Youth hockey teams across the state are returning to the ice for games this weekend despite objections from state health officials concerned about the potential risk of the spread of coronavirus.

Mike Keaney, president of the Maine Amateur Hockey Association, said Friday that games will resume this weekend. The decision comes as all ice rinks in Massachusetts and New Hampshire have been closed after COVID-19 outbreaks in each state were linked to hockey games.

“Our associations have not canceled anything this weekend,” he said. “Most of the games are local, Maine teams playing Maine teams.”

The hockey association – which oversees about 20 organizations from Presque Isle to Biddeford with over 5,000 participants at both the youth and adult level – had called off games the previous two weekends. That shutdown came after Keaney received a letter on Oct. 9 from Jeanne Lambrew, commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, suggesting that there could be consequences if the group fails to follow state Community Sports Guidelines that do not allow for hockey games to be played indoors.

Keaney said the hockey association has established new COVID-19 safety protocols in an effort to ensure that state safety protocols are being followed.

But Jackie Farwell, spokeswoman for the Maine DHHS, said in an email Friday that the state’s Community Sports Guidelines – which classify ice hockey as a moderate risk activity and do not allow for games between two teams to be played indoors – still apply, even with the hockey association’s new guidelines.

“The consequences of playing hockey without such protocols have played out in several other states that are facing outbreaks associated with this type of competition,” she said. “If non-compliance persists and spread of COVID-19 through community sports appears to be occurring, we will change the guidance and will take all reasonable and practicable action to enforce them to protect the health and safety of Maine people.”

Lambrew’s letter and Farwell’s email, however, stopped short of explicitly stating that games cannot be played.

Youth hockey was thrust into the spotlight on Oct. 8 when the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention announced that a referee had tested positive after officiating eight games the previous weekend in Yarmouth, Biddeford and New Hampshire.

Robert Long, communications director for the Maine CDC, said in an email Friday that the “Maine CDC continues to investigate links between at least one player who tested positive and the referee as part of an ongoing investigation.”

Keaney said his association’s COVID-19 safety guidelines were sent out to all hockey organizations across the state this week. Those guidelines include mandates that on-ice officials wear masks and use electronic whistles. Players on the bench must wear masks at all times, as well as players who are taking a face-off. Players may remove their face mask when they get on the ice, but must put it back on as soon as they get off. All players must bring their own water bottles.

In addition, all coaches involved with the Maine Amateur Hockey Association must wear a mask at all times or face a 30-day suspension from all USA Hockey activities. It is recommended that coaches use electronic whistles as well.

Keaney said his group sent its new guidelines to the state for review but had not heard back.

“The state hasn’t given us any guidance as to what we should do,” said Keaney. “They just tell us to refer to the Community Sports Guidelines. But to show our members that we are putting additional emphasis on player and participant safety, that we want to keep them on the ice and safe, these guidelines are a way to make it happen.”

Keaney said recent news out of New Hampshire and Massachusetts has him concerned. New Hampshire closed skating rinks for two weeks on Oct. 16 after 150 COVID-19 cases were reported involving ice hockey. On Thursday, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health shut down ice rinks until Nov. 7 after at least 30 clusters of COVID-19, involving 108 confirmed cases and people from 60 communities, were reported.

Keaney said Maine youth hockey is very different from that in New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

“What I do know is that some of the things going on in those rinks aren’t happening in the state of Maine,” said Keaney. “We’re not having large tournaments involving teams from all over New England. We’re playing within the state. The frustrating part is, if we weren’t playing in Maine, our kids would be going out of state, they would have been exposed in Massachusetts or New Hampshire.

“It concerns me because hockey is getting put in the spotlight. Now I don’t know enough about those incidences to know where they originated but maybe the lack of protocols and maybe not following strict guidelines like we have in the state of Maine led to it.”

Rich Reissfelder, president of Biddeford Ice Arena’s board of directors, said the arena will have a normal schedule of practices and games this weekend.

In addition to the hockey association’s new guidelines, he said, the ice arena has strict guidelines of its own.

“We’ve been open since Aug. 1,” he said. “And the policies we’ve put in place speak for themselves.”

Keaney said other games would be played in Auburn, Augusta and Brewer.

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