EIHL: New Year respite needed to get league back on track after COVID cancellations
Ice hockey heads into a new year mired in COVID isolations and a fixture list that has all but been torn up.
Keeping the Elite League running through December has proved to be hugely challenging as clubs were hit by positive test results, sparking a raft of postponements.
And teams in Scotland and Wales have also had had to work night and day to get their heads round drastic limits on the numbers of spectators allowed rinkside, resulting in further changes.
So, where does the league go from here?
The sport packs a 54-game programme into a tight timescale with little wiggle room - clubs now accept three games in three nights as part and parcel of their operation with other midweek games dropped in as the season progresses.
Opting to stick with a bloated Challenge Cup qualifying process - nine teams spent the whole of October competing just to eliminate one - may come back to haunt them as the league has to be concluded by April 10 to allow time for the play-offs to run ahead of the showcase finals weekend in Nottingham on April 23-24.
Fife Flyers alone have to re-schedule their Christmas schedule - that’s three games against Glasgow Clan and Dundee in total - as well as a road trip to Coventry, and their Challenge Cup quarter-final first leg with Sheffield Steelers.
And the real concern must be if January throws up more COVID issues with teams effectively sidelined every time they report positive test results.
December saw a succession of clubs having to take time out - as one emerged out of COVID protocols, another went in, adding more last minute disruption to the schedules, and making any forward planning almost impossible.
Flyers have not played since December 12.
As it stands they are due to ice against Dundee Stars on Monday - a game that will be watched by just 200 fans rinkside to comply with Scottish Government rules on attendances at indoor events.
That limit is simply not sustainable for teams which, at this time of the year, would confidently be looking at closer to 2000 spectators pouring through the doors.
And sport without fans is a very pale imitation of the real thing.
Hockey rinks generate unique atmospheres which players thrive on. Stripping that away you get the hollow echo of skates gliding on the ice, and pucks battering off the plexi.
The fans rinkside will certainly be glad to be there, but it promises to be a surreal experience.
The omicron variant of COVID is expected to peak by the end of January according to the most recent modelling.
That could mean another month of disruption - albeit on hopefully a diminishing scale - for the sport.
The schedule could perhaps be cut back, and it could scrap what’s left of the Challenge Cup - it wouldn’t be the first cup competition to be jettisoned mid-flow by the sport - in a bid to ease the pressure, but whatever decisions it takes will meet some resistance, and, of course, they remain at the mercy of the pandemic.
Getting ice hockey back up and running after losing the 2020-21 season was crucial to the long-term survival of the sport, as well as rinks and teams.
Keeping it going is proving to be tougher than imagined.
The New Year needs to bring respite for all concerned.