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Why hockey, why now?

Updated: Jul 7, 2020

addendums: See here for how one league in BC (Canada) is attempting to safely get back on the ice.

And here for how the same province is considering the re-engagement of the WHL in the Fall.

I'm trying to be kind - I rarely write about hockey on this blog, saving my most personal feelings for my memoir and to avoid any painfully public feedback. But I can't not say something at this moment in time. So if you are expecting to read this to find a defense of your freedom to skate, I’m afraid you can save yourself time and stomach acid and just go on to a different FB post. As much as hockey has been an integral part of my life, as much as I yearn to skate again now that I have a repaired body and can do so, I’m not a proponent of racing to the rink. And so this won’t be a defense of those who cannot defer gratification; who let their individual rights expose themselves to risks that may, in fact, harm another; and who put their economic safety before any transparency of that risk - knowing their consumers, besotted by the call of the rink, will ignore risk, will be willfully ignorant, or maybe eventually, turn litigious. But who cares? Life is short! Skate now! I’m not immune to that siren call too, you know.

And I hear you say, “it’s all well and good you bitching about the rink, but if I don’t open, I continue to lose money and my business may fail!” And you’re partly right. I do worry about money though I will grant you it’s not, thankfully, at the level of what I’ll eat tonight or even tomorrow. So I’m very, very lucky. And I want to be clear. I’m not going after the right to open a business. Any business. You started the business assuming risk. You continue a risky business (who else supports untrained amateurs whipping around on 6” blades of steel?) and you assume that risk or at least shoulder it with our national governing bodies. A once-in-a-lifetime pandemic occurs and you’re hammered by the risks you’ve taken. I don’t envy that, and I don’t want to make light of it. What I want is for the uneducated consumers to see and feel that risk. We’re over 100,000 dead for god’s sake. In this country alone. We got this way because we refused to put our individual rights on hold for the greater good. Most of us didn’t isolate ourselves in our homes as our European colleagues did. We spent 3 months, maybe, restricting our activities. And now the rest of the world won’t let us inside their borders. We are contagion. Because some of us let hubris define us.

A month or more ago, Michigan statistics looked like they were improving. We’d been staying-at-home, our businesses forced to go on greatly restricted service or to move to online platforms. Rumors circulated among the close-knit family of skaters that a few rinks were staying open. Ice is, after all, expensive to lose and expensive to put back in. Better to leave the surface until the scope of the pandemic could be determined. So individuals and groups continued to head to the ice - through back doors. If you paid close attention you saw guilty-faced moms propped in the tailgates of their vehicles having socially distanced conversation with the like-minded mothers of their sons’ or daughters’ friends. Some rinks were closed by local health officials and police. Some re-opened under the radar again. Much needed skaters, like goalies, were contacted in that underground network of texts and phone calls - “Can you skate tonight? Or tomorrow? 8 a.m. on Sunday? Just a group of us. We’ll be safe.” Or a parent starts the parent tree - “John’s offered to run a practice tomorrow, does your daughter want to come? Just a few of us. We’ll be safe. But, you know, tryouts are going to come soon. We don’t want to be out of shape.”

And tryouts did come too soon. Our state’s girls’ hockey is built on privately owned rinks and Tier 1 politics. With no jurisdiction on rinks, our state Association put out generalized statements warning of consequences for those who skated outside their sanction. But very few people understand what that means. And those who do aren’t going to explain it if it means players won’t come to their rinks or their programs. Like all insurance, the likely hood of injury seems very remote until it happens to you. Though they would argue otherwise, our state Association is perceived to rarely enforce its own rules. What possible penalty could they put on a coach or program in such a dire, distracted time? And, besides, rinks and programs whispered, tryouts are coming.

