When Steve Bellemore took over as president of the Manchester Flames in April of this year, his New Hampshire club was right in the thick of the coronavirus pandemic that was sweeping across the country.
Bellemore had been serving as vice president in charge of tryouts when the shutdown took effect last March. Fortunately, most of the travel teams had finished the playoffs, and players lucky enough to return for the upcoming season were put in a draft.
“We brought six coaches down and a couple board members, sat at someone’s kitchen table and went around the room,” explained Bellemore, who grew up playing hockey in nearby Nashua. “It was unfortunate, but it kept our teams full.”
Established over 50 years ago, the Flames are the largest hockey program in New Hampshire. The club has approximately 500 players between rec and travel teams. They have several co-ed squads, and work with the New England Wildcats, another girls’ program in the area. Bellemore has served as a Flames coach and board member the past 10 years. His son and daughter both played for the club, and he coached their travel teams.
Since the Flames lease their rink space, they were required to follow city guidelines that closed nonessential facilities. Bellemore and the board worked feverishly through the summer to come up with plans and protocols for handling the situation.
“Truthfully, there wasn’t a lot we could really do until we knew how this was going to pan out,” Bellemore explained. “In July at our board meeting, we realized we were going to start again in early August. We needed to pull the trigger on some of these items.”
The Flames invested in fogging machines, one-way signs, temperature testing guns, and hand sanitizer. They also formulated contingency plans on scheduling. When a local college decided not to use their rink, they offered it to the Flames to hold practices. It was quite a juggling act to coordinate workouts and skill development sessions around each family’s schedule, but the club found a way to make it work.
“We had to cram our schedule into a smaller version to make sure all our teams got practice times,” Bellemore said.
Most of the program’s guidelines were standard across all age groups, with one exception. Players from 14U through 18U were permitted to dress inside the rink. Younger players were asked to put on their equipment at home.
The measures and decisive action taken by the Flames garnered attention across the state, and not just within hockey circles. New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu had high praise for the club and its example of safely returning.
“He used a lot of our guidelines between the city of Manchester and our organization,” Bellemore explained. “He said many times that we’ve been one of the best around, that we’ve taken it to the next level to make sure we’re doing the right thing. He was very impressed by how we stepped up.”
After an increase of COVID cases throughout the state in mid-October, Sununu ordered another ban on statewide athletic activities, including hockey. The ban was lifted two weeks later, and the season resumed.
The Flames’ success wouldn’t have been possible without the cooperation of board members, coaches, players and their families. Jeff Stavenger, who coaches his son’s 10U team, couldn’t have been prouder of the way his players have handled the emotional roller coaster ride of the past few months.
“I have a special group of kids that I will always praise for being a phenomenal group,” said Stavenger, who played for the Flames and serves on the board. “When we came back at the beginning of the season, we had a lot of new rules and protocols. For a group of 8- and 9-year-olds, they did a phenomenal job of embracing wearing masks in the locker room, getting dressed at home, staying distanced as much as possible when not on the ice.”
Bellemore believes this experience has made the program stronger.
“I think families have gotten closer,” he said. “There is some camaraderie, and everybody’s in this together. We all just want to play hockey and stay healthy.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.