DULUTH, Minn. — The good news for Minnesota youth hockey is that most of the season has been played.
As youth hockey teams prepare for the beginning of playoffs this week, the majority of schedules for teams have been played, with the exception of about six-week statewide pause.
"It's not been as gloom and doom as it could have been," said Bob Nygaard, Duluth Amateur Hockey Association's executive director. "A lot of our teams have been able to get in a healthy amount of games in their schedule."
That has been good news not only for hockey players and associations, but also for local economies. One example is the city of Duluth.
Visit Duluth, the marketing association for the city, said that youth hockey tournaments have a big economic impact. In a pre-COVID year, Visit Duluth Sports Director Anne Bubacz Hamann said that the annual economic impact for youth hockey tournaments in the city is about $6.5 million.
Youth tournaments typically give teams four games to play over a three-day period, which often means hotel stays for the families of each player. Due to an executive order by Gov. Tim Walz, the state shut down youth hockey in Minnesota from Nov. 20-Jan. 4. But since teams were allowed to return to play, there have been games and tournaments held throughout the state with precautions in place.
Take Essentia Duluth Heritage Sports Center as an example. There are two ice sheets in the facility and there have been tournaments held every weekend there since youth hockey has been allowed to return to play.
Players and spectators had to have their temperatures checked as they walked into the facility each day, sign in for possible contact tracing, had to wear masks the whole time they were inside and were not allowed in the arena more than 10 minutes before their scheduled ice time. Teams were also not allowed in dressing rooms and dressed on chairs spaced 6 feet apart in the area just outside the boards and under the stands.
"Every rink has its own guidelines, but the Heritage Center has been more on the strict end and we've never used locker rooms this season," Nygaard said.
The reason why is because of the poor air circulation and close quarters that are typical for most arena locker rooms.
"But if you look at our record, we've been able to have tournaments every weekend on two sheets of ice and done a remarkable job of keeping kids and parents healthy," Nygaard said. "Those are things that we've had going on all year, all the way back to when we were allowed to go back into rinks back in July. Other rinks had to adapt when we came back because of the stricter restrictions. We've been doing that all the time."
Like everywhere else, there have been some rougher parts for arenas and youth hockey associations to get through during the pandemic. For instance, in Duluth, arenas have not been allowed to host out-of-state teams from farther than a 150-mile radius into Wisconsin.
"We typically get teams for the Upper Peninsula (of Michigan) and Fargo for tournaments and they haven't been able to come this year," Nygaard said. "With the pause, we lost three weekends of tournaments and fields have been smaller for some tournaments.
"Typically, teams love to come up here because it's a great destination. A lot of our tournaments, we usually have to turn teams away. The fields have been smaller for some tournaments. We had one tournament in November where a team pulled out on the first day because they had to quarantine because somebody had tested (COVID-19) positive. What 2020 and 2021 has been is about being as creative as possible. Instead of having a nice eight-team bracket, you get down to seven teams and it involves changing times, referees ...."
Duluth typically host peewee 'C' and bantam 'C' tournaments every year and it brings in 60 teams. This season, the tournaments were postponed and Nygaard said that a number of teams were not able to play in the makeup dates. Peewees are players ages 12-and-under and bantams are 14-and-under. Because of the pause, DAHA had three tournaments that had to be cancelled.
Because of restrictions, most arenas are not allowing concession sales and with extra sanitizing time needed between games and practices, arenas have also lost revenue.
"You lose 12 hours of ice time Monday through Thursday and ice rental starts at $185 an hour," Nygaard said. "It's about how many practices and games you can squeeze in. Next year, we won't have to worry about that."