of FMC Ice Sports in Pembroke, said a path for hockey exists with lacrosse, which in its full form is classified as higher risk but also has a no-contact version in the moderate risk category.
“We were surprised by some of the things in [the guidance],” said McBride, who served on a youth sports task force advisory group, along with Kavanagh and Paul Gilmartin, president of Valley Associates. “We don’t want to fight the administration, they’ve done a fantastic job with this. We want to support them and make things better.”
In the proposal the group cites studies conducted by Finnish analytics website Wisehockey and Eastern Michigan University showing that “close range exposure time” during youth hockey games — even with full contact allowed — ranges from 3-4 minutes of a player being within 2 meters of another, and less than three seconds of immediate proximity or actual contact.
The group also believes the equipment of ice hockey, including gloves and acrylic face shields, “constitute a significant barrier to transmission that we believe should be given more weight in the decision on classification.” Additionally, they noted that a study by the National Federation of High Schools concluded that ice hockey is of moderate risk, an opinion the group says also is supported by some in the medical community.
Bob Joyce, president of Massachusetts Hockey, said adjustments such as extending bench space or even adding benches in other parts of the rink — concepts USA Hockey has developed for various half-sheet games over the years — would allow players to be properly socially distanced when not on the ice.
As of Friday afternoon, Kavanagh said the group had not received a response from Polito. Meanwhile, a change.org petition asking Baker to “reconsider this seemingly arbitrary decision” to put ice hockey in Level 1, had more than 10,000 signatures.
In the interim, absent the ability to take part in more competitive aspects of hockey in the state, officials, teams and even individual families have been forced to adjust to keep players on the ice as much as possible.
“I’m kind of middle of the road on it,” said Tom Storella, whose son Danny played varsity hockey as a freshman last season at Stoneham High.
Storella said his family has been very cautious about following the proper protocols during the pandemic, but, at the same time, he also has to look out for his son’s hockey future.
“I get what they’re trying to do, but they need to figure out a way to make it work,” Storella said. “It’s going to stunt a lot of the kids that are eighth grade going into high school, or kids trying to make club teams. Scrimmages and skills are only half the story. You need to see those real game situations to truly evaluate a kid.”
Storella said one option would be traveling to a neighboring state such as New Hampshire, Connecticut, or Maine, where games are allowed.
Bryan Erikson faced a similar decision as general manager of the Northeast Generals, a junior program competing in the North American Hockey League. The Generals are based at New England Sports Village in Attleborough, but Erikson said the team will conduct its main tryout camp July 27-29 at The Rinks at Exeter, nearly 100 miles north and across the New Hampshire border.
“Once Monday’s announcement came out, I was scrambling,” said Erikson, noting the Generals already hold predraft camps in Baldwin, Wis., and Danbury, Conn. “But the main camp, you want it in your rink, you want it in your facility, so you can showcase everything about your program.”
Summertime has become a big part of the hockey calendar for showcases and tournaments. The Battle of Boston moved its senior division games to Connecticut, while canceling all other divisions. The annual Chowder Cup, which draws teams from across the country and Canada to Eastern and Central Mass., also was canceled.
“That’s not reducing the risk for people in Massachusetts. It’s important for us to get the games back in Massachusetts in some fashion, to keep [people] safe and keep them home, and to where the industry can survive,” McBride said.
The loss of business is a particular concern. The group cites the 150-plus ice facilities across the state that host more than 100,000 participants and 90,000 youth hockey games per year. According to the letter, ice rinks create more than 15,000 jobs and generate revenue in excess of $1.5 billion annually, including hotels, restaurants and retail spending.
“The thing that stinks is we’re pulling money from a rink that’s struggling,” Erikson said. “[New England] Sports Village is a big partner of ours. When Massachusetts pulled the rug out from under us, when people have businesses and are trying to make money, it makes it hard. Taking our business to New Hampshire is not something I’m pumped to do.”
Gilmartin, whose company has ice facilities in Lawrence, Haverhill, Saugus, and Malden, said that equitable opportunities is a big consideration for a sport in which much of the participation is working class. The group acknowledges that hockey in Massachusetts “is an important part of the social and economic fabric of our communities,” while also noting the expense of operating ice facilities is much higher than with public field spaces and other sports venues.
“The economics are important to all of our facilities,” Gilmartin said. “If we don’t come back to some point of normalcy, we’re going to lose facilities. But safety is a priority. We’re trying to show we can have a safe game without hurting the economic part of it.”