In the age of COVID-19, most agree that indoor sports are riskier than those held outdoors — and hockey may be the riskiest of all.
That’s because of everything from the stagnant air in the chilled arenas to the sport’s intense nature to its passionate fan base.
As neighboring states continued their youth sports shutdowns, Wisconsin went ahead with its hockey season — despite the many challenges.
Brain Brandt, president of the Wisconsin Hockey Coaches Association, said scheduling games has been “a nightmare.”
“Truly day to day, hour to hour,” said Brandt, who is also head coach of the Wausau West boys hockey team. “Because at any moment one of your players or an opponents’ players could come down with symptoms.”
All winter youth sports, including basketball and swimming, have been disrupted by coronavirus outbreaks, canceled games, quarantined teams and delayed or suspended seasons.
But none more than hockey, which so far this season has had about 20% of its games canceled or rescheduled.
It reflects the jumble of rules and decisions across the country.
Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan, for example, delayed many high school and club winter sports, from basketball to swimming, and just this month allowed most to return.
Wisconsin allowed indoor winter sports to start in mid-December, with games scheduled to continue through the end of February, despite the interruptions. But many districts, including Milwaukee Public Schools, suspended all winter athletics.
Positive cases, hospitalizations and coronavirus-related deaths remain high, and there are new concerns about a more contagious virus variant, which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says could cause more than half of new U.S. infections by March.
“I’m very glad we have a season,” said Leah Pavelski, 16, a junior at Stevens Point Area Senior High who plays for the Wisconsin Valley Union team, which includes 18 girls from 10 schools. “Hockey for me is my getaway and all my other worries just go away and I can focus on being there for my team.”
A unique risk
The primary reason hockey may pose a greater risk than other indoor sports is the rink itself.
The CDC reports that ice rinks provide “a venue that is likely well suited to COVID-19 transmission.”
Studies have shown that the air above an indoor rink is stagnant, partly to minimize air flow over the ice to reduce melting. And most rinks are lined with boards that are several feet high, which further prevents cross ventilation.
“It helps keep things trapped inside,” said Ryan Demmer, an associate professor of epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota.
Jose-Luis Jimenez, an aerosol scientist at the University of Colorado, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the virus can be suspended just above the ice — roughly 6 to 9 feet — making it more likely that players will breathe it in.
Rinks are also often dehumidified to reduce ice melt, and lower humidity has been shown to contribute to increased transmission.
“That was a real eye-opener for the hockey community,” Brandt said of the rink research.
Next, it’s the nature of the sport — high-energy and high-intensity.
The players are moving at full speed most of the time they are on the ice, and then substitute in groups, or line changes, moving from the ice to the bench while breathing heavily.
Finally, there’s hockey culture.
Youth sports have cultivated a passionate community of parents, coaches and athletes. But hockey — due, in part, to the time, travel and expenses required — is arguably the most ardent.
“More than many other sports my kids have been involved with, there’s much more parent interaction and more community in hockey. People get together before and after to get a drink, weekend tournaments,” Demmer said. “It creates the opportunities for transmission.”
The sport has deep high school roots in Wisconsin. University School of Milwaukee, for instance, celebrated its 100th anniversary of playing hockey with an outdoor game Wednesday at Cahill Park Ice Rink in Whitefish Bay.
‘Biggest change for them’
Considering all these factors, the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association, teams and rinks have adopted new protocols to prevent transmission.
At many practices, no contact is permitted.
There is less time allowed on the ice to warm up. Before and after games, smaller groups of players are limited to eight-minute shifts in the locker rooms.
“That has been the biggest change for them,” said Brandt, the Wausau West coach. “That is where they hang out and talk with the guys about life, hockey and school.”
Wisconsin high school players and coaches are required to wear masks at all times and experts agree it helps, but as Demmer, the associate professor of epidemiology, said: “When you’re coming into that close of physical contact for that long a period of time and breathing that heavily, then I honestly don’t know.”
“It definitely is harder,” Cierra Snyder, 17, a winger on the Wisconsin Valley Union team said of wearing a mask. “But if this is the only way that I can play hockey, then I’ll do whatever.”
‘Little surprise every time’
What concerns health experts the most is what’s happening among those in attendance — in the stands, at the entrances, in the restrooms.
But those rules differ depending on the rink. Some allow fans from both teams, some allow only home team fans and some operators do not admit any fans.
“Every rink operator has their own opinions,” said Aaron Kirby, who operates the Lake Delton Ice Arena in Baraboo and is past president of the Wisconsin Ice Arena Manager Association. “Some may be lax and some may be extremely harsh. … It varies from rink to rink.”
That inconsistency troubles Dan Bauer, the Wisconsin Valley Union coach. “It’s a little surprise every time we go to a game.”
At Lake Delton Arena, which hosts midget, junior and high school hockey, spectators are limited to 25% of the building’s capacity, are not allowed inside until game time and must leave as soon as the game is over.
The arena also was renovated last fall to improve the ventilation system, among other things.
“I don’t want to be associated with one of those superspreaders,” Kirby said. “God forbid.”
Among youth sports with reported outbreaks, hockey stands out.
In Buffalo, New York, public health officials closed rinks after recent multiple positive cases among three youth hockey organizations.
Maine and New Jersey have reported large coronavirus outbreaks connected to ice hockey.
In Massachusetts, indoor rinks were shut after more than 100 COVID-19 cases were linked to hockey.
In Vermont, an outbreak that began at a Montpelier rink spread to infect at least 112 people.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported that 20 separate outbreaks have been traced to rinks in Saskatchewan. A December hockey practice in Ottawa led to 89 infections.
Interstate youth hockey tournaments have been suspended across seven northeast states through the end of January because of outbreaks linked to youth hockey activities.
The University of Wisconsin’s men’s and women’s hockey teams have postponed several games because of positive tests.
‘We would be crushed if he couldn’t play’
The Janesville High School’s boys hockey team canceled its first five games when one player tested positive.
But the season resumed in December — even though the parents of two players wouldn’t let their sons play because of COVID-19 fears.
Mike Hammett, whose son Mason is a senior forward, said he and his wife gave their son the option — and he chose to play.
“It means the world to me,” Mike Hammett said. “It’s his senior year. We put him through hockey for 13 years and this is supposed to be the culmination. … We would be crushed if he couldn’t play.”
So can Wisconsin prep hockey finish the season, which is scheduled to end on Feb. 20 with the state championship games?
“It’s a bit of an unknown,” said Bauer, the Wisconsin Valley Union coach. “But I feel like we’ll get there.”
“I’m holding my breath,” said Kirby, the Lake Delton Ice Arena manager. “You just never know. … I’m preparing to be shut down, but hoping that we won’t be.”
Snyder, a senior at Iola Scandinavia High School, worries about losing the season.
“Hockey means everything to me,” she said. “So if I got that taken away from me I would be heartbroken. As a senior, I want to take every chance I have to be on the ice.”
Tim Bannon, an independent journalist, is examining health and safety issues surrounding the growing youth sports industry during a nine-month O’Brien Fellowship in Public Service Journalism at Marquette University.
He is being assisted on the project by student researchers Amanda Parrish and Margaret Cahill.
Marquette University and administrators of the program played no role in the reporting, editing or presentation of this project.