Fife Flyers: Six key challenges facing the club as it looks to emerge from lockdown
Coming out of lockdown was always going to be much harder than shutting everything down.
But the extent of the challenge is only now beginning to become apparent, particularly for those operating indoor events.
In theory, Fife Flyers will hit the ice in around 75 days, hopefully in front of a full house at Fife Ice Arena.
The club’s statement confirming their participation in the 2021-22 EIHL season was broadbrush in its approach. The devil lies in the detail - and much of it remains shrouded in uncertainty.
The season is scheduled to start on the weekend of September 25-26, and run right through until the end of April 2022, but those first few steps back will be the most challenging.
The key challenges facing Flyers are:
Restrictions: The next Scottish Government update on restrictions for indoor events isn’t until August 9.
That gives them circa six weeks to digest, adapt and implement; a potentially huge piece of work for a club with minimal off-ice resources and almost all of them voluntary.
The best case scenario is all restrictions are lifted, and fans return en masse, but the lack of clarity throws up so many factors outwith the club, and the sport’s direct control.
The fact OnFife, which runs Fife’s major theatres, has already cancelled plans for a full autumn programme ought to ring some alarm bells.
And, even if sport gets the go-ahead to open its doors and fill every single seat, will fans have the confidence to return?
Lockdown has changed our behaviours beyond recognition, and there is clear hesitancy among many to being in close quarters to big groups once more.
Would someone in their 60s, for example, be happy sitting next to a young fan yelling, shouting and singing right next to them?
Fans with facemasks? It may be strange and uncomfortable, but it may be the reality for some time to come.
That opens up a huge debate on how such a requirement would be stewarded - and that’s before you even get to people saying they are exempt.
The team: A dressing-room is a breeding ground for all manner of bugs - so how do you make it COVID-secure to keep players safe?
Continual testing will be key, and the mini-series which ran down south earlier this year proved it is possible to operate without any cases arising, but that will require clear protocols with strict adherence.
Access to the room will also have to be limited to key personnel only, and that could mean more barriers, and more management.
By way of one example, at one senior football match this week, the media have been asked to take lateral flow tests as part of the accreditation process because they mingle with players and coaches at post-game briefings.
The barriers between players and fans may be even tighter as dressing-rooms - a place supporters throng after matches - become complete no-go zones.
That interaction has been key to building bonds between the two. Things may be very different post-COVID.
Road trips: Boris Johnson may well be counting down to Freedom Day in England where masks can be dumped and life returns to normal, but in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, things are much more cautious, and there is speculation the August 9 briefing won’t deliver a tartan version of ‘freedom day.’
The EIHL is in dialogue with all four for league-wide protocols as it faces the challenge of sending teams across all four home nations every single weekend.
Any ultra localised restrictions following a spikes in cases could have a major impact on teams and their schedules.
Outbreaks/interruptions: What happens if the rink is linked to a COVID cluster?That would impact directly on Flyers’ training and games, and the ripples would be felt across all users - curling, junior hockey and public skating.
And what happens if positive cases are linked directly to a Flyers’ game?
The scope to reschedule is limited. Could games end up being forfeited if they cannot be played?
The worst case scenarios have to be considered.
Players isolating: The club will need clear protocols in the event of a player having to self isolate, and miss games.
Worst case scenario could be a handful having to stay away from the rink, and out of the line-up.
The direct impact on the team’s performance, its momentum, and its hopes of challenging could easily be de-railed or, at best, hit with a curve ball.
Testing will be absolutely key to checking players’ health on a near daily basis.
Match nights: How do fans get into the rink safely, and how will they be managed around the 83-year old venue which can be cramped at the best of times?
Will it mean a one-way system?Will fans be allowed to move around without wearing masks?
How will exits be managed when there are pinch points as everyone leaves?
A huge amount of work went into this to get the rink open for public skating last summer - but now it needs to be fit to handle much bigger numbers, not to mention rival fans.
For a club like Flyers, run on a shoestring, this will be a pre-season like no other, but the desire to drop the puck and signal the return of a sport at the heart of this community is strong.
Opening night could be a remarkable moment for all, but the planning which will have to go into staging that spectacle will be greater than ever - and all of it is wholly unchartered territory.