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Mass. Hockey Spotlight: Pembroke Youth Hockey COVID-19 Safety Committee

By Jamie MacDonald , 08/27/20, 2:15PM EDT


Pembroke Youth Hockey’s COVID Safety Committee

President, Registrar, Mass Hockey District 4 Director: Jeremiah Tabor; PYH COVID Safety Committee Chair: Ryan MacDonald

Where it all began:

Back when Pembroke’s youth hockey world stopped on a March weekend that felt so similar across the state and country, Pembroke Youth Hockey’s president Jeremiah Tabor had joined the club of youth sports officials who were suddenly, without knowing what was ahead, set on a path of unimaginable uncertainty. That path would eventually wind through the uncertainty, through guidelines and guidance, and eventually through phases leading to a similar-but-different hockey season.

“It basically started when our season came to an end with an abrupt shutdown that second weekend in March,” says Tabor.

It didn’t take long before Pembroke had its own COVID Safety Committee.

MacDonald, whose day job as an attorney and VP in human resources would come in handy, serves as chair.

“I’ve been in COVID-related stuff since St. Patrick’s Day,” he says. “And the information that was going to get out there was going to have to be overly communicated. This fit kind of nicely.”

Of particular note was the emphasis on the inclusion of the word “safety” in the committee’s title.

“Early in the pandemic, with every single person we spoke to, whether it was related to Pembroke youth hockey or within our community, the No. 1 one thing we kept coming back to was safety first,” says Tabor, a father of two players who is in his fifth season with PYH. “And, if it isn’t safe, we’re not going to be doing it.”

What they’re doing right:

As Tabor will readily admit, some of their ideas are simply incorporating the options made available to everyone. There is the electronic whistle, courtesy of a Mass Hockey webinar in August. There are coaching training sessions. And there is the “Titan Hat Trick,” which, as the sincerest form of flattery, is an imitation lifted from their own backyard.

“Like many great coaches, we stole that idea from our baseball group, which had the ‘hit for the cycle’ test,” Tabor says. “They started it and we ran with it, making it hockey-related and kind of adjusting the bullet points to fit under our COVID standards.”

In fact, players in Pembroke, with an emphasis on safety and getting players back on the ice, had been on the ice throughout the summer. More than 200 of the organization’s 280 players had already skated on the ice before the hockey season officially turned to 2020-21.

“At a very high-level, I think we are able to put the kids first and safety first,” says Tabor. “Our COVID Committee included two nurses, a Boston city schoolteacher and two other board members besides Ryan. I really [credit] the entire group – even the entire community – coming together to get these kids back on the ice.”

In some ways, the work is only just beginning. The committee is built around trying to be transparent and nimble in what are truly unknowable circumstances where, sometimes, the answers aren’t in front of anyone. Everyone could be acting in good faith and something still could go sideways, but the committee is there to work through what MacDonald worries could be a false sense of security brought on by “COVID fatigue,” or any other unforeseen circumstance related to the virus.

“One thing we’ve been priding ourselves on is the proper follow-through on what we’re saying and what we’re doing,” says MacDonald, who is in his ninth year with PYH. “Instilling in our coaches and our older players to lead by example. With the mites and the squirts, if they’re walking in while the older players are wearing a mask, they’re going to wear a mask.”

February 2020: Pembroke players listening to ADM Regional Manager Roger Grillo about Body Checking.

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The challenges and rewards:

During these times, nearly every activity, including youth sports, will be going through a trial, of sorts. 

“Jeremiah emphasized early on was that we are the stewards of our own program,” MacDonald says. “If we don’t do what we say and do it in a safe way, we’re not only putting our program at risk, but we’re putting hockey at risk. To the kids that can understand it, we needed to carry the torch not just for PYH but for everybody.”

While the feedback received by both Tabor and MacDonald has been positive, everyone working in youth sports these days has a lot on their minds, from needing more volunteers to creating environments that are both safe and fun.

Even in more typical times, it takes an army to keep a youth hockey organization running well. 

“We have 57 coaches lined up to coach on 24 different teams starting next week, so that’s just the beginning,” says Tabor.  “When you take a step back, I think the sky is the limit on bringing town hockey back to the state of Massachusetts in a positive way.” 

MacDonald, immersed in COVID logistics since the first days of the pandemic, sees more of the same.

“When I think back to how grim things were when we first started talking about this, based upon what we did as an organization and the compliments we received, it gives me hope in community,” he says. “It gives me hope that well-intentioned, good people can come together in the face of challenge and find a way to carve out a path to overcome it. It’s town. It’s community. We all live in the same town and we all have kids in the same schools, and that’s what gives me hope.”

The last word:

“Something that struck me early on in this process is a comment from Lisa Cullity, who is a member of the Board of Health,” says Tabor. “’Every youth sports group has an opportunity to bring all these kids back together for the first time.’ She said not to take that lightly because it’s very important for their well-being. [Parents, coaches and kids] need to work together, not let their guard down, and remember why that 8- to 18-year-old wants to play hockey. School is going to be totally different, fall sports for high schools are going to be totally different, but we can give them something that may not be that much different. We can give them the outlet from a lot of these things that are still in disarray.”