PHOTOS BY NICK WOSIKA
At the beginning of the season, Wayzata youth hockey coach Dave Klaiman was given a thermometer and some spare masks. The thermometer was for taking every kid's temperature before they entered the building and the masks were there in case anybody, player or coach, forgot to bring one.
"The players wear masks in the locker room, and the coaches wear them the entire time," said Klaiman, who is an assistant coach for the Wayzata Bantam B2 team. His oldest son, Max is the head coach. "We practice social distancing and our time in the locker room is limited. The players come to practice dressed and leave dressed, only putting on or removing skates, gloves and helmets. And we are only allowed into the building seven minutes before practice or a game."
These are the protocols many hockey arenas, coaches, players and parents say they are following, which is why they are frustrated that Governor Tim Walz has put a pause on hockey (in addition to all youth and high school sports) for the next four weeks beginning Nov. 20.
Holly Tchida is a member of the "team" for the Chaska/Chanhassen Hockey Association (CCHA) that works closely with rink managers, including their own, on Covid protocols, contact tracing and other Covid related items.
"We have strict guidelines and we've been following them very strictly," Tchida said. "And we have seen that things were really being followed very well by CCHA members and other associations."
CCHA has 55 youth hockey teams and close to 800 players. Each team has a "Covid monitor" who makes sure teams and parents are following protocols whether playing at one of their two home arenas or while traveling to other arenas. At the time of the pause CCHA had a handful of cases, but none of them were traced back to the arena or one of the teams.
"We had not traced one player to player, coach to coach, player to coach or coach to player transmission," she said. "We have 796 active members and 180 active coaches and no evidence of any transmission within our association at the time of the pause."
The handful of cases, she said, came from players or coaches getting the virus from other sources outside of the association such as work or other group settings.
"We've had wonderful communication throughout our association from our president on down," said Tchida. "If someone had symptoms they stayed home, or they stayed home if they had a pending test. We really went above and beyond. We put a lot of cautions in place from the very get go. All of our efforts we put into this were to make sure we could stay on the ice. In the end, I guess all of our efforts weren’t enough."
According to data released by the Minnesota Department of Health there have been 46 "outbreaks" of Covid-19 traced back to youth hockey and a total of 780 cases linked to youth sports. An outbreak is considered as three or more cases on one team. There are more than 57,000 youth hockey players in the state of Minnesota. To many hockey parents, the numbers don't justify pausing the sport for four weeks.
Brian and Amy Schiltgen have two boys in hockey, ages seven and eight. She said they have been playing since May and have been to dozens of different arenas, all with different protocols that have been strictly followed.
"We get dressed at home," Amy said. "We wear masks. We have one parent with the skater while the other one watches the games via Live Barn due to the rink's rules. We have been doing all of this since May. The reason? Our boys love hockey."
Parents and coaches understand the seriousness of the virus, which is why they took strict measures to provide the safest possible environment to prevent the spread and to keep their kids playing. Their ultimate goal was to keep kids playing throughout the pandemic.
Jeff Sturm has three kids in hockey in the St. Cloud Hockey Association. They have had a few sporadic Covid cases that have caused entire teams to quarantine. He said he doesn't think a pause on youth sports will have a big impact on limiting the spread of the virus and that the negative aspects of the pause far outweigh the risks of the spread.
"As a parent of three boys that all play hockey, I feel this is detrimental to our kids' health and self being," said Sturm. "Halting youth sports is not going to have an impact on COVID in my opinion. If kids are going to get COVID, they will get it regardless of where they are. Shutting down youth sports hurts them physically and mentally. Efforts for COVID should be focused on the people that are at high risk, not on kids."
Mental health is at the top of the list for most parents who are already struggling with the effects of distance learning. Jaci Schleper Humphrey is a child protection worker and a hockey mom who is concerned about the potential effects a pause will have on some kids.
"For many kids home is not 'safe at home,'" she said. "The words from teachers and coaches may be the only positive words they ever hear from an adult. When we take these outlets away from kids it is so much more than just taking their sport away. Kids need their coaches, teachers, teammates, and teammates' parents looking out for them."
