COVID-19: What the pandemic has meant for local hockey players

J.J. Regan
NBC Sports Washington

Justin Cade was in the midst of what had become his new routine of skating to Thomas Jefferson High School. 

With no ice access and both of his hockey leagues shut down by the coronavirus pandemic, finding a way to continue playing and practicing hockey had become difficult. Jefferson seemed like a good alternative with a lot of unused open space.

But even that option was soon taken away.

Cade, 35, was practicing his stickhandling and shooting by a dumpster at the high school when a security guard arrived.

"I was actually chased out by a security guard [last week] saying that it wasn't a good idea to practice," Cade said. "He told me that it's no problem just to skate through, whatever that means. I assume it just means he doesn't want one person taking up a plot of land."

"He said I could skate around or whatever so apparently I'm not allowed to bring a ball or a puck, but I am allowed to skate on the sidewalk and in the street."

Cade's ability to play with his team on ice had already been taken away. Now he is left with few places he can play even on his own.

"To make it even harder for local players, they are shutting down potential places to practice," Cade said.

The coronavirus pandemic has us all stuck at home which means no hockey, but it's not just the professionals who are being kept off the ice. Though it may not be as easy as picking up a basketball and playing a pickup game or getting a soccer ball and finding the nearest field, a very devoted community of local casual hockey players has grown in the Washington, D.C. area. 

Those players have now found the sport that was their outlet, their release, their passion has been taken away. That leaves a void.

For many, the desire to play hockey grew out of interest in the NHL game.

"I became a hockey fan right around the time the Capitals got [Alex Ovechkin] - as I think a lot of D.C. hockey fans did," said Jason Rogers, a sports reporter for the Washington City Paper who makes frequent appearances on NBC Sports Washington's television coverage of the Capitals.

Growing up in Northern Virginia, ice time was limited until Rogers, 29, moved to Arlington.

"As I moved into Arlington, it became a real possibility that I could get ice time at Kettler, which is now MedStar," Rogers said. "So I just started going probably three years ago and just whether friends or fellow people that I met in the press box or even just Capitals fans that I met, ever since then, [we've] been pretty regularly going to Kettler to skate and to play."

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Cade works as a consultant and grew up in an Atlanta metro area where the NHL has a checkered history with the Flames and Thrashers moving out of town. But his love for the game grew through the grass roots. 

"I grew up in a suburb of Atlanta, which obviously was not the hockey hotbed at the time," Cade said. "At that point the Braves were the star of the show and a lot of folks down there are really into college football. Hockey really wasn't much of a thing. But these kids from New York moved to my neighborhood and they introduced me to hockey."

Cade had seen games on television. He knew all about legends like Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Mario Lemieux. It took his new friends to help really get him into the sport.  

"This one day they asked if I wanted to watch a hockey game and I thought to myself ‘Well sure. Why not? It's probably more fun than playing video games. I get to check out something new.' I was hooked from the second the puck dropped. I just fell in love with it."

The lure of playing hockey is not just limited to younger generations, either. John Ganoe, 67, a non-profit executive, was a long-time hockey fan who was inspired to lace up the skates after overcoming cancer.

"I was very fortunate and I recovered and I just decided I always wanted to play hockey, why not?" Ganoe said. "I went to Kettler, I signed up for learn-to-skate, rented a pair of skates and off I went."

He added: "Every time I go over the boards - old and slow and really not responsive enough as I would like to be on the ice certainly - but every time I go over the boards it's a win for me."

Ganoe was playing in three leagues before the coronavirus pandemic. As one would expect, the time investment is massive, the cost substantial, the ice available at inconvenient hours. But it reflects the level of commitment and how much hockey means to players like Ganoe. 

"Adult league hockey is very often played, particularly in the winter, very late at night," Ganoe said. "With the getting there, the changing, the playing, the getting home again, home at 1 in the morning, all jacked up from playing and up again at 6:30 to go to work, that's a bit of a challenge."

