Playing Hockey During COVID-19: Told Through the CT RoughRiders
Updated: Mar 16, 2021
Neil Ravin spent the summer of 2020 doing what hockey league administrators ordinarily do: preparing for the upcoming season. However, the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly halted the playoffs for the Eastern Hockey League playoffs on March 12. This forced the league’s director of communications and the rest of the executives to work harder than ever to make sure the league could play this year.
"There was never a conversation about not playing this season,” Ravin said. "We want to ensure that above all else, we were playing junior hockey."
The EHL features junior hockey players seeking to get noticed by college scouts. Without a season, they could not showcase their skills. That's why the Ravin, who’s serving his sixth season under this role, met with the league's board of governors three times during the summer to cobble together a plan to play, starting on July 23.
The governors unanimously decided to play during the second meeting.
Ravin met with representatives from the EHL's 18 teams to deliver the good news that the 2020-21 season would be played. He also met with the EHL’s competition committee and the coordinator of hockey operations, Ken Hodge, every Tuesday for 12-straight weeks to go over all the details and the contingency plans to prepare for every situation that could happen.
Ultimately, the possibility of having a season rested in the hands of each of the league's nine state’s politicians, particularly the governors. They determined if they were going to permit hockey rinks to be open. Once the EHL got the approval from these states’ governors to open rinks, the league’s schedule for all 18 teams was released on Aug. 3.
“The scheduling process is always the number one task I’m focused on in the off-season,” Ravin said.
The CT RoughRiders are one of those 18 teams who play at the SoNo Ice House in Norwalk, Connecticut. RoughRiders associate head coach and director of player personnel, Steven Brown, along with head coach and general manager, Eric Lind, had to put their heads together to develop an ideal game schedule.
“We wanted to minimize the number of weekend and evening games because we wanted to play with as few people as possible in the rink,” Brown said. “We wanted to delay our road trips as late in the season as possible in hopes that the virus would die down.”
In addition, Brown and Lind changed their player recruitment process. They attempted to bring in as many players who live in Connecticut, limit out-of-state players and eliminate any international players.
“To us, it made more sense to play it safe for this season,” Brown said.
When it came to deciding whether to play this season, RoughRider captain Tyler Buonopane also considered going to school.
“My parents have always left it up to me, even before the pandemic about anything really,” Buonopane said.
Forward Colin Bella also took the initiative to decide for himself.
“They [Bella’s parents] knew I would want to play this season,” Bella said. “They didn’t care too much; they weren’t worried about it.”
Players found it difficult to train during the off-season, as the virus forced the closure of hockey rinks and gyms. Still, Lind and Brown held video conference meetings via Zoom with individual players and collectively as a team. According to Buonopane, these meetings were used to introduce each other through icebreakers and develop team chemistry off the ice.
When Connecticut rinks gradually re-opened later in the summer, the RoughRiders only had 10 days to practice before its season-opener on Sept. 18.
For Buonopane, he labeled it as "the weirdest offseason I’ve ever had.”
“During quarantine, that was the longest I wasn’t skating since I was like two years old,” Buonopane said.
Buonopane struggled with the time away from his teammates.
“There’s nothing better than being out there with your team,” Buonopane said. “When you skate, your problems go away for the time being.”
Goaltender Steven Turner described how it felt to step back on the ice for the first time in many months.
“It felt like Christmas morning again,” Turner said.
However, in order for those “Christmas-like” feelings to persist for Turner and the rest of the team, there are several COVID-19 protocols and procedures that everyone must follow. Masks are required to be worn properly by coaches, rink staff and players when not playing. Also, everyone must have their temperature checked prior to entering the facility. There’s been increased sanitation of the locker rooms and water bottles, while players also aren’t allowed to leave equipment or any belongings at the rink.
Players and coaches are additionally required to get tested prior to the season, if they’re feeling coronavirus-related symptoms, and upon returning from holiday breaks. Although Brown said he’d like to see more frequent testing league-wide, he said it’s unrealistic.
“Professional sports like NHL and NBA have the money and resources to create a bubble and test all the time, whereas junior hockey doesn’t,” Brown said.
In an effort to promote social distancing, no rink capacity can exceed 75, according to Ravin. Only players, coaches, officials and essential rink staff (broadcaster, scorekeeper, ice maintenance, etc.) are allowed to attend games.
On top of that, Brown and Lind divided up the team into three separate locker rooms with no more than 10 players per room. Lind and Brown are holding team meetings and workouts outdoors, while film review sessions are being held in small groups within their office, as opposed to collectively as a team.