She said she was disappointed Walz had not addressed the mental health ramifications kids can potentially face. Hockey mom Traci Gangl agrees.
"In addition to making sure there is enough PPE and ICU beds, is Governor Tim Walz and the Minnesota Department of Health making sure there are adequate mental health services," said Gangl, who's son plays in the Greenway Hockey Association. "The kids can't go to school, they can't play sports, and they can't see their friends. They are expected to sit in front of a computer screen all day, no interaction with friends, no sports they enjoy. I am so worried about the future of our youth."
Jamie Loch is the parent of a high school player in St. Michael-Albertville. "Kids have done everything we have asked of them," he said. "And what they have gotten in return from us is something we would not deem to be okay as an adult. Some of these kids need to be connected to a coach, or to a teacher. They need that stability in their life."
To date there have been 263,000 positive Covid-19 cases in Minnesota and 3,257 deaths. The survival rate is 98.8 percent, although the Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates there are many more asymptomatic cases of people who never were tested, which drives the survival rate even higher. Also to date, there have been zero deaths for school-aged children (age 5-19). According to the Minnesota Department of Health, the number of cases for those ages 5-19 is 36,610 as of Saturday, Nov. 21 when the "pause" was put in place. The 5-19 age group is responsible for 14 percent of the number of cases in the state.
Governor Walz said in his Nov. 18 address the reason for his executive order is to give relief to overrun hospitals that are having trouble with available beds and staffing. Youth sports, along with bars and restaurants, movie theatres and gyms were targeted in what he deemed a surgical approach to help slow the spread. An additional concern when it comes to youth sports is if a player gets injured and there isn’t sufficient staff or available beds nearby and has to travel a long distance to get the proper care.
If youth sports are responsible for 780 positive cases, it amounts to .29 percent of total cases within the state. It's these types of numbers that many parents say simply don't add up to a pause on youth hockey or youth sports in general.
"Let youth sports govern themselves," said Eric Stang, who has two boys in the Osseo-Maple Grove Association. "Thousands of hours of work have made youth sports safe and able to move forward. There has been an unbelievably good process put into place to guard against Covid and to protect teams, athletes, coaches and parents. We're not forced to participate and know the consequences. Our children need to be children. Everything else has been taken away from them already. Don't take the only thing they have left, not even for a month."
Deb Archambeault has a son 9-year-old playing in the Roseville Hockey Association. She agrees that kids should be allowed to play and that the choice should be left up to families.
"I believe if parents, coaches, and players are taking the appropriate precautions, and those who are showing symptoms or are at higher risk quarantine themselves, play should and can continue," she said. "As a society, we are already seeing the negative impacts that not allowing a social or physical outlet is causing. Distance learning is causing a decrease in national test scores at the public school setting from last year and depression in our youth is at a record high."
She said mitigation efforts can be followed to create a safe playing environment.
"I reiterate the absolute importance of following social distancing and say again that anyone who is at risk should quarantine themselves, but healthy kids should have a physical and social outlet and I believe it can be provided safely at the hockey rink. Don't allow any spectators if need be but let them play."
"Our kids need sports," said Justin Jiskoot, whose 11-year-old son plays for Marshall.
“Kids don't just need it to have fun. They need sports for the mental and physical aspect. Their world without sports gets turned upside down. It is far more unhealthy to pull them away from this than the small risk of this virus."
Klaiman also sees a detrimental effect on kids' mental health with the pause.
"Hockey and the socialization that comes with it are essential to our children's mental health. They are isolated most of the day with distance learning. Socialization is limited. Hockey provides at least a partial sense of normalcy and a chance for in person interaction. It also affords the players—and coaches—an opportunity for physical activity after being at home or work most of the day. I don't see how the players' mental and physical health won't suffer if hockey is suspended."
Hockey parent Scott Cullen is also frustrated with the pause.
"I am very unhappy to hear about the shutdown of youth sports," he said. "It is a huge part of our life and my son will be heartbroken without it. I don't feel taking away youth sports is right. I really doubt it will have the impact on decreasing the number of cases. We've been playing since June under restrictions and as far as I know, there have not been any of these "super spreader" events as a result of any hockey."
