Outdoor tent-like locker rooms, masks mandate everywhere, non-existent social lives, virtual team meetings, individual transportation, and a whole lotta trust in teenager to do the right for the betterment of their team.
This is what high school hockey co-op programs look like in 2021.
“They’re overjoyed to be playing,” said Dave Harackiewicz, coach of the Newington hockey co-op team. “They know the importance of it. They’re kids and they kinda have to be constantly reminded, not only with my team but probably most teams, that you just have to stay the course and not let your guard down because at any point you could be shut down.”
While organized high school sports already bring risks of COVID-19 exposure, co-op programs have to be that much more diligent about health protocols since they consist of a roster made up of players from various schools that don’t have enough numbers to field their own teams.
Hockey has the highest percentage of co-op teams for CIAC-sanctioned sports with 19 of this year’s 51 teams being formed by players from multiple schools.
Newington’s roster includes 23 total student-athletes from Newington High School, Berlin, Cromwell, Manchester and Canton. Since Newington is the host school of the co-op, the team gets shut down if the school has a positive COVID-19 case, even if it’s not related to the hockey team — which is what caused the team to lose the first week of practice.
COVID safety protocols look different for every team and every rink; however, masks are always required both on and off the ice for everyone.
“At the beginning it was kinda difficult for them to play with the mask, but I told them, ‘You need to use it. You need to get used to it. You don’t have a choice,’” said Carl Larouche, coach of the Fairfield Warde/Ludlowe co-op.
Larouche’s team uses a tent-like locker room outside to change before practice and games. On top of temperature checks before entering the rink, the Bethel, Brookfield, and Danbury co-op (BBD) requires a parent-signed health form from players to monitor signs of symptoms. Harackiewicz’s players to use two different locker rooms to space out and reduce in-person interactions by holding team meetings on Zoom.
In means of transportation to and from practices and games, Warde/Ludlowe players sit socially distanced in assigned seats on a bus, while Newington players are spaced out by two seats and use two buses to transport the team. Parents of players on BBD are asked to transport their kids individually and are discouraged to arrange carpools.
“It’s as important as grades,” said Randy Craig, the coach of the Eastern CT Eagles co-op. “If your grades aren’t good, then you can’t play. If you act out in school and you get suspended, then you can’t play. If you get COVID, not only can’t you play but the rest of your team can’t play.”
But as much as coaches can control players’ environments while at the rink, the bigger part is trusting them to be safe in their day-to-day lives.
“It’s just communicating with them and making sure they understand the consequences,” Rusty Granacker, coach of BBD said. “Putting trust in them is all I can do and keep reassuring them they need to do the right thing and communicate with us and stay safe.”
Before the season the Fairfield Co-op, which consists of 15 players from Warde High School and 25 from Ludlowe, held a team meeting to stress the importance of practicing social distancing and being safe outside of hockey.
“There’s no point in risking it because if someone gets it that could ruin our season,” said Finnegan ‘Finn’ Hoey, a junior from Ludlowe and a captain for the co-op team. “Everyone is good about it. They all love to play hockey, so I don’t think they’d want to risk it for something silly like going to a party.”
Not every co-op was allowed to participate this season due to athletic directors deeming COVID exposure too risky.
Along with Shepaug, the Eastern CT Eagles were not allowed to have a season this year and have since rolled over members from a separate split fall season roster to play in the CHC youth league in a U18 team for the Southeastern Seahawks.
Instead of playing other high school teams, like the co-op of 11 schools normally does, they’re facing other split season teams and have even played some local high school JV teams as well.
“I completely understand the logic, but the reality is the kids have been playing together since August and they’re gonna play together after this regardless if you have a high school program or not because that’s what they do,” said Craig, who coaches the Eagles’ split season team this year. “If there’s an opportunity for the kids to play, they’re gonna play.”
No matter what program, being able to play hockey this season is the most important thing to these players. It’s worth all the sacrifices and all the protocols just to have the chance to be back on the ice.
“They really just want to play and if they have to wear their masks and do A, B and C to play, oh God they’re gonna do it, I promise you because they just do not want this taken away,” Lara Hoey, Finn’s mom said. “When I’m looking in front of me at these kids, they’re just so happy and yes everything is worth it. The gloves, the masks the freezing cold tent in the parking lot, to me it is all worth it because there is no place else my son would rather be.”