Like all levels of the sport, junior hockey has been hit hard by the pandemic, although it has had two windows where youngsters have been allowed back to practice and, in some cases, stage behind-closed-doors, Covid-secure games.
With the UK currently going through a third lockdown, only teams and ice rinks with ‘elite sport’ status are allowed to train and play games.
Fans can watch games live online at both NIHL National and NIHL One and Two levels as tournaments are staged behind-closed-doors.
But juniors remain shut out from rinks and are not expected to return until April 12 at the earliest, dependent, of course, on how well the government’s route out of the current lockdown proceeds.
Zajac, player-coach of Leeds Chiefs during their inaugural NIHL National season in 2019-20, but who has not been able to put a team on the ice this season because of the impact of lockdown restrictions, has had to watch from afar while rival second-tier teams take part in, first, the Streaming Series and then the current Spring Cup.
But while the 31-year-old defenceman is hopeful his Chiefs’ team can still take to the ice for a tentatively proposed shortened league campaign across April and May, he remains concerned about the impact on the junior game.
“I do think the longer this goes on the more kids we are likely to lose to the sport,” said Zajac.
“You see so many kids drop out as they get older anyway, and find other things to do, this pandemic gives them another reason to move away from the sport.
“It is definitely a priority to get the juniors back, whether that is to the detriment of the senior levels or not, but for me that has to be the priority – get the kids playing safely as soon as possible.
“We need to get them on the ice to try and keep them engaged as much as we can because kids have got so many other things they can do with their time and a few months out of the game could easily see them move on to somewhere else and we don’t want that.”
According to figures from the International Ice Hockey Federation, the UK had 3,931 registered junior players in the 2019-20 season, across more than 160 clubs.
Zajac’s concerns are shared by Andy Brown, head coach at nearby Bradford Bulldogs, but who also works as an assistant coach for GB Under-18s, as well as being head coach for the Northern Conference junior programme within the English Ice Hockey Association.
In recent years a number of players have come through the Bradford junior system and gone on to play top-flight hockey for Sheffield Steelers in the Elite League, including Brown’s son Kieran, as well as fellow forward Alex Graham and defenceman Jordan Griffin.
“It will be a concern for all clubs and all regions, to be honest,” said Brown.
“Without a doubt we’ll lose some players, unfortunately. I was talking to somebody the other day about the standard of junior hockey when we do come back.
“The standard, and this is where it could be really dangerous, could be really high because I think the players that will leave the sport will be the ones on the fringes – the ones who did a little bit of hockey, but they weren’t eat, sleep and breathe it, because those kids are the ones that will definitely come back.
“So the real danger is that when we do come back, the standard looks great because you’ll probably only have your mid-to top-end players left and everyone will think it is great and that we were worrying for nothing.
“But that might disguise the fact that teams are running on 7 or 8 players – if the EIHA looks at the minimum numbers needed for teams to play games - instead of 12, 13 or more players – the depth might just not be there anymore.
“And in a sport like ice hockey, in this country, we need everybody we can get, you can’t just rely on a handful of players, you’ve got to have full squads and rosters going through, the age groups, giving you that depth.”
Brown believes there has to be a co-ordinated drive across all areas of the sport in order to try and retain as many players as possible, while also aiming to recruit new faces across all age groups.
“Effectively we’ve lost an age group over this past 12 months, which will ripple through the sport without a doubt,” he added. “We’ll see the effect this year has had eventually – we’ve not just missed a season of player development but player recruitment also
“Eventually there will be a year comes by and we’ll realise that is where the effects of the pandemic have struck in terms of the quality and the numbers of youngsters.
“It might be a few years down the line, but it will be noticeable at some point.”
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