Cullen said it is important for kids to stay active, both for physical and mental purposes. "Having kids be active is necessary for the physical and emotional well-being of the kids," he said.
But not all hockey parents and coaches are against the pause. Several have voiced their support for the pause to help slow the spread and allow health care facilities and staff to keep up with the rising number of cases and hospitalizations.
Barbi Judd, a scientist, has three girls in hockey and has helped her association contact trace during the early part of the season. She said the spread isn't happening at the rinks, but still supports the pause.
"I have helped contract trace enough cases to see most of the spread is not at the rink, but in carpools, at parties, and from parents socializing indoors," she said. "My husband works in the ER and it is bad right now and they are bracing for it to get even worse. My girls have seen their dad, who has worked in the ER for 20 years, come home shaken after being overwhelmed by cases, by calling time of death for a 35-year-old, by not being able to find hospital beds for patients. My kids are sad to miss hockey, but we see that this is needed to stop the spread of this virus."
Eric Vegoe is a longtime coach currently coaching in Minneapolis and agrees that the pause is necessary to support the health care industry and save lives.
"The spread of the virus is rampant right now and our healthcare providers deserve our support. Cases during the summer were pretty limited and then all of a sudden I personally know double-digit people who have caught COVID from community spread," he said. "Labeling this a shutdown or lockdown is just fanning the flames. It's frustrating that it's come to this, but all the micro-spreading events have put us in this situation. I think it's pretty clear that this small sacrifice will save lives if people respect the guidelines epidemiologists are publishing."
Vegoe said the pause can also help speed up the return to normal activities for kids, both in hockey and in school.
"My six-year-old and eight-year-old will now be distance learning through at least January and I'm hopeful this pause makes sports and in-person learning possible again this year," he said. "I think the statement Minnesota Hockey made is a very reasoned perspective on the pause for youth sports coming up."
Minnesota Hockey, the governing body overseeing youth hockey in Minnesota, sent out a letter to all member associations after Walz's announcement. It read (in part):
"We understand this is disappointing to many, and we are concerned about the effect it can have on the mental and physical health of our youth, who tremendously benefit from the camaraderie, physical activity and inspiration that sports provide. This is especially true in a time when schools and other activities are not available to many. We would have preferred the opportunity to implement more restrictions prior to a pause taking place, but the exponential growth of infections and hospitalizations in our state made that impossible.
We are also understanding of why this decision was made. COVID-19 is a devastating virus, as too many people have found out across the country and the state. It is important that the spread of this virus is controlled so that more lives can be saved. In addition to controlling the spread, this pause is being implemented at this time in order to save the remainder of the winter sports season.
The large majority of our members have been doing everything that has been asked of them. But whether it's coming dressed to the rink, avoiding locker rooms or social gatherings, etc., we also know many of us can and need to do more. Just like in a hockey game, non-compliance to team expectations in a single instance rarely has immediate or dire consequences, but the cumulative impact over time can significantly harm a team. We're seeing that right now with hockey being associated with the most outbreaks of youth sports in Minnesota.
The good news is coming out of the pause, we will still have a minimum of three months remaining in the season, and the Board of Directors will be meeting to discuss the potential extension of the season. Minnesota Hockey will also implement an updated "Return to Play" plan with continued guidance from the Minnesota Department of Health and Commissioner Tarek Tomes. It will be imperative that all of our members are following guidelines and policies in order to keep our players safe, and keep our game going.
There is still much more time for our kids to create lifelong memories and improve their skills. But we must do everything we can to keep our kids and their families safe and preserve those opportunities. That includes taking this pause seriously, and not doing anything to jeopardize our chances of being able to start in late December."
For associations who were looking to book ice out of state or to hold outdoor practices, the Governor is also prohibiting any such activity until Dec. 18. Minnesota Hockey President Steve Oleheiser sent out a letter regarding outdoor hockey and possible ramifications for teams who planned to organize and gather at outdoor rinks. The restriction of outdoor practices or group skates is not a Minnesota Hockey rule, but a state government rule that Minnesota Hockey must follow.
