As the hockey community continues to move toward the start of the 2020-21 season, there might be a shift toward practical questions.
Such as: What exactly is hockey in the age of coronavirus going to look like at, say, the 12U level?
Ken Martel, the technical director for USA Hockey’s American Development Model, has a lot of answers that focus on safety on multiple levels – as well as confidence that the sport will be able to resume safely.
“I think USA Hockey is confident our sport can come back and provide an unbelievable outlet for kids,” Martel says.
But doing so will require good planning and execution.
Don’t Overdo It
Martel notes that while 12U players likely have maintained some level of activity during the pandemic, the amount and intensity has probably decreased from where it was months ago.
“The physical load on athletes has been way down,” Martel said. “Even young healthy athletes, you’re going from zero to 60 and the human body needs some ramp up.”
He points to a study of NFL players in 2011, when a lockout kept even some of the best athletes in the world from maintaining peak condition for several months. When they returned that season, they had a high incidence of injury.
So returning to the ice should involve a gradual increase in both acute and chronic workload.
“The chronic workload has to build up over time to become accustomed to that level. The competition is really intense. You can make practice start to replicate games, but it never quite does in terms of intensity,” Martel said. “If you ramp up your acute workload really fast you have potential for injury. … I’m not sure we know exactly what the appropriate level of ramping up is, but the idea is don’t peak too soon, don’t go too fast too quickly.”
Maximize Ice Time in a Safe Way
Guidelines for returning to the ice will likely vary from state to state. In settings where 10 or fewer people are allowed on the ice at the same time in an effort to promote distancing, Martel points players, families and coaches to a document with several ideas for drills and games as a way to break up the monotony of individual technical work.
“We’re a sport where you want teammates and opposition. You want to battle and compete. Doing things by yourself with nobody else around is kind of not the essence of what makes ice hockey fun,” Martel said. “So we put together 20-25 different activities we’ve been sending out. We tried to come up with things that might have an element of fun – some games, things you might be able to do that have a little more interest while still maintaining that 6-foot social distancing.”
As restrictions loosen more – and already have in some places – it will be important still to minimize risk, Martel says.
“Say you’re allowed 25 kids on the ice. Say you did four groups of six in pods. You might run a practice where six players don’t really come in contact with the other 18. But you could battle and compete within those six – reducing the contact level,” Martel said. “You can put a pod of eight kids together, small games of 2-on-2, and they can stay apart from everybody else.”
Respect the Arena
Martel says positioning data from hockey games shows that players don’t come in frequent close contact with each other, which is good news for the sport.
Even better news is that within the rink environment itself – off the ice sheet – protective measures can be enacted to mitigate risk and maintain distancing. With proper planning and execution, we can return to rinks safely.
“What’s most important is the stuff around the building – the locker room, confined spaces, the bench area,” he said. “So can you make team sizes smaller, benches bigger – down the hallway, too, so you’re not sitting two feet apart breathing really hard. We need to do a good job around the rink in how people enter, how we put on gear, how we clean.”
No environment is risk-free, but there are varying degrees of risk – many of which operate on a sliding scale with the cost vs. benefit of that risk.
“There are health and societal benefits to coming back and playing,” Martel said. “You look at just the mental health of not being around friends, not being physically active, from a kid perspective there are legit issues there. You have to weigh all this. Society will have to judge what our risk tolerance is for certain things. But on our end if we do the right things and follow the guidelines from the CDC and local health authorities, we can maintain an acceptable level of risk for kids to come back and play.”