USA Hockey Executive Director Explains Effects of COVID-19 on Youth Hockey

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In the midst of the NHL’s suspended season and the global coronavirus pandemic, USA Hockey executive director Pat Kelleher spoke with The Hockey News’ owner and publisher W. Graeme Roustan about how USA Hockey is getting through the COVID-19 situation and the impact of shutting down youth hockey at a time like this.

Graeme Roustan: Today we have Pat Kelleher, the executive director of USA Hockey on with us today for Sports Illustrated and The Hockey News. How are you doing today?

Pat Kelleher: I’m doing all right, Graeme, thank you for having me.

GR: How are your employees and your staff doing during these times?

PK: I think the best part is we have a lot of people that work for USA Hockey that are truly deeply dedicated hockey professionals and passionate hockey people. So they are trying to grind their way through this. We have people in Michigan at our arena and the national team program. We have our national office in Colorado Springs. We have people that work remotely for us across the country regularly. So everyone is trying to stay engaged, connected and we’re trying to find ways to connect with one another and try and connect with our community. We’ve had our hockey department conduct Zoom meetings with coaches and hockey directors. We’re just trying to help people as best we can through this time by finding ways to talk about hockey, which is not easy right now. But our staff is committed, and we’re committed to our staff. We want to try and do a weekend to find our way through this challenging situation, or, as I’ve trademarked in our office this “fluid situation,” and make sure that when we do come back we can get back on the ice.

GR: Some states obviously are more affected right now than others, like the state of New York. Do you find that your team in New York is in need of more attention right now than other states?

PK: I don’t think we have one particular area where people are more in need. Where we are, we try and communicate with everybody and understand that everybody has different challenges. We have different volunteers throughout the U.S. that we do communicate with and some are in different situations for sure. We have coaches and people that participate in youth hockey out there that are frontline healthcare providers. We feel for those people and certainly appreciate all that they’re doing. We’re just trying to connect where we can with people in hockey and maybe give people a little break from some of the things they’re dealing with. Just to try and talk about hockey or engage in hockey in a different way. And I think that goes for kids that play, too. Kids are not in school, they’re not out with their friends. How can they be active at home and shooting pucks or stickhandling? I think that’s important, too.

GR: Has USA Hockey, essentially shut down your programs? When do you think they’ll be up and running again?

PK: Yeah, I wish I had the crystal ball to tell you when we’d be up and running again. That would be fantastic. I think it was back on March 11 when we made the really difficult decision at the time to cancel this year’s national championships. That was really the front end of when everything really picked up. And I remember speaking to Bill Daly from the NHL that day, and we both were like, “things seem to be going a lot faster right now.” And they did. Things happened really quickly. At the front end, it was really agonizing, because you didn’t know what we were going to be dealing with. Our national championships for youth hockey would have started on April 1, and it was March 11. When we made the decision, we had a long, long, difficult discussion and listened to every angle on what we should do and what we could do, but we went with what was the safest decision then, but not an easy decision, to cancel nationals at that time.

Obviously, three weeks later, there would have been no chance to hold nationals. One of the tougher parts is we are a membership organization for youth hockey. And we have kids and families that engage all year long in hockey and love and have a great experience. A select few and their teams are fortunate to qualify to play for a national championship at whatever age level – boys, girls, sled hockey, and all those things run through USA Hockey. To have to cancel that and not finish the season is really difficult. And frankly, it’s difficult for our volunteers and for our staff. I mean, people work for two years at a time to prepare to host a national championship. So that’s just agonizing. For the kids and the families and the coaches and the volunteers who put so much time into trying to get to that end-of-season tournament or national championship, no one wants to have the season finished without the chance to play it out at the end.

GR: What is it that USA Hockey is doing to help them through that disappointment?

PK: It’s hard to do much, frankly. There are a lot of kids and a lot of families. What we’ve tried to do is is is tell them that we understand. My kids all play hockey, I’ve coached hockey and on a volunteer level, I’ve given back because I love the game. It’s important to me and my family, so you just feel for everybody. There’s no fair way to end it. What we’ve tried to do, where we can, is engage with coaches that were going to take teams to national championships. We’ve held webinars and Zoom meetings for them so they can–I don’t know if vent is the right word, but kind of share some frustration. I think one of the best stories that came out of it is that there’s a coach who was going to be going to a national championship tournament with a team for the first time and was just so thrilled. And even on this call, he said, “Hey, can you guys just tell me what the national championships are like? I just don’t know if I’ll get there with a team again, and I just want to know what it was like.” So for us, that’s pretty special. It obviously hurts as well to know that a coach won’t get that experience and his players won’t this year, but, hopefully, they’ll be back next year. For us, it just shows the passion that hockey people have and why our sport is really second to none.

GR: You mentioned talking to Bill Daly. What kind of communication do you normally have with the NHL?

PK: Bill and Gary (Bettman) have both been tremendous to USA Hockey over the years. They both pick up the phone when we call and respond. So we keep in touch. I have spoken to commissioner Bettman a couple times. I speak to Bill once a week just to kind of touch base and see what’s happening from their end. They’ve been wonderful with sharing what they’re working on and where they’re sitting, and we just like to keep them in the loop of what’s going on with us. Obviously, the Women’s World Championship were cancelled for Nova Scotia for the end of March. And then we were supposed to host the men’s U-18 World Championship in our arena in Plymouth. That would have been the last stop on the tour for the NHL scouting community to watch all those draft eligible players. So we keep in communication on that. And then with the men’s World Championship now cancelled, we would have been sending a team to Switzerland that would have been primarily NHL players. So there’s a lot of overlap. I think one of my responsibilities in my role at USA Hockey is to keep Gary and Bill and the NHL informed of what’s happening in our world because there are so many things that overlap. I’m just fortunate that they’re such great partners and willing to engage and talk and really help where they can.

