For the first time since October 29, 2020, the Winnipeg Avros hosted an in-person practice. On Tuesday evening, the entire team joined head coach Ashley van Aggelen and Co. on the outdoor ice surface of Tyndall Park Community Centre for the first of many regularly scheduled outdoor team practices in 2021.
“This is going to be a memory that these girls are never going to forget. They had an absolute blast,” van Aggelen told Game On. “The mental health of so many kids across the nation has really been suffering. But to see the smiles on my players faces yesterday said it all. It was so nice. When this began, it was one thing to have Zoom workouts and see one another through a computer, but yesterday was really special. The girls were sending me pictures of themselves riding in the car wearing their equipment. They all had neckwarmers and balaclavas under their helmets. It was great.”
Following the recent loosening of restrictions within the province’s Public Health Order, Hockey Manitoba released an updated Version V of its Return to Play framework on February 11. Within the document, rules pertaining to hosting outdoor practices as well as that of indoor one-on-one training were included.
“We followed the Return to Play checklist to a T, granted some of the info there is for indoor rinks, but overall, things went really well,” van Aggelen expanded. “There was nothing unsafe about it; you’re doing skills. It’s not like you were getting pushed up against the boards. So if you’re following the RTP plan like you’re supposed to and you’re doing skills and some flow drills for separation, while not doing battling drills or angling drills, there is no worry whatsoever.”
And in terms of the facility itself, the Manitoba Female U-18 AAA Hockey League coach couldn’t have been more impressed.
“The outdoor ice was actually in better shape than some of the ice surfaces we use in league play,” she laughed. “They have two surfaces at Tyndall Park and when we got there, the other rink had about six or seven people on it. We had a fresh flood. The biggest thing for us was just being sure that we were allowed to practice, temperature-wise. I was screenshotting Environment Canada’s weather network from 4:00 PM all the way right until we stepped on the ice. It was -18 and it felt like -28. According to our RTP we are allowed to skate up until either -25 or -28 with the wind chill. So we were right on the cusp.”
Having been off the ice for 110 days, van Aggelen knew that her players would be wanting to catch up and socialize together. But despite the urges to mingle, her crew of AAA high school-aged girls respected both the provincial rulings and the rules of the community club.
“Every single player showed up,” the veteran coach said. “The guy that runs the club was actually there after sending out an email in the morning to outline all the COVID policies for us. The kids were great. They wanted to skate, so they abided by the rules. I checked all the gates, the boards were wooden and not quite like the boards you get in an indoor rink, but there was nothing sticking out. We weren’t required to wear masks as we were outdoors and socially distancing, but most did wear something on their faces just because of the cold temperature.”
Despite all the excitement surrounding the return to on-ice action, there were a few some drawbacks and a few wrinkles that will still need to be sorted out.
“Obviously, the girls had to dress at home, and tying skates in the cold can become a bit of an issue,” van Aggelen said. “In my mind I think it’s great that we have the opportunity to get them on the ice. It’s unfortunate that it needs to be outdoors. We need to move this inside at some point if we want to get back to any normalcy. It’s not what you want. You don’t want to be showing up in a car in your equipment. And it is cold. The girls were all super warm and sweaty, but it’s just the toes that got a little cold.”
Scheduled to practice three times a week for the next three weeks until the MFHL sorts out its plan on the remainder of the 2020-21 season, van Aggelen said that her team voted in near-unanimous fashion to continue practicing should the season be called off in March.
“Right now we are not allowed to play intersquad games or even allowed to battle in these sessions,” she said. “We don’t have eyes on the prize for games. Right now we are here to develop players, so everything we are doing is skill-related. It’s a great opportunity if we want to continue to develop our players. I know not all community centres are offering it, but all it takes is a few phone calls to find a rink that is able to be rented out.”
With evening practices now set for Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays for the better part of the upcoming month, one might beg the question of outdoor games. But according to van Aggelen, that, for now, is not a part of the equation.
“For starters, there are no lines on the ice, and I really don’t think any community centres have lines painted,” she stated. “They do have benches, but they are much tighter than you would find inside arenas. I really don’t think that would allow for proper COVID protocol either. And on top of that, if you are hosting an exhibition game, we have been told that there must be lines on the ice and real officials. So if we wanted to really have a game, we would have to adhere by those COVID rules and keep the separation on the bench and have officials for safety purposes.”
With a focus on skill development in the outdoor environment, van Aggelen was actually quite surprised to see a host of parents gathered around the exterior of the rink in the frigid temperatures. But with her biggest issue at the moment being puck retrieval, the more bodies outside the rink, the better… right?
“I made that mistake actually,” van Aggelen said of her drill selection. “We ended up doing one that involves tips, and I definitely saw a few pucks fly over the cage. And they flew over in the wrong direction. They didn’t go towards the parking lot but rather the other way into the deep snowbanks.”