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Newmarket minor hockey volunteers make a difference throughout COVID-19

During Thank a Volunteer Week, the NMHA remembers longtime coach Kirk Kelly, and also gives a shout out all the volunteers whose efforts have allowed the game to continue, in some fashion

There are few things more uplifting than a good old-fashioned hockey game — even in the most difficult of times. For young players struggling with the isolation of COVID-19, having an outlet to distract from the stress of today’s “new normal” can make all the difference.

The volunteer coaches, officials, administrators and parents of the Newmarket Minor Hockey Association (NMHA) know the importance of extracurriculars all too well. From the game’s first shutdown in March 2020 to the opening of the new season in September 2020, NMHA volunteers’ efforts have allowed the game to continue, in some fashion, throughout the pandemic.

Whether this meant inventing new ways to practise during bans on game play, installing equipment so that games could be livestreamed online for family, or finding ways to work around two-meter physical distancing requirements on ice, NMHA volunteers have stepped up, time and time again, to ensure the best experience possible for young players.

“For kids, hockey is a good distraction from everything that’s going on. It’s a distraction from everyday life, and it’s an opportunity to see their friends, who they used to see every day before lockdowns,” said Izak Westgate, vice-president rep alternate at NMHA.

As an administrator and coach with NMHA — and father of four hockey-loving boys himself — Westgate knows the kind of work that goes into organizing hockey in the complex age of COVID-19. Administrators spend “countless hours” reworking numbers, teams and ice time to adjust to ever-changing restrictions, he said, while coaches do their best to make sure kids get on the ice.

Parents, meanwhile, bear the emotional brunt of it all, taking kids to and from practice without being able to enter the arena themselves.

“We’re making sure we do our best to keep things going,” said Westgate. “For example, just this week we had to rework everything from scratch because we lost two of our rinks at Ray Twinney for the vaccination centre. Some associations have even had to shut down because there’s not enough ice.”

To celebrate volunteers that have been the “lifeblood” of minor hockey throughout the pandemic, the Ontario Minor Hockey Association (OMHA) has dedicated its third annual Thank A Volunteer Week to the coaches, officials, administrators, and parents who have kept as many players as possible active and involved in the sport. Through Feb. 22 to 28, outstanding volunteers were highlighted on OMHA’s social media channels.

It’s “so hard” to single out Newmarket Minor Hockey Association volunteers who have gone above and beyond during the pandemic because there’s “so many of them”, said Westgate. Each of the organization’s 200-plus volunteers devoted endless hours of work to make 2020 the best season possible for young players.

Nevertheless, there’s one volunteer NMHA has chosen to honour specially for Thank A Volunteer Week: Kirk Kelly, a 30-year veteran coach and volunteer who passed away in March.

“He was a longtime coach, coach mentor, executive, volunteer, and president. He was everything for hockey,” said Westgate. “We recently named our Coach of the Year award after him —  it’s now the Kirk Kelly Coach of the Year award. If there’s anyone that stands out, Kirk’s the one.”

With York Region back into the red zone and hockey resuming, NMHA volunteers may be able to look forward to slightly smoother sailing.

Regardless of where things go, they’re here to stick around.

“NMHA, like other local associations, doesn’t work without its volunteer base,” said Westgate. “And NMHA has an incredible volunteer base. We’re non-profit, and we’re doing it for the kids.”