Hip pads. Check.
That is a requirement as well this winter for high school hockey players — along with their basketball counterparts — as part of Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz’s recent executive order allowing youth competition to resume. Winter prep sports kick off Thursday.
For some it’s been a difficult adjustment, while for others it’s business as usual.
“Honestly, the first couple days have been pretty tough breathing, keeping those masks on and doing all those drills and trying to get in shape before the first game,” Hermantown senior hockey forward Aaron Pionk said. “But we’re going to do what we can and hope we get this all figured out sooner than later.”
Pionk’s coach, Pat Andrews, says masks aren’t going anywhere, so players need to adjust.
“It’s been difficult and there are times when they are hurting for air, but we want to be diligent about them keeping them on,” Andrews said, “One, because of COVID, but also because if you have to play with it then we need to practice with it.”
The same rules have been mandatory for months in Wisconsin and Michigan. Moose Lake-Willow River boys basketball coach Wes Cummins says he talked to coaches from both states to gauge where players stand.
“They all say the kids just get used to it and it hasn’t been as big of a deal as they thought it would be,” Cummins said. “We have a zero tolerance rule. I told the kids from day one that I don’t want to hear anything about your mask because eventually they will stop thinking about it. We’ve gone a week with only one kid complaining about their mask.”
Cummins does play a 10-man rotation and has enough depth in case players get winded more while wearing a mask or due to a lack of conditioning from enduring a youth sports shutdown for several months.
“It’s definitely different,” Rebels senior Brady Watrin said. “After the first week, I’ve personally gotten used to it. It is what it is and we have to deal with it.”
That’s the opinion most often heard by Mike Gogolin, an Essentia Health athletic training supervisor and athletic trainer at Superior High School, where they began masking on a districtwide policy for outdoor sports in the fall.
“The overriding fact is the kids, other than the initial, ‘Oh, man, we have to do this?’ have been fine with it,” Gogolin said. “They just want to play. Whatever the requirements are, they’re willing to do that.”
That’s not the thinking of officials for Let Them Play MN, a grassroots organization of parents, coaches, referees and athletes, who announced they have filed a lawsuit against Walz and other state agencies seeking to repeal the governor’s executive orders, including the mask mandate.
The lawsuit states Walz and the Minnesota Department of Health have refused to show their data and have singled out youth athletes for unnecessary restrictions, a move they claim is unfair and constitutionally illegal.
“We have repeatedly asked Gov. Walz and MDH to show us any data indicating wearing masks while playing youth sports, or any other of their constantly changing restrictions are necessary, or even safe. In response, the Walz administration flatly asserts they don’t owe us or even a federal judge any explanation for their actions,” Let Them Play’s attorney, Sam Diehl, said in a statement. “Whatever they think about us or even the courts, you would think Gov. Walz would value Minnesota’s kids enough to simply explain why he has taken so much away? Our youth athletes — and all Minnesotans — deserve better.”
On Wednesday, Let Them Play released results of a recent survey conducted primarily of parents of prep athletes, that found 84% of the 2,500-plus respondents reported having shortness of breath, while 48% of student-athletes said they experienced dizziness and 11 needed to seek emergency medical care.
“The results of this survey speak for themselves. Mandatory mask requirements during competition are dangerous,” Let Them Play founder Dawn Gillman said. “We don’t want another kid to pass out, or worse, at a practice. We call on Gov. Walz to stop harming our athletes and end the mask mandate for youth sports.”
Gogolin says there isn’t much scientific data on the subject since it is so new, but he has read up on O2 saturation tests and how it might affect people’s blood saturation in regard to oxygen levels.
“Does (wearing masks) give you the perceived feeling of working harder? Yes, absolutely," Gogolin said. "What people may be worried about is that if these people have underlying breathing conditions or respiratory issues that make it more difficult to breathe, will it cause problems? It could but in the pre-participation exams that athletes do in order to play sports, those underlying conditions should have been found anyway.”
Masks or not, conditioning was high on coaches’ list heading into the delayed winter season.
“Fitness is a bit of a concern being a consequence of the lockdown,” Duluth Denfeld boys basketball coach Mike Devney said. “We are doing our best with the COVID-19 protocols but sometimes it is like herding kittens. Kids have had no access to the facilities so getting into playing shape will be a process.”
With vaccinations for school-age children still far off and no mandatory testing or a bubble-like atmosphere such as the NBA and NHL used for their playoffs available, coaches are encouraging players to adhere to standard protocols like social distancing.
“Given that we don’t have a lot of power to flex at the high school level, we’re just encouraging our players to keep their social circles extremely tight,” Cloquet boys basketball coach Steve Battaglia said. “Less interaction means less risk. We’re fortunate to have a chance at a season — let’s make sure we treat it as a golden opportunity.”
Wrestlers and swimmers in Minnesota are exempt from wearing masks, though it is mandated for wrestlers in Wisconsin.
In Alpine and Nordic skiing, participants should be masked at all times until they are in the start, and should put a mask on immediately after finishing the course.
Whether it will have an impact on play is uncertain, though it may not take long to find out since games begin around the state Thursday.
The only noted rule change is that 30-second timeouts have been eliminated in basketball, giving players a full minute to recover.
“We have no idea how it will impact play,” Duluth East boys coach Rhett McDonald said last week. “Do we need to be deeper? Do we need to take more timeouts? How does it impact practice? We’re still trying to figure that out.”
Bench areas will look different, locker rooms won’t be used in most instances and transportation has been curtailed at many schools.
And masks will be ever-present, both in the venues and on the athletes’ faces on the court and on the ice.
“You need to be able to live your life, but need to be cognizant of the choices you are making and what some of those ramifications can be,” Nashwauk-Keewatin boys basketball coach Kyle Giorgi said. “We’re trying to hold our guys accountable with wearing masks and remaining socially distant. It may just end up being luck in the end, but we’re just trying to do our part.”
This article was edited at 4:50 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 15 to include information about masks in Alpine and Nordic skiing. It was originally posted at 7:46 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 13.