In March 2020, hockey rinks around the country abruptly closed their doors as the nation went into quarantine due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After the spring, some organizations and rinks tried to reopen throughout the summer and fall months, but the consistent threat of the virus caused changes in protocols and false starts to get back on the ice.
As the summer of 2021 approaches, however, professional teams as well as some college and high school programs were able to play competitive games. With more time, understanding and practice with protocols in place, it looks like hockey camps are open for business again, and it could not have come at a better time.
“When you refer to this past year, all the intermittent starts and stops, in again, out again, the staccato nature the way this past season has unfolded, what I’m hearing from parents and competitors, what I’m seeing is the need for the kids to get out and get back to activities,” said Garry Hebert, founder of the World Academy of Hockey. “Sports is the toy department of life. We get out there, we exercise our muscles, but mentally, this past year has been most incapacitating.”
Over the past year, not only were many hockey events canceled, but also many schools went to a virtual model, gradually attempting to bring more and more students back in person in the classroom. Some kids did not get to play with their hockey teams, nor did they get to go to school and socialize with peers.
With numerous hockey camps running this summer, however, players will get the chance to not only work on their games but interact with other kids in person.
“Coming to camp in the summer creates such a great sense of community and almost like a family atmosphere for the kids,” said Patti Crowe, executive director of Elite Hockey Camps. “Many choose to come back summer after summer. They meet so many different kids from so many different states and even different countries. Especially this summer, it’s so important kids get out and be able to hang out with other kids their age and meet new people, because they weren’t afforded that opportunity this year.”
According to Crowe, Elite Hockey Camps was one of the few organizations to operate during the summer of 2020. She said it certainly was a challenge operating under new safety protocols and during a time when many people hadn’t left their houses for months.
Elite Hockey Camps protocols in 2020 included that all players needed to show a negative test prior to coming to camp, were tested the day they arrived to camp, and lived in a bubble atmosphere at New Hampshire-based New Hampton School, where Elite Hockey Camps was the only program to use the facility. Staff had to remain on campus, there were no day students, and parents weren’t allowed to watch games or be on campus until they were picking up their athletes.
Crowe said she was pleasantly surprised by all the positive feedback she received from parents after camp. Having already gone through the challenge of following new safety protocols and getting players adjusted to them as well, she is even more confident the summer of 2021 will be an even bigger success.
“I talk to parents all the time, and there is concern and worry about how everything will be handled throughout the summer,” she said. “I always say, ‘We did it last summer, and I can’t imagine anything being more challenging than that.’ The kids now are used to wearing masks. The kids are used to washing their hands. They understand social distancing when they need to. For many kids, it’s become a way of life, and they don’t think twice about putting on their mask when they need to. Last summer, it was totally new. Most hadn’t been out of their households. There were so many new challenges last summer, whereas this summer, everybody has been doing it, and it has been second nature.”
Safety regulations seemingly have changed frequently over the past year, which means the camps won’t know for sure what will be allowed or not allowed, but Elite Hockey Camps and Garry Hebert’s skills development series will still follow routine procedures. Crowe said the sessions players attend are with their same teams, in small groups, and because New Hampton School has had students present in the 2020-21 school year, it is already equipped with sanitizing stations and dining hall safety measures. Hebert said players will be masked and socially distant.
Hebert added that even if there is a bit of trepidation at the beginning, it is important for players attending camp to go all in.
“When they make the decision to come back, I urge them not to dip their toe in the water,” he said. “I remind them it’s like riding a bike. It will come back to them quicker than they think. Within five minutes, these players forget about everything they’ve been through, and they’re on the ice, resuming normalcy, and playing with passion. I fashion their mindset to a person who’s been bucked off a horse. They get back on when they’re ready, but when they do, they have the nerve and backbone to accomplish those things and overcome any timidity they had. When they embrace it and go for it, they have a higher degree of success than they thought possible.”
The positive mindset is something Hebert works on his players with in addition to passing, shooting and puck handling. He compared young players missing out on their 2020 seasons to a player missing a season because of injury. While disappointing, he said how a player responds to the negative and how they bounce back is equally important.
Hebert pointed out the success other athletes have had when they embrace the moment and turn a negative into a positive.
“You’re starting to see the teams that held it together mentally (in the NHL) the best, they excelled and sustained the highest level of performance,” he said. “What Tampa Bay accomplished was phenomenal. A lot of teams folded under the duress of the bubble. The kids are a microcosm of that. The pros had to adapt to the bubble. The kids who had coaches or parents that kept them well-adjusted with a good sense of humor, taking lemons and making lemonade, they found ways, whether it was the backyard playing street hockey, or Rollerblading with a mask on.
“People that are so happy to be back, coaches that bring the love of the moment so the kids forget all their trials and get back on the ice …” he said. “Look at the world juniors. Tell me that wasn’t a well-coached team. … You watch those kids with arms around each other and medals around their necks — the bubble experience had been embraced. They were taught to fashion their mindset that they’d be a loving family and go through it together and enjoy the process and have bonds and relationships that were life long. There’s no power quite so powerful as the singleness of purpose.”
The hockey community has gone through a year of adjusting practice, game and camp schedules due to the challenges the COVID-19 pandemic has brought on.
As there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel, however, it appears more families are more comfortable with getting back on the ice. It will be up to everyone — players, coaches and family members — working together to keep everyone on the ice and enjoying their favorite sport.
“I think parents need to trust camp owners are good people, and they’re going to do all they can to take the best care of your kids,” Crowe said. “With having to adjust to many things throughout this whole year and working through requirements, whether they be day or boarding camps, they’re going to feel much more confident in opening camps and comfortable in providing safe environments for your kids.”