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At All Levels, Hockey Working to Put Virus on Ice

22 Oct, 2020

By: Michael Popke

The National Hockey League’s next season is set to begin Jan. 1, 2021, with the intent of playing a full 82-game schedule with fans in the arenas, according to the league and the NHL Players’ Association. That start date would be a little more than three months after the Sept. 28 completion of the 2019-20 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and current plans call for play in a quarantined bubble.

NHL.com notes that Dec. 1 previously had been set “as the tentative start date for next season, with training camp opening Nov. 17, as part of a four-year extension of the NHL/NHLPA Collective Bargaining Agreement that was ratified July 10. But Commissioner [Gary] Bettman stated multiple times that the dates could be pushed back if necessary.”

At least one team owner, Bill Foley of the Las Vegas Golden Knights, predicts the Jan. 1 date will be pushed back, too. He told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that a more likely start date would be Feb. 1, with each team playing a maximum of 56 games. The Stanley Cup Playoffs would conclude prior to the start of the Summer Olympics in July.

The NHL’s situation remains fluid regarding a firm start date and the status of fans in the stands.

Meanwhile, the Hockey Commissioners Association (which represents 11 college hockey conferences) announced in September that the 2020-21 NCAA Division I men’s and women’s seasons would be delayed — with an eye toward beginning competition in November. Each conference, the association said, would announce plans for the season individually.

“This delay affords us valuable time to continue formulating plans to start the season successfully,” National Collegiate Hockey Conference Commissioner Josh Fenton said in a statement.

A few weeks later, the Big Ten Conference unveiled plans for a season that could begin as early as Nov. 13 and feature 24-game conference schedules, plus an additional four games per school against Arizona State University hosted at Big Ten venues. The 2020-21 schedule will conclude March 18-20, 2021, with the Big Ten Men’s Ice Hockey Tournament.

Conference teams will follow the same medical protocols that were developed by the Big Ten Return to Competition Task Force, including daily antigen testing, enhanced cardiac screening and an enhanced data-driven approach when making decisions about practice/competition. Arizona State has agreed to adhere to the same testing protocols as the Big Ten Conference.

The Western Collegiate Hockey Association women’s hockey league — comprised of three Big Ten schools and four schools from the Division II Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference — hasn’t gotten that far yet.

“To return to play during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic in the United States, WCHA women’s commissioner Jennifer Flowers said … the biggest hurdle for her league remains developing a COVID-19 testing protocol that can be both agreed upon and attainable for seven of the league’s members,” according to the Duluth News Tribune.

“Much like every other league outside the Big Ten men, we’re constantly working toward merging two or three or more multisport leagues,” Flowers said, not ruling out a November start date for the WCHA. “So all of us are in the same scenario right now trying to really understand the needs of our institutions and finding ways to balance those needs, and get together in a protocol that can be both attainable and agreeable. … It’s a challenge unlike any of us have ever had to go through.”

Even more uncertainty exists at the high school and youth hockey levels.

Kent State University shut down the campus ice arena earlier this month following an uptick in COVID-19 cases at the university. And some youth hockey teams that are playing may be in violation of their states’ own COVID-19 guidelines, including in Maine, where the Maine Department of Health and Human Services has threatened to fine the Maine Amateur Hockey Association up to $10,000 if it continues to ignore state guidelines that currently allow hockey teams to participate only in indoor practices and scrimmages — not competition. Unfortunately, it’s not the only problem; a coronavirus cluster has been linked to a youth hockey tournament that attracted more than 300 players, coaches and spectators in Anchorage, Alaska.

The desire to return to play, however, remains strong, and many destinations and leagues are taking smart precautions to alleviate any risk. In Minnesota, the Woodbury Area Hockey Club has a landing page devoted to steps being taken. The Kansas City Youth Hockey Association is also moving forward with its season, and has listed the changes being made.

“We realize there are numerous concerns about how the season will unfold as the pandemic continues to evolve,” noted a statement on the website. “At this time, based on guidance from USA Hockey, we are moving forward with plans for a full 2020-2021 season - but are also preparing for the contingency if the season is interrupted or suspended.”

And all the way at the other end of the country, in Washington State, the Everett Youth Hockey program is preparing to take the ice at Angel of the Winds Arena. This is based on Governor Inslee's Safe Start Washington plan, Phase 2, which allows for the restart of youth sports.

The Connecticut Hockey Conference was just glad to get back to play, and like others, is taking measures to keep athletes, coaches and officials safe.

“We are, as Chuck Wilkerson the CHC president said, open for business,” happily noted the website for the organization.

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