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Across New England, rinks are getting shut down by coronavirus clusters

Two players arrived for a woman's hockey league game Friday morning at Veterans Memorial Skating Rink in Waltham.
Two players arrived for a woman's hockey league game Friday morning at Veterans Memorial Skating Rink in Waltham.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

As the associate chief of the emergency department at St. Vincent Hospital, Ryan Friedberg knows all too well the stakes involved with a virus that, to date, has infected nearly 150,000 people in Massachusetts.

But he is also a hockey dad, and when he learned this week that the state’s Department of Health was ordering all ice rinks to close for the next two weeks after state officials had tied more than 100 COVID-19 cases to organized hockey, he — like many others in a region where the sport is a cherished tradition — was less than thrilled.

“To me, it’s all about being consistent,” said Friedberg, who argues that the statewide infection rate is significantly higher than the infection rate within youth hockey. “If you start picking and choosing what you’re going to shut down and what you’re not, then there better be some science behind it.”

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Across New England, rinks have shut down as coronavirus cases surge. Last week, New Hampshire officials closed rinks for 14 days after 158 people associated with hockey tested positive in a two-month stretch. In Maine, the Amateur Hockey Association suspended games temporarily after the state’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention said it was investigating a case in which a hockey referee might have exposed more than 400 people to the virus.

But in hockey-hungry Massachusetts, where tens of thousands annually take part in the sport, families on Friday greeted the news with a keen sense of frustration. On Friday, COVID cases in the state jumped by 968 to 144,895 and the statewide death toll climbed to 9,608.

Some denounced the state’s decision as an overreaction for what they deemed a relatively small number of hockey-related cases cited by state officials — 108. Others said it was unfairly targeting hockey when outbreaks have occurred across a number of sports.

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“I don’t see throwing a blanket over the whole entire program as being the right answer,” said Chuck Vinciulla of Waltham, who coaches his 11-year-old son and often spends seven days a week at an ice rink.

“You’re taking that low number and saying it’s everybody that needs to stop, when it could be some small, isolated incidents that are occurring. Why do they have to pull the rug out from underneath the whole sport?”

Since the sport began picking up again in late August and September, the vast majority of teams and rinks have been dutifully adhering to suggested guidelines and protocols in an effort to keep things safe, many associated with the sport said.

At many rinks, family members haven’t been allowed inside to watch games. Players couldn’t enter the facility until just before game time, and their temperatures were taken upon arrival.

According to Vinciulla, a player on the team he coaches who had been exposed at school to someone who tested positive for the virus was held out of hockey for two weeks — despite testing negative — from an abundance of caution.

“Some of it was a little over the top,” Vinciulla said. “But that’s OK, because we’re trying to keep our kids and everyone safe and healthy.”

But not everyone has been so stringent — and the spread of the virus, some suggested, has likely been exacerbated by inconsistent rink policies and protocols.

“The problem is that you play hockey the next day in a different rink, in a different town, and it’s like there’s no pandemic happening,” said Julie Pryor of West Newton, whose 13-year-old son has been playing hockey since the age of 3. “Anybody can go in, nobody’s enforcing the rules. It’s a joke.”

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Kevin Kavanagh, executive director of Massachusetts Hockey, said he understands the disappointment of players and their families. The vast majority of them have taken protocols seriously, he said.

“There’s a lot of good that comes from playing ice hockey, and sports in general, and when that’s taken away from somebody who’s had that ability, it’s frustrating,” he said. “But we have an opportunity to reset and move forward, and that’s what we all expect to have happen.”

Jamie O’Leary, assistant general manager of the New England Sports Center in Marlborough, said it was too early to tell how the two-week shutdown might affect business at the largest ice facility in New England. It has eight full-size rinks and two others, according to its website.

“There’s a lot of moving parts out there‚ but we’re just going to follow the guidelines given to us by the state,” O’Leary said. “We can only control what we can control.”

On Friday, most hockey parents and organizers remained hopeful the hiatus would be short-lived.

For now, rinks in the state will be allowed to reopen on Nov. 7. But with cases across the state rising rapidly — and a growing number of cases being tied to the sport nationally — a lengthier hiatus is also a possibility.

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Just last week, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report identifying ice hockey as a high-risk activity and cautioning that the nature of the sport — played indoors and with close physical contact — could be conducive to so-called super-spreader events.

“Even if every player and coach and ref at every rink was following these rules that the state put forth," said Pryor, “this virus was going to find a way in.”


Dugan Arnett can be reached at dugan.arnett@globe.com.