Maine’s student-athletes are eager for next week, when high school hockey and basketball games can resume under the state’s COVID-19 protocols. But schools have been required to make major changes in an effort to keep the contests safe during the latest surge in cases.
Thursday night was a major milestone for the Orono-Old Town high school hockey team. Inside Bangor’s Sawyer Arena, pucks clanged and players crashed into the boards as the full team practiced together for the first time in months. While things look a little different — most notably the masks on the players’ faces — senior Tanner Evans says he’s glad to practice together after months of uncertainty about whether the season would actually happen.
“I think it feels like hockey. The only difference is a mask. It’s a little tougher to breathe. And you get gassed a little more quickly. But once it gets going, it’ll be the best as it can, even with the situation we’re in,” Evans says. “So I’m glad that high school hockey has got off the ground and going. ‘Cause I really wanted a senior season. I’m looking forward to it.”
In November, state officials and the Maine Principals’ Association approved a plan to allow most winter sports to return. Lower-risk sports such as skiing, as well as moderate-risk activities such as basketball and hockey, were all given the green light to come back within a certain timeline. The return was delayed as cases have climbed, but by next week, schools will be allowed to compete against one another.
“It’s just that extra, extra state of planning that I think everyone’s in — and going from there,” says Old Town High School Athletic Director Jeremy Bousquet.
Old Town combines its swimming and hockey teams with players from nearby Orono High School. Bousquet says that bringing those two groups of athletes together safely has required navigating all kinds of complications.
“We’re not only crossing cohorts of kids. We’re now going to be crossing schools — in essence, we have that with swim and hockey,” he says.
To limit contact between the two groups, each school held separate tryouts. They’ve even designated specific swimming lanes and bench areas for athletes from each school. And during hockey practice, Bousquet says, administrators are initially limiting the amount of time that Orono and Old Town students spend together on the ice.
“So basically, we’re gonna run it almost as like an Orono line, and then Old Town lines,” he says. “And then as the season progresses, and kids are, I guess you could say, together more and more often, we’ll be able to start integrating more things into the approach.”
Schedules have also been tweaked and limited geographically. In Caribou, athletic administrator Evan Graves says that instead of taking long car rides to the southern half of the state, teams will instead play schools of all sizes from around Aroostook County.
“We’re not worried about Caribou playing Presque Isle as much as we are about kids having the opportunity to play. I don’t think there’s the competition piece in mind,” Graves says. “We’re not necessarily looking at ‘Oh, how fair is this?’ and micromanaging that piece. It’s about getting the kids back to play.”
Only those schools that are in counties the state has designated “green” — meaning there is a relatively low risk of viral transmission — will be allowed to take part in hockey and basketball games starting Monday. That means programs in York, Oxford, Androscoggin and Cumberland counties, which have been designated “yellow,” are still waiting to even begin practices for any winter sports.
“It’s like being in a bad dream, and being underneath a black cloud that just keeps on raining. No matter how fast you run, you’re just underneath that black cloud all the time,” says Rich Buzzell, the athletic administrator for Marshwood High School in Eliot.
Buzzell says because York County has been designated “green” for just four weeks this school year, athletics have barely happened. He says the school is trying to continue with virtual workouts to keep students connected with each other.
“We’re just hoping the numbers go down. We’re hoping people paid attention during the break and didn’t travel as much as possible. And maybe the numbers will show that we can open up again and do some things,” he says.
Yet that appears to be unlikely for the immediate future as case numbers keep rising, and state health officials are closely monitoring numbers in Aroostook and Penobscot counties to gauge risk levels.
But the pucks are still flying at the Orono-Old Town hockey team practice. And Evans is just trying to enjoy the season while he can.
“I mean, I’m just happy that we’re getting to play,” he says. “I just really hope we’re able to play at least a few games. I feel like if we’re more playing hockey, we’re not focused on everything else that’s happening in the world. I just hope we get to play some games.”