GR: You and I are big proponents and supporters of women’s hockey. What was the message that you gave to the women’s team when they were told that the worlds were cancelled?

PK: I think we just all shared our collected disappointment. It felt so bad. It was a challenging year for women’s hockey. There are a lot of different things happening for our women, and it was just the end of a tough year. We had our team together in August at camp and that was great. And then the Four Nations tournament was cancelled this year because of some situation with the Swedish women and their challenges with the Swedish federation at the time. We had the Rivalry Series with Canada, which was really well done and well received, both in the United States and Canada. For us, that culminated with a United States record crowd watching our women play and beat Canada in overtime in Anaheim, which was just thrilling. I think everyone was excited that, OK, we’re going from here and we’re going to prepare for the championship. We would have had some new players on the roster, and there was a lot of excitement that we had around that team and that group. I think, collectively, everybody is just so disappointed for all of our players, our staff, the support staff, the trainers, the doctors and all the other people that work so hard. And with such excitement to get to the World Championship – to not have that opportunity to play this year was heartbreaking really.

GR: Is there any consideration by USA Hockey and looking into what effect this pandemic might have on participation in the Olympics in 2022 in China?

PK: Safety, first and foremost, is at the center of everything we do, regardless of whether it’s the Olympics or youth hockey or teams that we would send overseas to play in tournaments. I think we obviously want to remain optimistic that we will as a society get through this pandemic. So we’ll be cautious, but I think for our coaches and the people I talk to, we want to hopefully get back to hockey as we know it. International hockey is such a big part of what we all do. Not just us, but Canada, Finland, Sweden, Russia, China. I think all these countries can get back to worrying about competing on the ice and the things that happened during the games and not the things off the ice.

But I think we’ll all have to evaluate, when those times come, how we travel, the tournaments and the precautions we take with medical. We send medical staff with teams, and I think it probably is a new reality that we all have to look at. We’re all going through a really difficult time right now. But hopefully, as a society, we’re doing what we need to do to get through it so that when we do come back out, whenever that may be, and hopefully that’s sooner rather than later, we can get back to hockey the way we know it both domestically and internationally.

GR: How often do you speak to Tom Renney and Hockey Canada and Rene Fasel from the IIHF?

PK: We keep in close contact with Hockey Canada. Tom Renney, Scott Smith and I speak quite a bit. We’re talking about youth hockey, women’s hockey, international men’s and everything in between. So we communicate regularly and really try and bounce ideas off each other. There’s so much cross-border at the youth hockey levels in junior hockey. I’ve spoken to those guys this past week about what we do when we start right up, how we get back in action if one part of our country is able to start before one part of their country. How do those things translate? And what does that mean for players that move back and forth? So we stay in communication. Internationally, I spoke to Rene Fasel about the events that we were hosting for the U-18 teams and potential events there. We keep in touch just to see and try and make sure we all have the best information we can to help each other and get through this.

GR: I’ve known you for, like, 25 years. You’re running an international organization and are dealing with a lot of what leaders in other sports are dealing with. You’re all dealing with the same issues. What is it that you think you have in common with leaders of other organizations, and what’s the message that all of you are putting out there today?

PK: I think we’re trying to do really two things. We all run businesses and here in Colorado Springs, we’re in close proximity to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, and a lot of our fellow national governing bodies are NGBs. So we all have to run businesses to help develop people in our sports. We’re all very cognizant of the business challenges we face. I have spoken to leaders of USA Swimming and Wrestling and Basketball and other sports just to try to bounce ideas off each other of how we can get through this. Ultimately, for USA Hockey, and going back to our history, Graeme, my passion for hockey really is, first and foremost, the grassroots level. What this game does for kids and families and developing people is most important to me. We joke about how hockey teaches you not only to fall down but to get back up. And I really believe in that. And I think, for us, that’s what kind of guides me through this to say, “hey, we are going to get through this. We’re in a time where we’re taking a pause as a society. But as we come back, we want to help drive families to ice rinks across the country because we just know the value of what hockey brings into their lives”. I think that’s really good for our sport. That’s what it is. I know my colleagues and other sports feel the same way about their sport. They’re passionate about it, and they believe in their sports. And I think we all do, and I think that’s what gets us through this. We know we have to deal with the pandemic and we have to deal with the impacts in our business. But at the end of the day, how do we get back to doing what we do to serve the kids and the families and the players and work with the volunteers, all those wonderful people that make up USA Hockey in communities across the United States.

GR: Pat, how are you and your family managing through all this?

PK: Everybody – knock on wood– is safe and healthy so far. We have not really gotten on each other’s nerves too greatly as of yet. I have three kids – an 18-year-old daughter, a 15-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter. My oldest is probably struggling the most, unfortunately. She’s a senior in high school, and we talked about losing some things that she won’t be able to get back. You only get to do that once. My son is a pretty happy-go-lucky kid, and he’s actually been able to get on the golf course a little bit with his buddies, and that that’s probably helped him. My youngest turned 13 last week, while sheltered in place, and she’s probably got the best attitude. I like to say she has a good time all the time no matter where she’s at. For my wife and I, we feel pretty fortunate. My family, I have four brothers and my mom is still around, so we’ve been doing some Kelleher Family Happy Hours, which are pretty entertaining. So we’re just trying to stay connected like everybody else and stay healthy physically and stay healthy emotionally at the same time.

Parts of this Q&A have been edited for clarity.

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