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Charting the road return of rec hockey: 'I believe we've found a path back'

The Jacksonville Ice & Sportsplex was one of the first arenas in North America to reopen when it reconvened its adult league this past weekend. Players couldn't keep from getting into fights, but they did seem to refrain from spitting.

A couple of things happened this weekend that made Mark Scheff believe that, when it comes to the return of grassroots hockey from the COVID-19 pandemic, things are maybe, just maybe starting to get back to normal.

The first thing was the first group to occupy the ice at the Jacksonville (Fla.) Ice & Sportsplex when it reopened last Friday was a group of firefighters who have a regular time slot. You’d think that if anyone would be reticent about getting on the ice first, it would be a group of first responders. But Scheff reported there were about 20 of them out on the ice Friday morning. The second was that there were even a couple of fights, not including the pay-per-view UFC card that was held in Jacksonville over the weekend. We’re talking on-ice fights and suspensions in the Jacksonville Adult Winter Hockey League. “So I guess we’re officially back,” Scheff said.

The Jacksonville rink was one of the first to re-open in North America after arenas were shuttered in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared Phase I of the state’s reopening plan in effect last week, Scheff set about to ready his facility to get players back on the ice. He estimates that this past weekend between 400 and 500 people came through the facility and things went smoothly. Players had their temperatures taken when they arrived at the rink, they didn’t shower at the facility and had to leave within 15 minutes of their games ending, spectators were kept to a minimum and referees wore masks and used electronic whistles.

“I really believe we have found a safe path back,” Scheff said. “That is my hope.”

As a result, Scheff said the rink will open up a few more programs this week, including offering ice time to elite players for group workouts, stick and puck shinny and the adult development program, which Scheff said sold out in an hour. Other rinks in the U.S., many of whom reached out to Scheff to get protocol guidelines, will be opening their doors in the coming weeks. “If we continue to be successful without any incidents, this is the path back,” Scheff said.

Teams were given two dressing rooms each to allow for social distancing and those rooms were disinfected before, during and after each game. The time lapse between games was 45 minutes, which gave players who had just played ample time to leave the rink before players arrived for the next game, which limited interaction and crowds in the building. Including staff, there were never more than 50 or 60 people in the building at one time. After did a blog last week on the facility opening, Scheff said he received a host of inquiries from Canada and USA asking about protocols and safety measures. He said that by far, any facility wants to reopen should keep paramount in its mind that cleanliness is next to godliness.

“The thing of uppermost importance is that when you walk into any facility, it needs to feel clean and sanitized,” Scheff said. “The minute you walk in the door, if it feels like it used to, they’re going to say, ‘Oh, I don’t know.’ But when you walk in this building, it smells like Pine-Sol.”

Scheff and his employees were actually surprised at how compliant the players were. Almost all of them waited in their cars if they arrived at the rink too early and were mindful about leaving the rink as soon after their games as possible. (And as you can see by the rather bizarre picture that accompanies this story, at least one team even took social distancing to heart on the ice. Who lines up beside a goalie for a faceoff at center ice?) The one thing that could have become a contentious issue was spitting. Players were asked to refrain from doing so, which is much easier said than done. Anyone who has played knows spitting in hockey can be as instinctual as skating and shooting.

“That was a big thing for us,” Scheff said. “We made it known in our protocols that we wanted people to refrain from spitting on the ice and in the locker rooms and I heard nothing from my departments about it. That was a biggie, in the top three. I got no reports of it, I didn’t see it. Maybe the past six weeks in quarantine changes behaviors.”

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