Outdoor workouts limited player development training such as weightlifting, Buonopane said.
“The guys are used to benching and squatting, but now it’s all agility stuff, band work and a lot of running,” Buonopane said.
On the bright side, Buonopane said that having smaller groups for the film review sessions has helped him develop more as a player.
Turner says that the RoughRiders are taking these protocols seriously.
“I think a lot of them realize that if we don’t take this seriously, our season could be over and we’ll have to move on before we know it,” Turner said.
Meanwhile, Bella offered a different take.
“I feel like a lot of our kids are ignorant about it. It doesn’t seem like anyone is really worried about it, yet we should be,” Bella said. “Nobody is really worried about the long-term effects because we’re so young. They kind of think they’re invincible to the virus.”
Bella referenced an example of this in action.
“Sometimes we have 12 guys in a locker room and nobody is really following that as much as we should until Brownie [Steven Brown] comes in and yells at everybody for that, then they figure it out,” Bella said.
Bella pointed out another issue he’s seen with mask wearing.
“A lot of kids will have it [the mask] down below their nose and mouth,” Bella said.
While Bella sees room for improvement for the team consistently following health protocols, he thinks it'll continue to remain a challenge.
“I think getting twenty-five 18-20 year-olds to follow all the rules is pretty hard to do,” Bella said.
Although Bella described the RoughRiders as “blue collar,” he said the team needs to act more selfless.
“We might be younger and have strong immune systems, but if we get it, we could pass it on to someone older,” Bella said.
Chris McLaughlin has been a New York state and Connecticut licensed paramedic for 10 years. He’s provided medical support for the RoughRiders in their home games for around five years. McLaughlin says he thinks the team is handling the pandemic very seriously.
“I see everybody on the benches and in the rink wearing masks,” McLaughlin said. “Sometimes I see a coach with it down, but usually the other coaches will get on them.”
Turner said Lind set the tone on day one of returning to the ice.
“He sat us down outside and said, ‘This season is in your hands,’” Bella said. ‘”If you guys are smart and handle this professionally, we’ll be able to keep going.’”
Buonopane also resonated with that Lind preseason speech.
“He [Lind] was saying, ‘It doesn’t matter if you think you know somebody or it’s just a common cold. We have to err on the side of caution,’” Buonopane said. "He told us, 'Don’t try to be a tough guy and play through an illness.’”
Ravin believes that body contact on the ice is not as concerning as what players do away from hockey when it comes to risk of exposure to COVID-19.
“I think it’s safe enough to be playing right now because I don’t think the contact in ice hockey is consistent enough to spread,” Ravin said.
Buonopane said he feels fine playing a contact sport during these times.
“If it was something that I felt like I was putting my health at risk or I was going to put others at risk, I wouldn’t be playing,” Buonopane said.
McLaughlin has been taking extra precautions when treating player injuries.
“If I deal with a player contacting another player or helping them with some sort of cut or laceration, I’m immediately washing my hands afterwards and using new gloves,” McLaughlin said.
Jesse Burns has been a hockey official for seven years with over 2,000 games of experience. Out of the several leagues he referees, the EHL is one of them. Similar to Ravin’s stance, Burns said if COVID-19 is being spread, it’s in the locker room and not on the ice.
“Whether or not you body check someone, I don’t think your germs are going to fly off their shoulder pads and into someone’s nose any faster than when your buddy is climbing on your teammates’ shoulders in the locker room,” Burns said.
While Burns said he’s taking the pandemic seriously, it’s not stopping him from doing what he loves.
“I’m there to call my game, but also deal with everything responsibly,” Burns said. “It’s as safe as it’s going to be. I’m not a fan of shutting everything down.”
When it comes to the major differences of playing hockey during a pandemic, Bella points to the team’s level of comradery.
“Last year, we were all allowed to dress in the same locker room, so we were basically on top of each other,” Bella said. “With 10 kids per locker room this season, it’s a lot harder to form relationships with everyone on the team.
Bella said it took longer this season to become familiar with everyone on a personal level.
“I really didn’t learn everyone’s name until 2-3 weeks into the season because we were separated much of the time,” Bella said. “I think our team chemistry would be farther along if we got to skate during the summer.”
Meanwhile, Brown thinks wearing a mask affects his coaching on the bench.
“It’s not easy to coach because my voice is hoarse when I’m wearing a mask, so communication has been difficult," Brown said.
