Hockey will no doubt look different this year

Hockey will no doubt look different this year than it did in January, 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic affected schools and extracurricular activities.

The Champlain Valley Union High School student athletes got a surprise right before the winter break.

Gov. Phil Scott announced on Dec. 22 that schools could resume non-contact, socially distanced practice on Dec. 26, allowing the winter sports season to — very slowly — get started.

“I was shocked, to be honest,” said Dan Shepardson, CVU activities director, of the early go-ahead. “It gave the kids and the coaches ­— but the kids especially — for those that celebrate an early Christmas present and something to look forward too. It was a huge surprise and very well received by everybody.”

Shepardson left the decision of when to begin up to his coaches, allowing training plans, ice time and holiday schedules determine when each program was ready to get going. All sports had begun practices as of Monday.

“Most everybody started when they said we could,” Shepardson said. ”My feeling was that it’s legal, we can do it, the kids need it. But we made it clear to the coaches that this has nothing to do with tryouts. They couldn’t put any pressure on kids to show up.”

While ice hockey, basketball and gymnastics balance space in the gym with the amount of players and skills they can work on, Nordic and alpine skiing are getting outside and hitting the snow.

The current practices allow for skills work and strength and conditioning, something coaches will focus on while they wait for the state to take the next step for the winter sports season.

“It’s needed,” said Shepardson of the extra time for strength and conditioning. “Both for the physical conditioning part and the mental and emotional health part of it, the kids need it. Even if they played a fall sport it has now been a couple of months.”

While teams would love to jump into full practices and games, Shepardson said the extra time to focus on skills and conditioning is a silver lining to the slow start. Coaches can focus on the fundamentals and athletes can get in game shape.

“I think it’s been a real blessing, both for the kids and for the coaches,” Shepardson said.

The longtime basketball and soccer coach also said he expects it will be a couple of weeks before the decision about games will be announced but getting out for no-contact practices in a good start.

“I’m obviously hopeful but my personal best guess is that the first week of February we will start games, which would give us a six week season,” said Shepardson. “If we can actually do that, that’d be wonderful.”

No matter when the greenlight is given for games, Shepardson said he and the rest of the athletic directors around the state will be ready for a quick winter season rollout. The fall sports season provided a solid template and has the schools ready when the word come down.

“Huge kudos to Pat Merriam (Director of Athletics at Essex High School). Pat had gone through and looked at schedules and basically had reorganized the entire schedule,” Shepardson said. “If we pick up on Feb. 1, we’ll probably just keep the schedule that he put together and we’ll play from Feb. 1.”

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