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Winter games open with masks and sighs of relief to be back

By DAVID LA VAQUE, Star Tribune, 01/15/21, 9:45AM CST


Parking lots replaced locker rooms but after a six-week delay, more than 400 hockey and basketball teams finally got to play.

Benilde-St. Margaret's players rested in a makeshift locker room area with social distancing in the arena after the first period. Photos: LEILA NAVIDI • leila.navidi@startribune.com

Beneath gentle snowflakes falling on a mild mid-January night, the boys’ hockey players from Benilde-St. Margaret’s changed out of their gear in the St. Louis Park Rec Center parking lot, an odd setting made necessary by the coronavirus pandemic.

For thousands of high school athletes, Thursday meant game on for the first time since Nov. 20. That’s when football’s truncated section playoffs ended and the volleyball season shut down early as COVID-19 cases spiked amid widespread community transmission of the virus.

“We’ve been waiting so long for this opportunity,” said Red Knights senior forward Jackson Bisson, who tallied three assists in his team’s 7-2 victory against St. Michael-Albertville. “I felt like our team was shot out of a cannon tonight.”

Winter sports were postponed six weeks by the Minnesota Health Department and Gov. Tim Walz. Cleared to practice Jan. 4 and finally play Thursday, hockey and basketball players throughout Minnesota were set to take part in more than a combined 250 games.

Thursday’s games signaled the start of a sprint through regular seasons shortened by the delay in getting started. They also came with two key differences from the fall: Players were required to wear masks while they played. And in gyms and ice arenas, crowds were limited to 150 people, tighter restrictions than those that governed the fall.

Adam Marshall, center facing camera, celebrated with Benilde-St. Margaret's teammates after scoring a goal.

Livestreaming became a popular option because of limited venue capacities. The MNHockey.tv livestream carrying the Benilde-St. Margaret’s game suffered what managing partner Peter Waggoner called a “total system crash” because of higher-than-anticipated viewership.

Waggoner said more than 10,000 viewers, traffic 10 to 15 times higher than normal, were attempting to watch about 40 games involving boys’ and girls’ high school hockey and basketball teams as well as youth hockey games.

“I knew we’d do well but I didn’t think we’d do that well,” said Waggoner, who said MNHockey.tv has cameras in buildings stretching from Edina to Woodbury and Owatonna to Roseau.

The livestream was back to normal later in the evening.

Other new norms took some adjusting as well.
The Rec Center’s concession stand wasn’t open. Such areas for food and beverage sales are allowed but not encouraged.

After the junior varsity game, each team sat in chairs spread apart outside the locker room area to take off and bag their gear.

Before the varsity game, Benilde-St. Margaret’s entire varsity roster stood spread apart on the ice for the introduction of starters and the National Anthem.

“This was the special COVID-19 format,” Pauly said. “Nothing is going to be perfect but let’s do what we can to lessen the chances.”

Caution led the health department to require face coverings to be worn by players during the game. Athletes may consider alternatives to masks/face coverings that are specifically designed by helmet manufacturers.

“I thought I’d hear more complaining than I did,” Pauly said. “I heard a couple guys say they had a little bit of a tough time with breathing. But you get used to it and work with it.”

While most hockey and basketball teams will play seven fewer games than in a normal regular season, potential state tournaments provide ample motivation for teams to follow rules and extend seasons a bit further. Both girls’ and boys’ basketball teams never got to complete their seasons when the pandemic hit last March.

“We want to finish our 18 games and have playoffs,” said Bisson, whose team fell in overtime of the section championship game. “We need to do everything we’re supposed to do.''

Fans, masked and socially distanced, watched the game between St. Michael-Albertville and Benilde-St. Margaret's during the third period. Photo: LEILA NAVIDI • leila.navidi@startribune.com

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