So Tier 1 programs headed to states where the rinks were legally open - Ohio, Wisconsin. It would be easier to go to Canada but the Canadians don’t want us. They understand that infection doesn’t care if you’re athletic or have enough money to ignore the Governor. And players and coaches and programs skated. Tier 1 programs, in particular, started contacting players that expressed interest in their teams and whispered times on ice in rinks outside our borders. In case no one has explained it to you, here’s how you know that someone knows they’re doing something wrong - they don’t advertise it, they whisper it “to a select few.” You’re not part of their club yet, so you buy in. Your daughter so desperately wants to be with her friends. Or you so desperately want her to make that national level. And you trundle your kid off - without explicitly telling your friends what you’re doing - so she can skate in front of adults who tell you that only they can help her become a star. If integrity is what you do when no one is looking, you’ve just taken your family away from integrity and down the hard path of “the ends justifying the means.” And really, it’s the “perceived ends” since, as countless families will tell you, there are no guarantees in sport. Like life. Do you realize the lesson you’ve just imparted to your child? Not the lesson, “I care for you and it’s rugged to be unable to skate, but I want us to be healthy” but the lesson, “I care for you and since you want to do it, I’ll provide it for you. Without assessment. Believing what others have whispered.” I understand that’s much, much easier than being an adult. And that integrity is getting a bum rap these days. But most people do know it when they see it. You’re teaching her it doesn’t matter. You’re also teaching her that hard things can be done more easily if they’re just done illegally or unethically. That doesn’t sound very nice, does it?

When the Governor did allow the businesses in the most unaffected areas of our state to re-open, all hell seemed to break out in other businesses and in other parts of the state. How dare she! What about my business! Owners want to open even if consumers indicate that they won’t come. Or they choose to open even as their staff express concerns about their own safety. Who cares? After 90 days of introversion, we’re ready to party. Coronavirus be dammed. We’re open so we can put food back on our family table. Whose personal right to safety trumps my right to earn a living?

And so teams go north to hold tryouts that aren’t yet supposed to be happening. Or to get skaters on the ice so they aren’t “less than” their peers at some mythical time when hockey goes back on the ice this winter. This, by the way, is still summer - the season that all NHL players, National Women’s team players, USAH, CAHA, MAHA, and any other sane, professional sports person would advise you to work on strength, conditioning, alternate sports, individual skills. All of that can be done off-ice. Generations of players have used summer to re-fuel their passion and to build muscles in alternate places that are so critical to later success on ice. Time and time again the word goes out, “Be a multi-sport athlete.” “Be physically literate.” “Build your core.” “Develop your own skills.” There is certainly no need for ice if you’re playing soccer. No need to be in the rink if you’re sharpening your eye-hand coordination on the tennis court or building your stamina in the pool. Squats, lunges, balance shift, shooting strength, nimble footwork, spatial awareness, core strength, spinal agility - all of these can be developed and strengthened and matured without ice. This is where I say it’s all about deferred gratification - these are wants, not needs. And let me circle back to remind you there have always been businesses that cater to our wants for those with money or the right network to buy into them.

Including our state’s unique “business of hockey.” There are areas of the country whose municipal rinks are closed. Firmly. They plan to open if, and when, science says it is good to do so. Or when public health experts have a plan in place for those of us who want to exchange respiration in enclosed spaces. Or when the same folks have a treatment or maybe even regular testing available so everyone - particularly asymptomatic teammates - can tell us about our risks. Private rinks, on the other hand, are a commercial business. They have bills to pay, mortgages and refrigeration and staffing costs that are inherently high and, anecdotally, even higher when pitched against the midwestern heat of summer. In our state, the private rinks jumped on board when indignant gym owner sued to be allowed to reopen and change section 12(b) of the executive order to suspend operations. Rinks, listed explicitly as 12(e) of the same resolution, didn’t tell their consumers “hey, we’re going to try to jump onto this suit.” They just said, “well if gyms can open, so can we.” Parents I spoke to were confused - some hadn’t known rinks were gyms, some thought it was great that rinks and gyms were working together. What they all said was that their kids wanted to skate and if these businesses were arguing that it was safe to open, it must be so. Many of these families were doing a great job of keeping their kids focused on off-ice time, on commiserating with them how different the times are, of teaching their kids, in other words, to mourn. But if the rink says they’re good to go, why would anyone pause to think differently?

