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     The cool air rushes against my face as the door swings open. As I walk my daughter down to the locker room it dawns on me, this is the final game of the 2019-20 season. She, along with so many others kids, have improved so much this season. Not only have their physical skills improved, but their confidence has grown as well. This walk toward the locker room feels a bit different. Not different because if her team wins they win the championship, different because there is uncertainty looming ahead for every parent, sibling and young hockey player that leaves the rink this day. Afterall, is was only a week earlier I heard news that I thought I would never hear.  

     It is one of those moments you will never forget where you were when you heard the news. I stood talking to my youngest’s coach and another parent about the final two games and how all the kids had improved since the beginning of the season. My oldest had just finished up with her practice, we said our goodbyes and headed out to the car. I threw both of their hockey bags into the back of the car and started our journey home. The kids were playing on their tablets and I was listening to Freddie and Fitzsimmons on ESPN Radio. I struggled a moment to hear what they were discussing, as I turned the volume up their words became clear. They were making the announcement that the NBA would be shutting down the season because one player tested positive for COVID-19. The announcement stunned me. How could a virus shut down a professional league? Like everyone else I knew of the COVID-19 virus. My wife and I had discussed it before, but it was not until that moment that I truly understood the severity of COVID-19. 

     My initial thoughts of COVID-19 were, like many Americans, that it was just a slightly worse version of the flu. My wife tried to educate me on the actual severity of the disease and how quickly and easily it could be spread, but in the back of my mind I always wondered if it was as serious as they were making it out to be. I listened as Dickerson and Hood discussed how one player testing positive shut down the entire league. Games were canceled. Teams, refs, and staff were isolated. All these precautions were being taken because one player tested positive. It was at that moment I, and I am sure thousands of Americans, realized this outbreak should not be taken lightly. The NBA shutting down the season was just the beginning of what was to come. Within the next few days, schools were closed for a week to keep kids and teachers safe.  It wouldn’t be long until the NHL would shut down their season as well. I began to wonder if the local rinks would shut down, and the kids wouldn’t even get to play for the championship. 

The rinks would however remain open for the final week of the season. Now my wife and I begin to wonder if we should even let our daughter play as the east coast COVID-19 cases began to rise rapidly. Would other parents keep their kids’ home? Would there even be enough players showing up to field a team? We made the decision to allow her to play in the game. We would be cautious and diligent in sanitizing her hands while she was off the ice and leave the rink as soon as the game was over.  As the puck dropped, we were given a brief moment to forget about what was happening around us and the effect it was having around the world. It was a back and forth game throughout, and when the final buzzer sounded she and her teammates would fall just short of capturing a championship. Gear would be placed in her hockey bag with no certainty when it would be put back on. “Thank you for a great season,” were exchanged amongst players, parents and coaches. As everyone walked out of the ice rinks doors, no one knew how long it would be until we would feel that cool air from the ice against our faces again.

     By the time the game was over, Governor Ducey had announced schools would remain closed for two more weeks. The closures wouldn’t stop there; all rinks would be closing immediately and on March 30, schools were officially closed for the remainder of the year and students would complete the remaining semester remotely. Restaurants, gyms, barbers, and public parks were all closed. Arizona’s Stay at Home Order was officially put into effect on March 23. Arizona was on shut down. Only those businesses deemed essential were to remain open and operating. Arizona would reevaluate opening back up on May 1. All hockey clinics were canceled. There were no more power skating classes or open skates. Homes had become classrooms and garages were being turned into off ice training centers. Coaches quickly turned Zoom Meetings into online training classes to keep players engaged in the game. Our lives as we had known it had been flipped upside down within a matter of a few weeks. 