Oleheiser’s letter read (in part):
"All Minnesota Hockey rostered teams are not allowed to play during the designated pause time period. This includes play outside of Minnesota in bordering states. Play is defined as practice, scrimmages, games and tournaments.
Failure by an association, team and or coach to follow the directives outlined in the government issued executive order could result in severe sanctions to a team or coach. These sanctions could include loss of privilege to participate in post-season play including District, Regions and State tournaments. The failure of an association to enforce the directives of the executive order could result in sanctions to the association including the loss of ability to host tournaments.
It has been made clear to myself and other leaders of Minnesota Hockey that this pause on youth sports is an attempt to ensure that the winter sports season can continue to completion, uninterrupted after the pause. This will only occur if people care enough about the season to follow the directives of the Governor's order. Failure to follow the directives by some will shed negative light on our entire organization and could effectively cancel the entire winter youth sports season for ALL sports."
The only way forward for players, parents and coaches is to wait patiently, and once it’s time to press play on the season, everyone who wants to keep playing hockey will have to adhere to the guidelines put in place or risk having the sport shut down again, perhaps for the entire season.
Staying on the ice was the goal for associations at the beginning of the season. Now the goal is getting back onto the ice. The four-week pause is supposed to end on Dec. 18. Just in time for Christmas. And there are plenty of young hockey players who would want nothing more for Christmas than to hear the drop of the puck again.
Some additional comments we received via Facebook:
Debbie Wappula: I have a PeeWee goalie...I talked to him last night after practice and he's not concerned. I wish parents would focus on raising well-rounded kids with more to life than just hockey. Of course their mental health will suffer if they lose the only outlet they have. Mine has several outlets and yes, he'll miss it but there certainly won't be some major mental breakdown because he can't be on the ice.
Kelli Foster: “How do you explain to a 12-year-old that she can’t go to school and she can’t play hockey but thousands of people can shop at Mall of America anytime they want. If it’s truly community spread then there is no logic behind these cherry picking decisions.”
Brooke Moen Mastro: When I told my 9-year-old hockey player Easton that hockey was going to be on pause he started crying and said, ‘why do they have to take hockey from us? We don’t have anything left. I don’t gt to go to school, I can’t hang out with my friends --- we have nothing.’
It was heartbreaking. I am concerned about both my kids’ mental health. Hockey has been their stress release, their little bit of normal in this crazy time.”
Nick Alvarez: Let them play. My 6-year-old is crushed. He plays on two different mite level teams and it means the world to him. He looks forward to every practice and game, which is three to four times a week. It’s more than just a game to these kids. It’s the friendships they make, the social interaction they get, the mental structure they need.”
JT Bernier: Hockey is not the problem. Adults and kids gathering without following protocols is the problem.”
Jason Sprague: “Apparently this virus is smarter than we thought. It can apparently tell the difference between kids playing hockey for fun, and college/pro athletes. #mindboggling”
Sandra Lofsness: Hockey was a big deal in our family years before the pandemic thankfully. Would you rather your school age hockey player miss one season of hockey so that they will have many more seasons or years to play? Or possibly have them be exposed to Covid and pass it on to friends and familymembers who may be older and may be more susceptible to the disease. Missing one season of any sport seems a small price to pay for being able to play many more seasons. Godd time to teach our children life lessons. The question is: is it parents who are upset or their children?”
James Van Guilder: “The Governor is no transparent enough for us to trust his science. My 9-year-old playing hockey is not causing hospitals to be overwhelmed. This is another sad, irrational decision. He’s dictated kids can’t even skate outside with a neighbor or a friend when the lakes and backyard rinks are ready.”
Jim Oman: “There is more and more evidence of youth sports outbreaks. Yes, the kids will most certainly be fine but the same may not be true to those they spread it to. As much as I would love to watch my junior play this year, hockey is not as important as public health. Our kids right to play is not as important as someone else’s right not to literally suffocate in their own sputum filled restricted airways. What an awful lesson #letthemplay is teaching our kids. We should #LetThemBeResponsibleCitizens instead.”
Jill Hammer: “Give parents and kids the choice to play. Give kids something to look forward to after being home all dayfor school. We should all have the power of choice, whatever that choice may be.”
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