And really, that’s what drives me nuts during this time. I don’t have it in for rink owners. I don’t envy their assumption of risk in good times and I certainly don’t envy their loss of revenue now. Our hockey community is just that, a small community. And so I don’t begrudge the individual owners who are terrified of losing their businesses, or ruining their livelihood, or the terrific change being put into their lives unrequested. Many of them are working tirelessly to understand the new world, to put into effect sanitation systems and protocols they never had to worry about before. They are conscientiously trying to make sure that the spaces so many of us love are safe. They, like us, want skaters back in the rink, embracing new ways of being together, and learning new ways of enjoying the sheets of ice that are so much a part of our souls.

But what does drive me nuts is how, in the midst of such a disruptive time, some of these owners, and, in some cases, their resident Tier 1 programs, are opaque about their intentions and are certainly opaque about how little they can guarantee us about safety. Instead they use passive social pressure (“Hey, we’ve got a scrimmage going on tomorrow morning, are you in?” “Hey, if your daughter wants to skate with us next season, she should come out to this skate so we can see her.”). And by inference, they suggest that somehow they know it’s okay. It’s okay to come back to the rink. It’s okay to tryout for a team. They know the parents they are talking to are desperate. They know these parents won’t be checking online for counter information. Heck, even our national governing bodies are putting out documents about how to return to the rink. Not about why you shouldn’t. Or how you could use the time away to prepare for when rinks are safely re-opened. Make no mistake. They aren’t putting their return to the rinks docs out because they love us. They also need money. And no one gets paid if there aren’t skaters in the rinks. If that’s what it comes down to - I pay the rink but then I also take on my own CDC-highly rated risk - I think we should know that. Clearly.

A creative friend of mine recently expressed sorrow that she isn’t feeling very creative these days. That being creative means putting energy into being different, brainstorming, trying new things, failing and then adjusting. And re-adjusting. In the midst of this pandemic I think we’re all feeling like we’re trying new things, failing at some, adjusting, and re-adjusting on a daily basis. Sometimes hour by hour. We don’t want to make more decisions about anything - let alone analyzing whether someone or some place has reasons that may not be in our best interest. Heck, in a time when the simple personal decision to wear a mask can result in social shaming, its fatiguing to analyze whether the sport you or your daughter love is really all that bad…could possibly harm you when the rink owners are saying they’re open for business. When the Tier 1 programs are spreading their own toxic brand of tribe.

But this is part of the new norm we’re grieving. Never has caveat emptor felt more right. Buyer beware. Beware of what the programs and the rinks are selling. Do your own diligence. Check to see if instructors and coaches are masked. Check to see if you’ll be sharing locker rooms with skaters who will sit too close and who don’t know they carry Covid. Check your gut and really listen to yourself or your athlete. Do you have to be on the ice right now? Are you bored? Do you not know what else to do beside going to the rink? Can you really not get her teammates together for outdoor yoga, or soccer, or any other activity while the public health officials and research scientists continue their insane pace to help us really get out from under the health concerns? Are you just sad that the rink isn’t there, at a moments notice, whenever you feel like skating? Is it possible that you could distract yourself or her in some less risky way? These are evaluations that are fatiguing but will be part of our world for the foreseeable future. And the ability to evaluate what others are selling are critical lessons for ourselves and our children.

Don’t forget that it’s okay to teach yourself and herself to mourn. This may be the year that each of us has to learn to be comfortable with constantly changing course. It is certainly the year that things are different than they’d been only moments before. There is no “normal.” There is, however, today. And the choice of whether you go to sleep tonight in peace or with a guilty, troubled, heart. Remind her, and yourself, that generations of humans have weathered disasters and personal tragedies and, some time later, found themselves able to continue to embrace their new life without a loved one, or a country, or even a beloved sport. The world is, today and for the foreseeable future, not what you experienced yesterday. This is change done to us - and we grieve. Not publicly, but individually and to our cores. Teaching your child how to mourn change and find new ways to live is a lifeskill that will go long and well beyond hockey. It isn’t the constant moving change that defines us, it’s how we adapt to that change. With dignity, not hubris. On, and off, the ice.




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