It was not only the United States being affected by the virus. We were in the midst of a global pandemic. Some countries completely shut down everything to prevent the spread. In the United States, the east coast was experiencing the greatest impact from the virus. Arizona had shut down in hopes of preventing the spike in positive cases that New York and much of the east coast saw. On March 23, when Arizona’s Stay at Home Order was officially put into effect, Arizona had 82 reported cases and no COVID-19 related deaths. On May 1, when Arizona reevaluated reopening there were 314 reported cases. The Stay at Home Order had seemed to flatten the curve and prevent the spread. The decision was made to reopen and on May 14, the state would reevaluate the numbers and consider a complete reopening. Hockey rinks would have to wait until the May 14, as they were not one of the businesses permitted to open up at this time. Two weeks would pass, and the numbers did not see a significant rise. On May 14, there were 495 reported cases, a slight increase from the May 1 numbers. The highest numbers reported, up to this date, were 524 cases. Looking at the numbers, it would appear the partial reopening wasn’t impacting the spread. 

     The problem with COVID-19 is that there is up to a two week incubation phase before symptoms appear and Arizona was only testing those symptomatic. On March 14, the governor made the decision to reopen with restrictions on group gatherings, encouraged physical distancing and no recommendation on wearing face masks. Hockey rinks would open their doors for the first time in nearly two months on May 18. Each rink would open with its own set of restrictions. The rinks were restricted on the number of participants on the ice, in the locker rooms and no spectators were allowed. Oceanside Arena, The Ice Dens and AZ Ice Gilbert and Peoria would allow one adult to accompany youth players to the rink. AZ Ice Arcadia would be the only rink to restrict all activities to drop off only. Parents would not be allowed to stay in the rink. Finally, we could get back on the ice, and back to some normalcy. In the back of my mind I wondered how long the reopening would last? After all, Memorial Day was just around the corner and it didn’t take long for images of packed bars, with no social distancing to emerge.  

     Then the number of new positive cases started to climb. On June 1, Arizona reported its first day over 1,000 new cases with 1,171. From there the numbers rapidly climbed, and on June 15, Arizona reported 3,011 new cases. From May 18 to June 15 Arizona had reported 31,681 new COVID-19 cases, and there was no sign the new cases were going to stop growing. As the month went by, the number of new cases continued to go up. On June 29 Arizona reported 5,415 new cases followed by 5,261 cases being reported on June 30. Over 10,000 new cases reported within two days Arizona was officially one of three states that had become a hot spot for COVID-19 in the United States.

     Like many parents, my wife and I had registered our kids in summer programs and we were heading to the rink two days a week. Hockey camps, small group skill sessions and stick times were still being offered by all the local rinks. As we were watching the numbers rise, it felt like it was only a matter of time before the rinks would be shut down again. Rinks were about to start easing up on their restrictions, but as July 1 rolled around, they quickly changed their path and enforced stricter rules. Soon all locker rooms were closed, and you needed to bring your child fully dressed except for skates making for a long walk from the parking lot in the 110+ Arizona heat. Our governor would not mandate wearing a mask in public, but counties and businesses were taking the initiative and requiring patrons to wear masks. If you were heading to the rink, you better make sure you were masking up. Even with the counties and rinks requiring the use of masks, many parents were not following the protocol.  I remember a specific time I was at the ice rink and outside several parents were gathered around with no masks on disregarding social distancing guideline’s and discussing how no one was going to enforce the mask mandate set by the county so they weren’t going to be follow the mandate. I thought to myself this is exactly the mindset that has us in this predicament in the first place. If we as parents didn’t set an example how could we expect our children to do the same? After everything the state was going through, did they actually believe the virus would just disappear? After some discussion, my wife and I made the difficult decision to pull our kids from their summer hockey programs. We would watch the numbers, in hopes that they would drop or level off, and then look at letting them return in August. At this point it was hard to imagine the new season starting on time or even at all. A few weeks later, I was looking at the Ice Den Chandler’s website to see if there were any updates to their rink restriction and I saw that registration for the 2020-21 season was opening. Really, we were going to move forward with the season? Were there going to be any restrictions? Spectators are not even allowed to be in the rink. How could we possibly start the season on time?

