Congratulations to St. Mary’s Springs, Hudson and the CFM Sabres. In the face of unfavorable odds and never seen before obstacles the WIAA hockey season made it to the finish line. It is time for all of us to pull down our masks, toss our thermometers in the air and scream out, “We made it!” A collective, yet imaginary pat on the back and six feet apart salute to all those who made this dream come true. Whether or not you hoisted up actual hardware or not, we are all winners for taking on this opponent known as Covid-19, and systematically kicking its butt.
This improbable journey was held hostage in October as the WIAA and individual school districts did their best to evaluate the risk/reward of this adventure. Thankfully the WIAA made a bold decision and gave schools the green light to choose to play or not. In hindsight, it appears they made the right decision. The nine month grip of the pandemic had mostly paralyzed high school sports. Students, to their amazement, were missing school and athletes were desperate to just go to practice. The psychological benefit appeared to far outweigh the physical dangers for teenagers. In the face of much criticism, the winter sports season sporadically began.
For coaches we added nurse intern and legal analyst to our resumes as we monitored our athlete’s health and waded through pages of Covid-19 protocols and restrictions. We all learned how to run a Zoom meeting and in the beginning how to practice six feet apart. It seemed we had to learn how to do virtually everything virtually. We struggled with masks at practice and in games and discovered there are electric whistles. With practice time limits coaches had to do more with less. We discovered that not many people actually have a body temperature of exactly 98.6. Changes to our game schedules became a daily occurrence along with periodic taste and smell checks. We traded in handshakes for fist bumps, watched our team practice on LiveBarn as we sat in quarantine, and held our breath every time someone coughed. We washed our hands more than we did in grade school, and if I am being completely honest never sanitized our pucks, but we did discourage our players from licking them. As coaches we put ourselves in harm’s way because deep down we knew just how important it was to get these athletes back on the ice. Thanks goes to all the spouses and significant others who supported our decision to coach through a pandemic. Congratulations to all the coaches for their sacrifice and commitment.
Officials were faced with the same hard decision and forced to deal with many of the same challenges. Thanks to those who stayed old school and tossed their electric whistles in the trash. While we all struggled to hear the push button tweeters, dogs everywhere were howling. Thanks to every official we had, sans one, for not making the mask wearing the focus of the game; understanding we were playing hockey and not conducting open heart surgery was appreciated.
While wearing masks was an inconvenience to the coaches, it was a steep learning curve for the players. They became a necessary evil as players adjusted to their restrictive nature. However the masks did not help disguise them from officials’ penalty calls. They learned that the six foot rule really applied only when it was convenient and team bonding required a different approach. Cherished lockeroom time was restricted as teams were separated and spread out, then they sat shoulder-to-shoulder on the bench. Teams often held their collective breaths as potential and sporadic Covid-19 exposures threatened their season. Even at six feet apart, they never stopped playing for each other. And while all were grateful for a shortened season, players sacrificed a handful of finite and precious career games.
The gratitude list that made this season possible is long. It starts with the WIAA ignoring the snowflakes of doubt and allowing everyone to make their own decision. Parents had to dig deeply to find accurate information on the potential risks and then grant their isolated and anxious sons and daughter’s permission to play! They were forced to miss games entirely or sit and watch them on their phones in the parking lot or at home on their computers. Perhaps a few even snuck into games. On a positive note, wearing masks, all parents looked equally happy after the game. In spite of the risks bus drivers got behind the wheel even if they didn’t know where Black River Falls was and Zamboni drivers didn’t have to kick anyone off the ice because of the newly mandated buffer time between practices. Rink managers devised elaborate routes to move people through their arenas and drafted protocols that resembled government legislation. Everyone’s cholesterol dropped as most concessions were forced to stay closed. Electrolytes were at an all-time low as Gatorade sales tumbled. Seasons were kept on track by diligent and patient athletic directors who juggled schedules like an airline booking agent during a Dallas snowstorm. Making tough decisions at times, they did whatever they could to keep us playing. Thanks to the trainers, team managers, minor officials and the media.
In a time when little good news seems to be available, we should celebrate this great accomplishment. While some may still chastise the decision to play, we did the right thing for those that matter the most: the athletes. Athletics, like Life, will always be about taking risks. Following the science is a quite popular directive right now and in the case of moving ahead with the winter sports seasons, I believe it was absolutely the right call.
Congratulations WIAA hockey, WE MADE IT!