British ice hockey ground to a sudden halt earlier in the year when it became evident that the coronavirus crisis would not spare the British Isles. Whether or not the 2020/2021 season gets underway on its scheduled start date remains to be seen. For now, leagues and teams are left to plan as though everything is normal.
Unfortunately, things are not normal. Even if ice hockey does resume later this year, there will be a whole new emphasis on player and fan safety. Club owners, coaches, players, and even arena personnel will have to adapt to new ways of doing things in order to keep everyone safe.
One thing is for certain: safety in the arena now goes way beyond having sports first aid kits on hand and patching up players when they get hurt. Safety now extends into the seats as well. How will clubs ensure that coronavirus is not spread among fans sitting shoulder-to-shoulder?
Playing to Empty Seats
Unless things change drastically, there is a very strong possibility that ice hockey teams will be playing in front of empty seats during the upcoming campaign. That would be a shame since legions of fans add to the competitive atmosphere in ways that are similar to raucous football crowds.
Fans add to the energy in the building. They make the ice come alive with their screaming and chanting. A rowdy crowd can be so influential that it actually helps determine the outcome of the game. Take away the fans and you lose a crucial element. Indeed, home teams lose some of their advantage without fans in the seats.
Teams will have to adapt if it is decided that COVID-19 safety dictates no fans be allowed for next season. Of course, there is always the possibility of playing artificial crowd noise over arena sound systems. As cheeky as it sounds, doing so could lessen the shock of playing in empty arenas.
Playing in a Bubble
Another possibility is to run next season in a bubble. British ice hockey could be structured in much the same way the NHL in the States is planning to finish its 2019/2020 season over the summer. All NHL teams eligible for the season-ending tournament will be located in Edmonton (Western Conference) and Toronto (Eastern conference) for the duration.
All games will be played in a controlled environment consisting of a single arena in both locations. Players will also have limited contact with the outside world during the term. Conditions will be similar to what the NBA is voluntarily subjecting itself to in Orlando, Florida.
NBA teams are currently holed up on Disney property in Central Florida. They occupy one resort hotel in its entirety as well as certain parts of a second hotel. Conference centre meeting rooms have been converted to team meeting rooms and practice courts. Games will be played at pro-level facilities at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports complex.
Assuming coronavirus hospitalisation and death rates continue to fall over the summer, it might not be necessary to resume British ice hockey in a bubble. But there is a good chance that ice hockey officials are at least keeping the idea on the table.
Protecting Players from One Another
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the new normal for workplace safety is protecting players from one another. Hockey is a contact sport. And even when players are not checking their opponents against the boards, they are grinding things out in close proximity to one another. How do you keep them far enough apart?
Major League Baseball has established elaborate rules to keep their players at a distance whenever possible. It is a concept that works well for baseball given the limited amount of contact necessary to play the game. But no such rules would work in ice hockey. Take away the contact and you no longer have the same sport.
It is probably not reasonable to expect players to wear face masks either. But is that even necessary? Put plastic face shields on their helmets and you at least prevent players from breathing on one another.
No Easy Answers
If this entire post seems convoluted to you, you’re not alone. The very idea of keeping ice hockey players safe in the midst of coronavirus is equally convoluted. There are far too many questions and not enough reasonable answers. The one thing we know for sure is that there is no way to guarantee player safety 100%.
If British ice hockey is to return next season, teams, coaches, players, and fans are all going to have to accept some measure of risk. There is no way to play ice hockey completely risk-free. In fact, there is no way to live life completely risk-free either.
Ice hockey teams will start next season with a full supply of sports first-aid kits. How they will address coronavirus safety is another matter. We will have to wait to see what hockey officials come up with.