LACONIA — About 10 people associated with the local New England Wolves junior hockey organization have tested positive for COVID-19, General Manager Andrew Trimble said Friday.
They played a game on Oct. 3 at Merrill Fay Arena that was officiated by a referee who later tested positive for the disease. This was one of eight games he worked in New Hampshire and Maine over a two-day period.
On Thursday, Gov. Chris Sununu announced a two-week closure of activities at indoor ice rinks across the state after hockey activities were associated with a series of outbreaks. Over the last two months, 158 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in connection with the sport in New Hampshire.
Trimble said the team had no cases of the disease before the Oct. 3 game, but also said it’s not proven that the referee was responsible for the outbreak.
“I don’t want to put extra stress on the official or his family,” he said. “This is how he puts food on the table for his family.”
Trimble said team members who tested positive for the disease went into a 10-day isolation period, and those who tested negative were placed in two-week quarantine. In all, about 70 young people were placed either in quarantine or isolation.
The state’s Joint Information Center, which handles COVID-19-related media inquiries, did not provide answers to a series of questions emailed to it on Thursday regarding the Laconia outbreak.
Nobody associated with the team required hospitalization or showed symptoms for longer than two days, Trimble said. On Tuesday, National Guardsmen administered COVID-19 tests outside the arena.
As the players and coaches approached the end of the two-week quarantine period, they were disappointed to learn Thursday they wouldn't be able to use their rink for another two weeks under the governor’s order.
Trimble criticized Sununu's decision and said that maybe the two-week recess could have been avoided if the state had done a better job of planning for or responding to hockey-related outbreaks.
The general manager said the break comes at a bad time for players who relocated here from around the country, are dedicated to the sport, have sacrificed much in order to play competitive hockey and are, in some cases, seeking college scholarships.
Some of the organization’s junior teams attend classes through an academy program that provides tutors and online instruction. None go to local schools.
“Our kids are all here pursuing their passions,” he said. “For the government to step in and say we can’t operate when we’ve had no hospitalizations, 85 percent of the kids have tested negative and we’re adhering to all quarantine rules — is difficult.
“A lot of people put food on the table because of earnings they get from rinks, concessions, managers, referees, trainers, coaches. To turn off the valve for two weeks has huge ramifications.”
He noted that some other states have more stringent requirements in place for hockey operations.
Massachusetts, for example, requires coaches and officials to wear masks. It also prohibits body checking and requires players participating in face-offs to wear facial covering. Masks are also required for players on the bench.
Trimble said he has closely followed the protocols New Hampshire officials have instituted, but he said his dealings with the state Department of Health and Human Services in recent days have been difficult.
“They were very intimidating leading up to the quarantine,” he said. “One of the staff members threatened to shut my business down and take it away from me. That was really eye opening.
“We’ve done everything we can and followed it to the letter of the law.”
In his news conference Thursday, Sununu said the decision for a two-week pause was not arrived at lightly but was necessary to allow sufficient time for testing, for additional safeguards to be put in place and for a deep cleaning of rinks.
Will Fay, manager of the Merrill Fay Arena, said there are already strong cleaning protocols in place.
“We rigorously clean and disinfect on an hourly basis,” he said.
The rink re-opened last month after it was required to be closed earlier in the pandemic.
Re-opening guidance allowed public skating, but it was decided to limit activities at the rink to hockey as a precaution.
Fay said he’s not sure what the state will do now in terms of enhanced protocols for ice rinks.
“They are just using this time to continue investigating why they think rinks are a little bit of a hot spot now,” he said. “We’re doing the same thing on our end. Anything we can do to improve, we want to know.”