Youth hockey in Murphy’s ‘crosshairs,’ but reps say teams play by the rules
Since organized indoor youth hockey was allowed to resume in October, New Jersey officials say they’ve confirmed more than a 100 novel coronavirus cases among players, But youth league reps say they believe the spread has been mostly off the ice, and not during games.
Gov. Phil Murphy Monday said youth hockey is "in our crosshairs" as the state considers further restrictions on activities to stem the spread of the virus.
“I really don’t know why this has become an issue with youth hockey. Rinks and hockey organizations have done a great job following the COVID protocols set down by the governor's office,” New Jersey Youth Hockey League President Frank McGady said to Townsquare Media on Tuesday.
The league includes 34 clubs statewide, 460 teams and more than 6,000 players, according to McGady, who is in his 40th year of coaching.
McGady said the stringent protocols, which include the temporary closure of locker rooms, mean it’s the first season where older players have been suiting up in parking lots.
He said as far as New Jersey rinks are concerned, “Everyone’s been doing what we’ve been told to do.”
McGady continued “However, we don’t know what individual hockey players and their families do after the games are over and they leave the rinks,” noting that in a typical season, it’s tradition for players to go out to eat after a game.
Murphy and other state officials too have said they believe most outbreaks among sports teams are connected to peripheral activities — like gatherings and celebrations — and not athletic play.
State Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said on Nov. 12 that since the beginning of October, the state already had traced 14 outbreaks among hockey teams in seven counties — including Union, Somerset, Bergen, Morris and Mercer counties.
The Department of Health updated the number on Tuesday, saying it was aware of several coaches and approximately 122 youth hockey players that have tested positive for COVID-19.
A month earlier,Murphy signed Executive Order 187, letting indoor practices and competitions get underway with a 25% capacity limit.
The directive capped indoor crowd size at 25, or the number of individuals needed for practice or competition, such as players, coaches, and referees — still not to exceed a quarter of the room’s maximum capacity. An updated executive order issued Monday limits most indoor gatherings to a maximum of 10 people, but Murphy has said indoor sports can have players and necessary personnel beyond that cap — with no spectators or others taking it further over.
Either way, since last month, there have been no spectators allowed inside, which has rankled some parents who post to a Facebook group called NJ Youth Hockey Forum.
Multiple comments posted to the forum over the past few weeks describe parents gathering in tailgate fashion outside arenas and rinks, to watch a live-stream of their kids playing hockey inside.
Robert Maffia of Jersey City, whose two sons play hockey in North Jersey, said he has no problem with not being inside the rink while they play, under existing protocols.
“As long as my sons are on the ice, having fun, and being safe then I could care less if I watch them or not — it’s about the kids, not the parents," he said.
NJYHL falls under the jurisdiction of the Atlantic Amateur Hockey Association. The association's president, Glenn Hefferan, said in a written statement to Townsquare Media that safety remains the top priority at USA Hockey and in the Atlantic District.
“I commend the governor and his staff for working with us throughout the pandemic and we’re most appreciative of the on-going dialogue and engagement," he said.
“There are recent news stories around hockey and the spread of COVID-19 and some have suggested — without evidence — that hockey is the riskiest of youth sports,” Hefferan said, adding that the organization has consulted with experts in infectious disease and epidemiology regularly since last spring.
“It is most likely, though without hard evidence, that other activities surrounding hockey and people’s behavior are the cause of any spread of the virus,” Hefferan said.
In early September, a total of 13 positive test results were confirmed among two hockey teams that practice at Middletown Sports Complex, Patch reported. The facility underwent a deep cleaning, including with UV light, before reopening.
In early November, at least one youth hockey player who had practiced in Essex County at the Codey Arena later tested positive, county officials said. The team was quarantined from returning for another 10 days and the arena was thoroughly sanitized.
Murphy Monday warned against ignoring social distancing protocols.
“We are hearing more than anecdotal, more than here or there, a lot of non-compliance, including by parents (among hockey teams)," he said.
“I want anyone who’s playing hockey, or mom and dad whose kids are playing hockey, I got nothing against hockey but watch yourselves,” the governor said.
When asked about online comments describing parents gathering together to watch the live-streamed practices and games, McGady said he understands the parents’ perspective.
“It’s a difficult thing — I just hope that everyone is keeping their safe distance, and we can stop this rise so that we can keep playing hockey,” McGady said.
“As much as the parents want to watch the games, I think that the parents more importantly want to make sure the games are being played, because it’s really about the kids playing,” McGady noted.
In a previous memo shared to the NJHYL website in October, Hefferan said “If we want to keep ice hockey safe and open in the Atlantic District, we must be vigilant in doing all that is required under State requirements and then do more.”
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