Proposals revealed for ice hockey’s return once lockdown restrictions eased

ICE HOCKEY governing bodies have put together a phased ‘return to play’ plan, which they intend to implement once government advice allows the sport to resume.

FRAMEWORK: Leeds Chiefs' Joe Coulter and Hull Pirates Thomas Stubley in action at Elland Road last season. It's not clear when the 2020-21 campaign will and can start. Picture: Dean Woolley.

At all levels, the 2019-20 season was brought to an early end in March because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The UK’s top-flight, self-governing Elite League currently intends to launch its 2020-21 campaign in early October, a month later than normal.

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All other leagues and junior hockey in England - including the NIHL National which houses Hull Pirates, Sheffield Steeldogs and Leeds Chiefs - comes under the realm of the English Ice Hockey Association, from who there has been no announcement on when exactly they expect their season to launch.

SLOWLY BUT SURELY: Governing bodies have drawn up proposals for a return to play for all levels of ice hockey once the government gives the sport the green light to resume.

Any return, of course, will be wholly dependent on the latest government advice but, in readiness the EIHA and Ice Hockey UK are among a number of governing bodies who have got together to draw up proposals for a five-step phased return action.

The hoped-for start date for the 2020-21 season is expected to be September 1, but in the likely event that is put back, the plan allows for the season to be extended and still played in full until as late as July 1. The intention is for a full schedule of games to be completed in all divisions and at all levels, although if the season doesn’t start until 2021, NIHL National - which has a 26-week season - will see the number of regular season games reduced from 52 to 44.

The biggest obstacle to any return for the sport centres around social distancing, an issue that affects both players and spectators.

The first steps proposed in the plan will allow just five players from one team or one age group, on or off the ice for training, carrying out basic drills, while maintaining the current two-metre social distancing rule and arriving at rinks already dressed in their equipment.

Sheffield Steeldogs player-coach Ben Morgan could see his team's schedule cut to 44 games if the season doesn't start until January 2021 at the earliest. Picture courtesy of Cerys Molloy.

Activities would then be gradually stepped up, when deemed safe to do so, to the point where full contact was allowed again enabling a new, regular season to commence.

How quickly phases would be worked through will depend on the relevant government advice at the time. There are also a list of basic hygiene and health and safety requirements that need to be in place at every rink during practice sessions.

These include players washing or sanitising hands before and after each session, disinfecting all their equipment after use and only using their own, personal equipment, including water bottles and all protective gear.

“While advice is continuing to change over time, we have developed a flexible plan to help guide us over the coming weeks and months allowing people to start to put in place the practical steps required for resuming ice hockey,” said the joint statement, with the ‘return to rinks’ plan being developed in partnership with the Ice Rink Managers Association, Scottish Ice Rink Association, Scottish Curling, British Ice Skating, UK Active and the home nations sports councils.

“First and foremost, we will follow government advice to protect the safety of our community and work with UK Active to ensure we are following appropriate industry guidelines.”

July 4 is the next important date many people in the sport have marked on their calendars as that is when the government has pencilled in the possility of leisure facilities re-opening in some shape or form.

Planet Ice, who own the Elland Road rink in Leeds along with numerous other rinks throughout the UK, last week stated that it was provisionally working towards a re-opening date of Monday, July 6 but stressed that would depend on whether any lockdown restrictions were lifted by the government two days earlier.

The Planet Ice statement stated it was “not expecting the resumption of league hockey to begin this year” although it added that would be “reviewed in line with government guidance and engagement with the relevant ice hockey leagues.”

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