Through all the postponements and schedule changes, Rumson-Fair Haven ice hockey coach Eric Zullo has tried to keep reminding his players that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
But just two weeks into the 2021 ice hockey season, that light has moved further and further beyond reach for over a third of New Jersey’s teams – teams that have been affected by COVID-related shutdowns.
In Rumson-Fair Haven’s case, it’s happened multiple times. It first shut its program down after scrimmaging Wall, halting practice and games before the season even started, out of precaution after COVID cases rose at Wall.
Then RFH found itself in a similar situation after it finally played its first game. After tying Manasquan-Point Pleasant Beach Monday, a positive test less than 24 hours later from that co-op has forced Rumson-Fair Haven to shut down again.
Five weeks, three practices and just one game. There’s less than one month left to take advantage of a season that seems to be slipping away on a daily basis.
“You kind of expect it to happen at some point throughout the season,” Zullo said. “But to have it happen twice and within 24 hours of each other is tough. You’re just trying to get them some sort of extracurricular activity then, all of a sudden, you’re shut down again.
“The goal is to fill in as many days as we can and do whatever we can to play as much as we can for the seniors and for the rest of the kids in the program.”
This season has been a struggle just getting on the ice for many of the programs. According to NJSIAA assistant director Jack DuBois, approximately 40 of the 118 programs have been affected by shutdowns over the first two weeks of the regular season.
The overall numbers of programs currently out of action has dwindled, as several teams that were under quarantine to begin the season have returned. But the level has been concerning.
But as long as the NJSIAA hasn’t heard a whistle from the state department of health and health commissioner Judith M. Persichilli, it’s game-on for Garden State hockey.
“We’re only into the second week of the season. We want to give the opportunity for the schools and the student-athletes to play,” DuBois said. “Whether they shut down and have to come back, they basically have another five weeks. We want to give them the opportunity as long as we can. (The department of health has) been trying its best because they realize the benefit of the physical and emotional activity and the psychological aspects of getting the kids to play as best as they can. Whatever the department of health and government says, we would do.
“But If we don’t hear anything, we’re going to plug along.”
Plugging along, however, has already had some consequences.
On Jan. 23, Madison played Mendham with just nine available players after COVID-related concerns on the junior varsity team made the majority of the varsity team unavailable, according to a school official familiar with the circumstances who is not authorized to speak about them publicly.
Days later, both teams were forced to shut down.
That scenario has only increased the frustration felt over the last 14 days.
“It’s out of our hands and that’s what I’ve tried to reiterate to our kids,” Zullo said. “We can only control so much within our means. We can control when we’re in session and making sure we’re not going to public gatherings and things like that.
“But at this point it’s out of our control. We have to learn to live with it. It’s a life lesson and it’s tough one but at some point in life you’re going to face adversity.”