Just what the “new normal” will look like when it comes to team sports and specifically hockey is a bit of a guessing game on this date. But, one thing is clear the game will look different when things resume. Most certain is that many changes will be required to maximize the potential safety and health of players, participants and supporters.
While official precautionary measures and guidelines are just starting to emerge, national sports governance and international federations will struggle with what is the best advice.
The moratorium on play cannot last forever. For many regardless of what the post-COVID-19 play will look like it will be welcome news and a welcomed step back to normalcy.
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Expected directives are anticipated to reinforce current public health directives that we are all practicing now. These offered by such organizations as your federal, provincial, state or district health units. They include physical distancing as well as personal hygienic practices like cover and cough, hand hygiene, limiting face touching and masks. A review and understanding of these are required before entering any location. Of course, many of the needed protective steps are problematic when it comes to how the game is played. They are also constantly being updated.
When professional hockey finds its way back, fans may be absent and because of this, minor and European pro leagues that are largely dependent on in rink revenue sources like seat sales will have to drastically adjust operations. Budgets will be compromised with the positive side of the ledger at or near zero and the negative cost side is expected to increase. I fear many a franchise may not be financially viable, in the COVID-19 world and may fold. Financial hardship amongst some players and supporting staff are now being reported.
All teams, regardless of professional or amateur status, will have new responsibilities when it comes to athlete/player and team safety. One of these obligations will be to define and implement safe operating procedures. These viral protection processes include hazard identification, risk evaluation and the establishment of mitigation and control measures. They will be needed to address bio-hazard and will seek to either eliminate or control the hazard.
In a practical sense, this will mean new cleaning, maintenance and hygienic guidelines for teams and personnel. Changes to entrances/exits, standing area with increased signage, barriers will be required in local arena and stadia. In addition, changes are also anticipated to competitions/games, that is, how they are played and scheduled.
These adjustments will be needed because the stadiums and arenas will be required to enhance preparations for occupancy and use before and after events. For example, thorough cleaning and disinfection will be required at all gathering places and in areas of congregation in facility/arenas to reduce potential contact transmission and spread. Bathrooms will require hourly cleaning protocols and showers for players may be closed. Furthermore, deep(er) cleaning of dressing rooms and player benches will be required before and after each and every event. Even in situations where limited or controlled access is made, like the proposed fan moratorium, arena environments are a rich haven for viral spread.
It is also possible to envision limited, or at least carefully controlled “playing interactions” and competitions. I understand some arenas may open to individual and small group training. In terms of competitions it would be best if short-term series or tournaments held over a defined, but well-spaced period of time be a starting point for a return to play. In this format, the facility can be carefully maintained game-to-game with greater downtime between each game. Various elimination and round robin structures exist that could allow for play of this type.
But, even with carefully controlled conditions, schedules and a well-cleaned and maintained facility, many additional needs exist. Enhanced communications amongst sport stakeholders, participants and families will be required by team leaders, organizers and managers. E-meetings and reviews will become a new normal as families try to weigh the benefit and cost of play.
In some leagues and associations, player pre-play testing and some degree of player/staff tracing may be required prior to play. It is prudent to think that opponents should have some knowledge and awareness of the relative safety of playing one another. Additionally, quarantine over the period of tournament play or after games may be an additional step suggested.
Athletic trainers, equipment managers and medical support staff will also have to up their game beyond the already incredible level of due diligence they already employ. All items and equipment, that are frequently touched, handled and that have personal contact will have to be repeatedly sanitized. Logistical measures for the care and management of equipment and supplies will need to be defined and documented. Common personal use items like water bottles, towels, and toiletries will have to be carefully controlled and segregated to prevent communal use. Protective gear like helmets, gloves, bags, bins etc., will also require higher degrees of maintenance and cleaning than ever before.
Perhaps most difficult will be physical distancing parameters. This could mean creating organizational controls like staged dressing of players — when small groups dress and then move to a second location. In amateur sport, reducing team sizes with fewer players/team has been suggested. This will reduce numbers in dressing rooms and on benches.
Alteration to the game itself could also be a recommendation coming. Altering play to three-on-three and no body checking have been suggested as methods of play with more opportunity for physical distancing. Incidental contact and body contact remain problematic.
Last, rule adaptations and officiating will also become evident. Get ready for the electronic whistle to be sounding off at the rink.