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Youth Hockey Returns With New COVID Rules, But Its Overall Safety Is Still A Question04:37
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A Brookline Youth Hockey League game. (Courtesy Anne Trinque)
A Brookline Youth Hockey League game. (Courtesy Anne Trinque)

To say hockey is a way of life in Christina Reidy’s Sturbridge home might sound clichéd until you listen to her.

"All of my sons, all three, started playing hockey, learned to skate probably around age 2 or 3," Reidy says. "So we’ve been going to a hockey rink for the better part of 12 years, and that’s times three."

Reidy's sons are now 14, 11, and 8 years old. Each is on a team that practices twice a week. Combined, they can play up to six games total each weekend, sometimes across state lines.

So it hit Reidy and her kids hard when the state closed public ice rinks two weeks ago, effectively shutting down youth hockey, because of coronavirus outbreaks connected with the sport.

"This year has already been so different for them," Reidy says. "Hockey was the one thing that was consistent for them. So yeah, it was hard to hear."

In Brookline, hockey is a big part of Anne Trinque's life, too. Her 12-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son have been playing the sport for years since joining the town's Ice Mice program.

But she remembers having a different reaction when youth hockey was put on hold.

"Frankly, I wasn't that surprised," Trinque admits. "And although there hadn't been cases coming out of Brookline, certainly in towns that we were playing against — both in hockey and other sports — it had the possibility of infecting."

The Baker administration says youth hockey was tied to more than 100 positive cases before the shutdown, and Gov. Charlie Baker called out teams and organizations for not cooperating with state health guidelines and contact tracing.

"I know the shutdown wasn’t welcome news, but youth hockey needs to make some changes," Baker said in a press conference on Oct. 27. "And we look forward to working with them to create the kind of framework that will be safe for kids and for parents."

Now, youth hockey has updated its guidelines.

Masks are required at rinks both on and off the ice. Teams are limited to one game a day. And rinks and hockey organizations face possible fines if they don't cooperate with contact tracing.

But the state will now allow body-checking at higher levels of youth hockey.

Kevin Kavanagh, executive director of the youth organization Mass Hockey, says that's a reassuring sign.

"That was kind of a give-and-take, I think, and understanding that the game itself is OK as long as we deal with all of the other things around it," he explains.

But Dr. KJ Seung, chief of strategy and policy for the Massachusetts COVID Response at Partners in Health, isn't fully convinced about hockey's safety.

Seung has been tracking COVID clusters since August. He says even if you change the rules of the game and cut out some of the social gatherings at the rinks, hockey is still more problematic than outdoor sports.

"It's indoor, it's cold. We know that the virus lasts longer in the cold," explains Seung. "We know that the ventilation systems are actually meant to keep cold air inside the boards. There were many more instances of transmission and really large clusters — in some cases, three-quarters of the team getting infected."

Brookline Youth Hockey players Bea (left) and Major Trinque. (Courtesy Anne Trinque)
Brookline Youth Hockey players Bea (left) and Major Trinque. (Courtesy Anne Trinque)

Back in Brookline, Anne Trinque says she's ready to let her kids back on the ice. But she wants to see these new rules, especially the mask mandate, strictly enforced.

"They're doing that in other sports, both in soccer and lacrosse, which our kids play," Trinque says. "They have to play with masks on, and they're playing outdoors. So to have a sport that's played indoors saying that masks aren't required was just really surprising and frankly, disappointing."

Mass Hockey's Kavanagh said he expects strong cooperation with the new rules, though he also hopes the state will treat future outbreaks on a case-by-case basis rather than instituting more blanket bans.

Sturbridge hockey mom Christina Reidy agrees.

"And that way, some kids could still be enjoying a sport they love instead of ending a sport across God knows how many districts and counties and communities," she says.

It looks like youth hockey will get a second chance to show it's safe, and it could be a barometer for a winter sports season that's still in flux.

This segment aired on November 6, 2020.

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Khari Thompson is the field producer for WBUR's Morning Edition.

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