When the coronavirus pandemic first started making its way into Alaska in March 2020, John Stenehjem found himself away from home in Seattle.
The general manager of the Royal Ice Center & O’Malley Sports Center in Anchorage happened to be at a local hockey rink in Washington state that was completely shut down.
“What I keyed on there was the importance of communication,” Stenehjem said. “Folks just knew the buildings were closed down, they knew the leagues were shut down, but they didn’t have any clue if they were getting a refund. Nobody could predict how long some of these closures were going to be. So, it was important when I started doing things here with this building that we made sure that we communicated with our user group.”
Direct and frequent communication with hockey players at the Royal Ice Center & O’Malley Sports Center was a major reason why Stenehjem and his staff succeeded during the most difficult months of the pandemic. All the skaters who wanted to play knew exactly what was going on with local guidelines with the rink, all because of Stenehjem’s hands-on approach.
“I think it’s important to at least reach out on a weekly or bi-weekly basis and let them know what you know,” Stenehjem said. “For me, it stopped a lot of them from calling thinking I had some sort of secret connection with the municipal authorities and when shutdowns were coming. It’s like, ‘Here’s what I know. I don’t know any more than the rest of you, folks.’”
Stenehjem’s best method in keeping the players in the know was by sending email blasts to team captains. Any change made at the local level that was going to affect the Royal Ice Center & O’Malley Sports Center was conveyed to the hockey-hungry players.
“Last season, it was touch-and-go at times,” Stenehjem said. “With the pandemic concerns and then, of course, the mandates that were coming out by local authorities really put a pinch on the ability to try and play the game of hockey for a while.
“That being said, we’re off to a very promising start for this season. We were kind of able to hold our own for the most part through the COVID period.”
Adults roll with the punches
The Royal Ice Center & O’Malley Sports Center runs the largest league for adults in all of Alaska.
The Royal Adult Hockey League (RAHL) — which started in 2000 — consists of over 1,500 players, all passionate about the sport. The regular house league has six men’s and coed divisions and one women-only division.
The players in the adult league had to remain flexible when COVID shut down the rink for the first time from mid-March through May 2020.
Stenehjem reopened the rink in June with a modified and a heavily scrutinized cleaning regimen. Only 20 players at a time were allowed on the ice at once and no parents and spectators could be in the rink. Adults and youth alike had to dress at home prior to jumping on the ice because locker rooms were closed.
Because local guidelines restricted how many people could be on the ice at once, the rink staff decided to divide the ice sheets in half where 10 players could compete on a half sheet for a half hour. Adult players were given weekly ice times to help their health and wellness.
“We were able to roll with the changes,” Stenehjem said. “The municipalities said no more than 20 bodies on the sheet of ice and no games of opposing teams — we turned it into a practice league. Most of my teams came out. They all had less than 20 on their rosters. They would find an extra goalie and they would come out and play scrimmages just as adult practices.”
That routine worked pretty well throughout the summer.
In late July/early August 2020, local mandates were eased a little bit, opening up more opportunities for hockey players.
“We were able to get a good start to the adult season and in a lot of cases, we still had a good number of teams,” said Stenehjem, who has been managing the adult league for 18 years. “I think our numbers speak for themselves in the number of participants we had last year.”
In November 2020, another shutdown happened and the rink was limited in its participation numbers.
“The other caveat was they required that anybody participating in ice hockey wear a mask both on and off the ice,” Stenehjem said. “I had a thousand people out skating around wearing masks for a couple of months. They were resistant, but they were compliant. That included, I represented about 70 or 80 guys that are over the age of 65, most of them in their 70s and some as old as early 80s. Those guys were all out learning how to skate with a mask on, because they love the sport so much.”
When things opened back up in early February this year, the league resumed its season where it left off.
Stenehjem feels like things are getting back to normal at the rink and with the RAHL. The rink is continuing to clean its facility just as thoroughly each day as it did during the worst times of the pandemic.
The rink invested in ultraviolet disinfecting light that gets brought around the facility each night until all the public areas get cleaned. The rink also utilizes electrostatic foggers to sanitize player benches.
The fall season for the RAHL gets underway on Sept. 7, and players couldn’t be more enthusiastic.
Stenehjem is feeling like the worst of the pandemic is behind them in Anchorage. But he still wants to communicate to the players and make sure they feel safe — just like during the heart of the pandemic — every time they come to the rink.
“We wanted to make the facility available to anybody who was comfortable enough to continue playing the game given the climate at the time,” Stenehjem said. “So, we put in a pretty rigid cleaning protocol through all of the changes during COVID. We didn’t want to put any pressure on anybody. If you don’t feel like skating, we will make a resolution that you get your money’s worth for what you invested. If you choose to step away, we welcome you back just as soon as you’re comfortable. We’ll do everything we can to keep the building comfortable.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.