The Founders League, one of New England’s premier prep leagues comprised of 11 teams, mostly in Connecticut, has canceled all interscholastic competition for the 2020-21 winter season, citing lingering concerns over the recent resurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic, the league announced in a statement released on Friday.
In the release, the league cited, “prioritizing community health, safety and well-being” as the reason behind the unanimous decision to call off the winter season.
The decision came just days after New Hampshire, followed by Massachusetts, put a two-week, statewide shutdown on all hockey-related activities following a slew of COVID-19 cluster outbreaks reportedly stemming from the sport. As a result, all indoor ice rinks in both states were ordered to close — most significantly affecting the youth level. Although select rinks in Connecticut have been shut for cleaning, the state, as of Monday, had yet to enact any sort of statewide hockey restrictions.
While there won’t be a champion crowned in the Founders League in 2021, as the governing body is no longer sanctioning league play, some schools are hopeful that hockey can still be played this season with several teams considering “going rogue” and playing outside the league umbrella. But for now, all plans are just conjecture.
“I’m not surprised by anything anymore,” Loomis Chaffee head coach JR Zavisza told New York Hockey Journal on Monday. “I guess it’s foreseeable and it makes sense, but I guess the good news is that it doesn’t mean that teams in the Founders League won’t play games. The frustrating thing about it is that it leaves schools to be able to do whatever they want in some ways — where the Founders League had an opportunity to kind of step in and say, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ Now, it opens the door for there to be divide between schools and what they’re doing. But I don’t know — I feel like that’s going to be good for some schools and not for others.”
The Founders League marks the first prep league in New England to pull the plug on its season thus far, but it’s not out of the question that more could follow soon.
According to Avon Old Farms head coach John Gardner, the program already is actively trying to book games as early as late November at Thanksgiving break, with home-and-homes series to limit exposure and a variety of protocols in place.
“We’re going to play,” Gardner, in his 45th season, said. “There are some prep schools that, I think, legitimately aren’t going to play, and it’s sad, but I think we have a pretty good system. I think our system, knock on wood, has been working really well. We test the kids every week. We test the whole school every week.
“The plan would be pretty simple — test the schools on Wednesday, get the results back in 24 to 36 hours, worst-case scenario 48 hours. (Then), you can play games Friday/Saturday or Saturday/Sunday. That’s what I think is the safest way to do it.”
Prior to the cancellation announcement, Avon has been skating in groups of three, sanitizing its benches and boards between each group, as well as the locker room on a regular basis, Gardner said. Since returning to campus under new regulations meant to curb the spread of the virus, AOF has been “COVID free,” Gardner said.
The main obstacle facing schools looking to piece together non-league sanctioned schedules is how to maintain consistency with testing protocols from team to team.
As for the players, and all involved, for that matter, there’s still a lot of uncertainty on what the future holds for their prep careers, and where they hope to go beyond.
“They kind of just don’t know what it means,” Zavisza said. “I think they’re more interested in that … they see this as a disappointment, for sure, but still optimistic with the fact that it doesn’t say that we can’t play at all. They’re more interested in getting together and playing than anything else. So, while the cancellation is a hit to them, hopefully that doesn’t mean that the season will be canceled as a whole.”
The uncertainty is highest for the older players, who’s time at the prep level is particularly valuable, especially considering the NCAA’s Division 1 in-person recruiting dead period that will stay in effect until at least Jan. 1.
“It sucks,” Gardner, who’s been live streaming a majority of AOF’s scrimmages, added. “I mean, I’m trying to do everything I can for them and I’m sure the other schools are trying to do everything they can for them, too, but the fact that there’s a dead period, it’s really tough for the kids. It’s a tough year to be going to college.”
One way or the other, the message from these schools is clear: They want to play.
“I think all the kids generally want to play for their schools,” Gardner said. “They really want to play. I know kids at Avon want to play for Avon Old Farms. They want to put on the jersey and play. Hopefully we’ll get there, but you never know.”
The New Hampshire shutdown went into effect on Oct. 15 and, according to Gov. Chris Sununu, rinks should be able to open Oct. 29 after thorough cleaning and testing.
In Massachusetts, where college and professional programs were exempted from the public health order, Gov. Charlie Baker announced the restrictions on Oct. 23. Rinks should be able to reopen Nov. 7, barring any spikes in the state linked to the sport.
Liam Flaherty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @_LiamFlaherty.