Hockey is just not an easy game to play. But it also means those who do are passionate about the sport. Otherwise the effort needed would scare them away. 

But even with the hockey boom the Washington area has seen since Ovechkin ignited the Capitals' fan base, playing hockey in the traditional sense is just not possible for everyone. It sometimes takes a little creativity.

As a scrum master, managing and organizing people is part of the job for Philip Karash, 34. When he moved from Connecticut to Washington, he quickly became a fan of the Capitals and was interested in playing. He found that a local social sports league offered floor hockey - played on foot - but needed help running it. He soon took it over and has been playing and managing the league ever since.

"I had never really found athletic activities that I super loved to do, but I loved playing hockey," Karash said. "For me, getting out there and doing that was an awesome way to exercise more so I started doing that as often as I could."

Everyone agrees that hockey, on foot or on skates, is great exercise. But there are other ways to get exercise that are easier and cheaper. That hockey can be such a commitment to play means unique communities evolve around the sports and become tight-knit groups. 

"It's not a sport you can just pick up a ball and go shoot on a hoop," Cade said. "I'm not taking a dig at basketball, but it takes a certain level of commitment to play hockey and I really like the passion that you have. Even in a beer league, we're playing for nothing more than a little cheap made-in-China plastic trophy for the championship - let alone something like the Stanley Cup. But you take a lot of pride in lifting that tiny seven-inch piece of plastic over your head if your team wins."

Everyone has a different story on how and when they first got into playing hockey, but every player credits that community and the people they play with as the major reason for why they love playing.

"You go out there, you sweat, you get hurt, you leave it all on the line, you compete against friends, you compete with friends," Rogers said. "There's this communal collaborative aspect of hockey, specifically. It's such a team sport, it's such a culture of the team comes first, sacrifice your body, everybody's hurt, we're all kind of suffering. And I think a lot of people miss that during this quarantine time. They miss that communal feeling. They miss that collaborative feeling. For me especially, that's what I miss about hockey is going out there and sweating and working with your friends and then being able to kind of be in the locker room afterwards and kind of commiserate and all put your arm around one another and I think that's what's really tough about it right now."

Part of the challenge for local players, as it has been for many people, is finding ways to stay active with gyms, ice rinks and sports leagues closed. For many, the coronavirus has robbed them of their primary source of exercise. 

"Let me tell you, if you want to go on something like a wild goose chase just try to buy a kettlebell today," Ganoe said. "Just try. It's just ridiculous."

But when hockey becomes such an important part of a person's life, when it becomes ingrained in who they are, being without it is about more than just losing out on exercise.

Even if they find other ways to stay active at home, it doesn't take long before thoughts drift to hockey again anyway. 

"I finally broke out the roller hockey skates and I have been literally skating around my neighborhood with a hockey stick just doing anything I can to try to simulate the feeling of skating again," Rogers said.

"I've been practicing with a little net and a little knee hockey stick that I like to take shots on a little goalie template," Cade said. "Our cat likes to chase little balls and stuff that I shoot down the hall."

It has now been two months since the pandemic shut down leagues across the region. That's two months without hockey to watch or to play, two months without those team interactions, two months away from those hockey communities that players have come to love. 

"I found myself in the last two weeks especially reaching out to a lot of those people because these are folks that I would see every single week for the last nine years," Karash said. "Not getting to see them, it really stinks. So I've been trying to reach out, text people, see how they're doing."

He's not alone in that thought. It's hard not to look ahead to when those social bonds through hockey can form again.  

"I miss all those people. We've been very good about keeping in touch in the limited ways that we all can right now," Ganoe said. "[But] I miss skating. I miss the physical challenge of skating … and I miss all of that a great deal. And then there's just the element. I miss my routine. I miss that life. I certainly miss the playing, I miss the camaraderie, I miss my teammates, I miss all of that. It's been difficult."

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COVID-19: What the pandemic has meant for local hockey players originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

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