It’s been a little over a month since Minnesota permitted youth sports to begin playing scrimmages and games again, and one thing is for certain: Hockey is definitely back!
Rinks have reopened across the state, summer training programs have resumed and teams of all ages are back practicing and playing again. It’s a great sight to see considering all of the uncertainty that has been hanging over the world for most of 2020.
To say it’s completely back to business as usual though is a stretch. The battle against COVID-19 continues around the globe, and it’s clear there are precautions we can take each day that will not only help keep our players, coaches, officials and spectators safe but ensure we can continue to play our great game throughout the pandemic.
“It's been an adjustment period for everyone,” said Mike Terwilliger, who serves as hockey programs manager for Minnesota Hockey. “Most groups of players and coaches are doing a pretty good job with the COVID-19 precautions and guidelines.”
“The few issues that I've heard about or observed have been some user groups showing up to the rink unprepared for what that specific rink's guidelines and protocols are. The best thing coaches and team managers can do prior to showing up to a rink for a practice or scrimmage, is to contact the rink to know exactly what's going to be expected of the players, coaches, and parents.”
A Balancing Act
When restrictions were first eased in Minnesota, coaches and players were limited to small group activities with no contact, which meant hockey practices were mostly confined to focusing on individual skill development. Teams now have the green light to participate in scrimmages and games which means coaches can once again use their full arsenal of drills and practices.
That doesn’t necessarily mean they always should though.
“Coaches can certainly incorporate activities into their practices where players are competing for pucks in a game-like situation, but coaches can also minimize how long players are in a tight space together," said Terwilliger, who is also the boys high school coach at Bloomington Jefferson. “Make sure players are lined up in a socially distanced fashion, and minimize the body contact within a drill, small area game, or scrimmage.”
Social distancing has been shown to be one of the most effective preventive measures against COVID-19 so while Minnesota Hockey typically advocates for practices that frequently utilize small areas and game-like situations, limiting drills that force close contact, especially for extended amounts of time, is a great way to minimize risk for the time being.
“I would encourage coaches to still use most of their practice time to focus on skills and drills that lend themselves to individual skill development and social distancing,” said Terwilliger. “Personally, I’m finding the more times our team skates together the more I have to be vigilant in keeping players distanced in line, getting on and off the ice. Coaches need to stay on it and be prepared to give their players reminders.”
A common characteristic of great hockey players, coaches and teams is the ability and willingness to adapt, and that’s particularly important in the current situation. The most recent example is the mandate of face coverings for public indoor spaces including hockey arenas, but there are numerous instances where players and coaches must adapt to a “new normal”.
Terwilliger points to Minnesota Hockey’s body contact and checking clinics and how they were modified for this summer and fall.
“The lead coach for our player development team is Wes Bolin, and he did a great job adapting the curriculum to be safer and to fit within our new guidelines,” said Terwilliger. “We've eliminated the drills where players were face to face, or shoulder to shoulder in a stationary spot or moving slowly and bumping. We've eliminated any of the activities that required any type of prolonged amount of time in close quarters with another player.”
“We kept a lot of the concepts and activities that are about safety and protecting yourself from a big hit, or a hit from behind. Many of those really lend themselves to being socially distanced already. Wes really made some great adjustments that ensure we touch on those critical concepts while always keeping player safety a top priority.”
Another important area for coaches to review is how they explain and show drills during practice.
“I try to limit my time talking to the kids before and between drills,” said Terwilliger. “Not only does it shorten the amount of time we’re in a small area, but I remember a great saying from a workshop I attended as an elementary teacher: ‘The more you talk, the less they learn.’”
Making slight shifts like these in every day practice routines may seem minor to some, but when repeated day-in, day-out on a statewide basis, they can have a huge impact in protecting our young athletes and keeping them on the ice.