Brown also said the day-to-day, hand-on activities with the players has been minimized, while interaction with the players in the locker room is gone.
On the other hand, Brown uses a video system to analyze players’ activity on the bench to monitor player safety.
“I can literally see how many times a player scratches his nose and I can send them those clips,” Brown said.
Brown said players that have been recruited from preparatory and high schools have had to adjust to playing without fans this season.
“There are usually 50-60 fans at our games,” Brown said. "These players have to psychologically adapt who use the fans as motivation while on the ice.”
Ravin said partnerships are especially important for all teams competing this season.
“Of course, every team wants to beat each other more than the next guy does, but at the same time, you have to have someone to play against,” Ravin said. “The partnerships in this league have always been strong, but this season with the pandemic has made them even stronger.”
Traveling for road games outside of Connecticut will have Brown “ridiculously phobic about everything.”
“It doesn’t matter where we’re traveling,” Brown said. “We can’t control anything except ourselves, so we have to police ourselves.”
Buonopane has full faith in his coaching staff about handling road games even more cautiously.
“I think we’ll be even smarter when we’re on the road,” Buonopane said. “I also trust that our coaches always have our best interest in mind; they always put our safety before any game.”
Turner said staying in hotel rooms and entering other hockey rinks worries him for games played outside of the SoNo Ice House.
Similarly, Ravin is concerned about “hot zones” when teams are traveling. However, he said each rink’s staff has helped mitigate the risk of exposure. For instance, some rinks have designated certain doors to use for entry and exit to promote social distancing.
As of Nov. 25, the RoughRiders are 8-7-4 on the season. They rank in second place out of seven teams in the Mid-Atlantic conference standings with 20 points.
Turner said he thinks the RoughRiders would be performing better in a certain way if there wasn’t a pandemic.
“If we were able to get in the gyms more this summer, I think we would be able to execute our physical playing style of hockey much better,” Turner said.
Buonopane elaborated on Turner’s point.
“I think the hardest thing of coming back on the ice was just the cardio and mental adjustment to get back into the flow of playing games again,” Buonopane said.
Bunonopane said that the uncertainty of this season is unique. And that isn’t healthy for athletes who are familiar with routine.
“It puts it all into perspective for you to play your next game like it’s your last because that could actually happen this year,” Buonopane said.
Bella agrees with Buonopane.
“Eric [Lind] always stresses to us that we don’t know when our last game is going to be if everything gets cancelled,” Bella said. “So, I think everyone is playing a little harder with that in the back of our heads.”
Brown said the team is prepared to close down if COVID-19 gets out of control in Connecticut.
“We have no problem shutting down the team for a year or two years if that's what needs to be done,” Brown said. “Every coach needs to prepare for the worst and have back-up plans. I think you have to think that way to be realistic about the situation.”
Ravin said that consistency is critical to preserving this season.
“It’s going to take the same level of effort to keep this thing going forward,” Ravin said. “I don’t envision anything getting easier at any point this season.”
Ravin said that players should keep their hockey future in mind when treating this pandemic.
“I’m sure the last thing these players want is to miss any time in a year where you’re trying to put every foot forward to become a better player and pursue the college level,” Ravin said.
McLaughlin voiced similar remarks, specifically from the RoughRiders’ end.
“I know these guys love to play hockey,” McLaughlin said. “I don’t think they would jeopardize it by going out into a big group situation.”
Lind said he knows the players understand what ultimately matters most.
“I think the kids realize that it’s not about them, it’s about the team,” Lind said. “They understand it’s a privilege to play and be out there on the ice right now.”
Unfortunately, according to Brown, the RoughRiders’ season has been postponed until
January 6 because the state of Connecticut is prohibiting the team from practicing or traveling. The last game they played was against in-state opponent CT Chiefs on Nov. 20, which resulted in a 4-3 shootout loss.
Ravin is still committed to finishing this season despite the obstacle the RoughRiders are experiencing.
“We as a league are recognizing and abiding by any and all state regulations that are set forth throughout the season,” Ravin said. “While this will present more hurdles for us as we work through the season, we’re constantly coming up with different contingency plans to help our teams finish the 2020-21 campaign.”
COVID-19 Statistics (According to the New York Times & Norwalkct.org):
In Connecticut: over 117,000 cases and over 5,000 deaths as of Dec 1, 2020
In Fairfield county: over 38,000 cases and over 1,500 deaths as of Dec. 1, 2020
In Norwalk, CT: 4,584 cases as of Dec. 1, 2020