Sport vulnerable to COVID-related stoppages

With more than three dozen co-op programs combining players from several high schools and many skaters from across the state competing simultaneously this winter for their club and college programs, school ice hockey in New Jersey faces the challenge. to unique challenges compared to other sports in the midst of the pandemic.

No matter how rigorously players and coaches adhere to NJSIAA guidelines and state Department of Health safety protocols, the sport itself may be more vulnerable to coronavirus-related shutdowns than many. ‘others due to “cross-pollination” of players, said St. Joseph High School of Metuchen head coach Ryan Carter, who is also the assistant chief of Atlantic District coaches for USA Hockey .

At least 14 ice hockey teams – more than 10% of state programs – have already had to be quarantined due to coronavirus concerns, NJSIAA deputy director Jack DuBois said on Wednesday during of the meeting of the executive committee of the state sports association.

The school ice hockey season, delayed from its original start date due to the pandemic, will begin on Friday and run until March 6.

All of the players at St. Joseph of Metuchen, a regional school that is part of the state’s quarantined teams, play club hockey, as do most varsity skaters from other top varsity programs in the state.

Monroe head coach Jerry Minter said about 85 percent of the players on his team play club hockey in at least eight different cities, ranging from as far north as Wayne to south as Howell.

“With the COVID pandemic, we have non-stop double exposure, where players potentially train three times a week with their high school and three times a week with their club, mixing multiple cities and teams,” Minter said.

“It’s definitely not the ideal engagement and it certainly creates a lot of obstacles for us to overcome. My biggest concern is that we are getting to the end of January and there is no one left to play.

“It will be a challenge,” Carter said. “We have to make sure we stay focused and do what we can. I don’t want the kids to lose these opportunities, but it’s always like you’re waiting for the hammer to fall.

After Governor Phil Murphy introduced a “full break” from indoor youth sports statewide on Nov. 30, the NJSIAA postponed the start of ice training for high school teams until Jan. 2.

Murphy’s break also interrupted the club and youth circuit, which is split into two separate levels.

The New Jersey Level II Junior Hockey League, made up of 34 clubs with over 6,000 players participating in over 4,000 games per year, does not generally conflict at the 16U and 18U level with the regular school season, Carter said.

After the “full break” interrupted the league’s regular season, however, play resumed when Murphy authorized a restart, creating a conflict with high school practice, Carter said.

“When (Murphy) took the break,” Carter said, “he made the decision based on the (public health) information he had at the time.

“(Despite) by taking all possible precautions and doing everything correctly, a player and / or coach in your organization can test positive,” Carter said. “So it’s still in the back of your mind – is it something that’s going to happen again?” “

The state Department of Health and the NJSIAA classify ice hockey as a medium risk sport.

Teams will be limited to a maximum of 15 games this season and cannot play more than three games in a single week.

Fair Lawn Athletics director Cory Robinson, a former ice hockey coach who is now director of the state sports tournament, said coaches may consider spending more time virtually with their players.

“If I were a coach now, I would try to do as much work as possible on Zoom and try to educate children tactically and systemically,” said Robinson.

“Spend a little less time in person with them and don’t run a regular ice hockey program like you did in previous years. There are a number of ways you can get your conditioning. If you step back and watch, you could probably do a lot of teaching with the technology that is now available to coaches. Less physical time practices reduce the odds a bit if possible. “

Robinson said he believed the NJSIAA’s ban on the use of locker rooms and spectators, as well as Murphy’s ban on interstate competition at the youth and high school level, would help mitigate the spread. virus.

New Jersey has partnered with Maine, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut and Massachusetts in a regional pledge to suspend interstate hockey competitions for public and private schools and youth hockey until the end of this month at least.

About 30 percent of the more than 130 NJSIAA ice hockey teams are co-op programs, which involve players from two or three high schools. One of those programs with players from Bernards, Middlesex and Somerville is among the teams currently under quarantine.

New Jersey’s school ice hockey season is about to begin as the state twice set one-day records last week for positive COVID-19 cases, peaking at more than 6 400 Saturday during a second wave of the virus.

If football season is any indication, New Jersey ice hockey teams might not have smooth skating in the weeks to come.

More than 180 high school grid programs statewide, or nearly 55% of NJSIAA football member schools, suffered a temporary shutdown at some point from the start of practice in mid-September until the end of the regular season at the end of November due to issues related to the coronavirus. More than 280 teams, or nearly 85%, were affected by COVID-19 last fall, which means these grid schedules have had to cancel, postpone or reschedule at least one game or scrum due to related issues. to coronavirus.

Minter said he believes student-athletes – about 4,000 boys and girls playing school hockey in New Jersey – need to hit the ice for their mental health and social and emotional well-being, all the more so that most of the state’s school districts are currently all- remote.

“I think kids need to be involved,” Minter said. “It’s hard for them to miss all kinds of activities. Social interaction is more important than anything else. With all the adversity they normally go through in a season, I think the risk is worth it if all precautions are followed and (the NJSIAA and the state Department of Health) feel that he is sure to continue. If we hit the wall, we hit the wall.

Carter said he expected the start of the regular season to be “a tough couple of weeks.”

“But when you walk the ice with the kids and see the smiles on their faces, no matter how hard it is, it’s all worth it.

“If we stay focused (on security measures) and give them the experience they want, we’ll be successful. “

Email: [email protected]

Catherine J. Martinez

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