With the Carolina Junior Hurricanes tied to its NHL parent club, Shane Willis and his staff running the youth hockey program are extra cognizant about making sure players are staying safe and healthy in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Jr. Hurricanes program, which is tailored for ages 8 to 18, have been back on the ice since the end of May. Players have been taking extra precautions with everything they do on and off the ice at Polar Ice House facilities.
The rinks that partner with the Hurricanes’ NHL club — Polar Ice House Wake Forest, Polar Ice House Cary, Polar Ice House of Garner, Raleigh Ice Center and Raleigh IcePlex — are only allowing private rentals for the time being.
“There are no games being played, no parents in the rink, anything like that,” said Willis, who is the Hurricanes manager of youth and amateur hockey.
Organizations and coaches are paying for one-hour blocks of ice at a time to get their players out practicing.
Adhering to North Carolina state guidelines, the maximum number of individuals allowed inside an ice facility at one time is 28 — 25 players and three coaches.
“The kids all get temperature checks coming in, the regular COVID questions when they come in,” Willis said. “Most younger kids show up to the rink fully dressed with skate guards on. They get their temperature checks, go in, kind of leave their guards at the side, do their hour session, put them back on, walk out a different exit. They have a different exit for kids to go out so there are not double-crossing paths or anything like that.”
Once a group has completed its 60-minute session, there is a 45-minute window before the next group is allowed inside the rink. After each group exits the building, workers flood the ice and clean the facility, which includes using disinfectant foggers in the locker rooms. Following the completion of the cleaning measures, the main doors are unlocked and the next group comes in.
The lobbies at the rink facilities aren’t open, so parents have to drop their kids off at the door and wait outside.
Kids entering the rink are required to wear masks. They head straight to one of the four locker rooms where there is a limit of six kids per changing area. The players finish getting dressed if they need to, take their masks off, practice and head back outside.
“The rink has a bigger job of cleaning four locker rooms compared to one, but I think that allows us to keep that social distance apart of kids not crammed into one bench together and have some room to get dressed and get ready,” Willis said.
Willis, who played for the Hurricanes and Tampa Bay Lightning from 1999-2004, feels like the rinks have mastered a solid routine to keep everyone safe.
“I think it’s been great,” Willis said. “Between our rinks and our organizations, we’ve talked a lot with local doctors and pediatricians about kids who seem to be at lower risk than adults, so we feel keeping major traffic out of the building has been great. The kids have done a great job coming in with their equipment, bringing their own water bottles — obviously, is a huge factor.”
The Junior Hurricanes program has a great resource with backing from the NHL. Willis has been in constant contact with NHL clubs, including the Jr. Predators and Jr. Capitals, that have similar junior programs.
“The NHL’s done a great job with our group of doing weekly or bi-weekly calls to kind of discuss what we are doing in our communities, not only to stay active in our rinks but stay engaged with our fan base,” Willis said.
The men’s league teams are also renting ice to get out for practices. Put the puck stops there for the older players.
“With the number of 28 people total, they can’t really have a game yet, either.” Willis said.
After shutting down near the end of March, the youth players had about nine weeks off from getting on the ice. Willis believes that wasn’t a bad thing.
“I think it was good for a lot of our kids to get away, and be away from the ice and be able to do other things,” Willis said. “I think being away from the rink re-energizes a lot of the kids to want to get back. I truly believe in the burnout factor.”
Willis, who helps coach his 12-year-old son, has been happy to help give the kids the opportunity to return to the ice. The coaches eased the kids back into action.
“As a coach, I think patience was a main word when we first stepped on the ice,” Willis said. “We had to realize they had been off for eight, nine weeks without even touching a stick or puck besides in their driveway.”
Stepping foot on the ice again has given the young players a chance to feel normal and get away from thinking about the ongoing pandemic.
“I think that’s one of the great things is that everything outside the glass and outside the building goes away for an hour and you can see the smiles on the kids’ faces, the fun they’re having. They’re joking around, just that competitive nature the game brings,” Willis said. “It may only be an hour, but it seems like a lot longer when you’re out there getting away from the news and the difficult times that we’re facing in this country right now. It’s great to be back in there. But we’re doing it safely, and we look forward to continuing that into the fall.”