     Registration is now open for the 2020-2021 Scottsdale and Chandler CDP House Hockey Season which is set to start on August 24. Tryouts for Tier I & II as well as Elite Teams will be held in Mid-August with the season to start soon after.  AZ Ice Arenas started a summer youth hockey season and will soon open their registration for their house fall hockey season. The Arizona High School Hockey Association made the decision on June 18 to push back the start of the High School season to October. Practices would begin on September 8 and the seeding tournament would be on the first week of October. Hearing that registration was moving forward for youth hockey I started to think, what has changed since March? Back when everything shut down in March, Arizona had 82 reported COVID-19 cases. On July 31, the time of publishing this story, Arizona reported 3,740 new cases with a 14.6% percent positive rate. Over 3,300 Arizonans have lost their lives to COVID-19. The numbers do appear to be plateauing, but there are close to 29,000 tests backlogged. The number of positive cases are anticipated to rise once these tests are processed. There is a state mandate prohibiting gatherings of more than 50 people. Local rinks have closed locker room use, asked that skaters come fully dressed except for skates and have prohibited spectators.  The 2020-21 School year will start remotely and guidelines for returning to in classroom learning is vague and at this point being left up to the School Districts. How could we possibly consider starting the youth hockey season in a month? Before starting to write this story State 48 Hockey reached out to the Ice Dens, AZ Ice locations and local travel teams asking questions about what safety precautions would be taken for the upcoming season. Unfortunately we heard back from none of them. So, I wonder is there protocol if a coach or a child on the team tests positive for COVID-19? Will they be requiring coaches to wear masks? At this point only Oceanside Arena has it stated in their safety measures that all coaches are required to wear masks. I have seen on social media posts the Arizona Kachinas organization requires their coaches to wear masks. Recent photos of AZ Ice Gilbert and Peoria’s summer hockey season, Arizona Union’s skills sessions and the Ice Dens IP Programs show coaches not wearing masks on the ice. USA Hockey states on their website, “Coaches and other support personnel should wear masks at all times.” They do not suggest kids wear masks while participating due to the air flow being restricted during high endurance activity. They do say players should wear masks whenever they are not on the ice and should wash or disinfect their hands after leaving the ice. USA Hockey has also looked at the benefits of wearing a clear face shield over the open cage.  According to USA Hockey, “A full shield is likely better than a half shield or cage.” A full shield can act as a barrier in the case of someone coughing or sneezing in a close proximity. The shield will also deter you from touching your face and spitting. It does not prevent the inhalant of aerosolized droplets, through the openings at the top and bottom of the shield. Having your child wear a full shield is another option to help protect them while they are on the ice. The number of new cases still remain high, but Arizona appears to be trending in the correct direction. The bottom line is COVID-19 is going to be here tomorrow, next week, next month and for the foreseeable future until a cure or vaccine is found. We are now at the point where we need to learn to live life with it and embrace the new normal going forward. 

     So, what will the 2020-2021 season look like? Will they go the professional route and prohibit spectators forcing parents, siblings and grandparents to watch games on LiveBarn? Unless the governor changes the restrictions prohibiting organized public events of more than 50 people, what other choice do we have in order to watch the games? Would it hurt to push the season back to the beginning of October? This would give significant time to see if the number of cases were truly dropping and allow the state to ease the restrictions to prevent another spike in cases like we saw in the month of June. We must remember the most important issue is protecting our children. After some debate, my wife and I have registered both our kids in the upcoming fall season. It’s not an easy decision for every parent to make. In order for this season to take place, without interruption, it is up to parents, coaches, players and local rink personnel to be responsible and take the proper precautions. Wear a mask and social distance is the most important thing any of us can do. No matter what your view is on wearing masks, just wear it. They might be uncomfortable for you, but they are scientifically proven to minimize the spread of COVID-19. A mask can not only can protect you but can protect the life of a family member of your child’s teammate or anyone you might pass by at the rink. If you or your child feels sick, please do the responsible thing and stay home. There will be another game or practice down the road. Continue to wash your hands, disinfect your child’s hands and their equipment after games and practices. There is nothing in this world I love more than watching my kids play and practice hockey. This game brings families from all around the valley together. I can’t tell you how many great people I have meet over the years through this sport. Hockey truly is the greatest game, let’s keep it the safest game. Keep staying behind those masks when leaving the house and we will see everyone back at the rink soon.

 

State 48 Hockey

8-1-2020