When youth sports resume, will the games have changed forever?

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The COVID-19 lockdown sent shockwaves through London-area minor sports, halting some seasons, threatening others and leaving organizers scrambling. But it’s not just keeping kids off courts, fields and rinks — it’s also altering how we play in ways that may last long after this pandemic fades, Ryan Pyette reports:

When Rick Peters was six, he showed up with a friend at a baseball practice run by the London’s Eager Beaver rookie program.

“The coach asked me if I wanted to play, gave me a registration form and I took it home for my mom,” he recalled. “She signed, but at the end, there was a nominal fee and she told me, ‘I’m sorry, we just can’t afford to do that.’ ”

The next day, he returned the form to the coach and explained his situation. Don’t worry, he was reassured: You’re going to play baseball.

Peters never stopped. Forty years later, he’s president of Eager Beaver and, like the rest of us, trying to navigate the virus crisis.


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Rick Peters is the president of the Eager Beaver Baseball Association in London. (Derek Ruttan/The London Free Press)

There might not be, for the first time in the association’s 66-year history, an opening day.

There are 25,000 soccer players in London and area, and many will not play an organized match this summer.

The 2020-21 hockey season is still a ways off, but it’s no longer on solid ground.

When we went into lockdown two months ago, the goal was to protect the vulnerable and offer hope of a safe and healthy future. But it has also stolen some of the greatest things about being a kid.

Video games are a poor substitute.

“Playing baseball saved me from going down a wrong path,” Peters said. “I was too busy. There was demand on my time. After all these years of coaching, the biggest thing is you’ll be walking through a mall and run into a kid you remember had a runny nose at seven – and now they’re a doctor or lawyer or something.

“People honestly tell you the great impact you had on them. When a kid doesn’t have that in their lives, it’s a pretty big loss.”


(Mike Hensen/The London Free Press)

Carolyn Kirk has watched registration at East London Soccer Club climb to 1,800 players in recent years.

“Our motto is we want every child to play,” the club’s president and longtime organizer said. “We try to make sure financial is never a barrier.”

Her kids all played the game and later officiated. Last year, her grandson started playing at the under-four level.

“He was clutching to mommy and grandma and by the end, he was scoring his first goal,” Kirk said. “It means so much more than just playing a game. The kids will stay with us. We had to build an adult program because the kids grew up and didn’t have anywhere to play and wanted to continue.”


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This week, the club pulled the plug on its 2020 season. The Southwest Optimists had already made the same difficult decision, and more will follow. Any holdouts that try to open up late will find it almost impossible to cobble together a schedule.

“It broke my heart,” Kirk said. “We should’ve already started by now and I wanted to give it a few more weeks. Ultimately, it’ll still end up where I don’t see a soccer season for most. The competitive (leagues) are doing all kinds of Zoom and online training, but house league isn’t really set up for that.

“It left us with nowhere to go.”

All those things we take for granted — travel, carpooling, even battling for a loose ball — do not jibe with social distancing. Pro leagues are inherently taking risks to try to start up again — but how lousy would everyone feel if there was an outbreak caused by 1,000 kids kicking the ball around at a local field on a sunny Saturday morning?

“Our biggest concern is the welfare of our players and families,” Kirk said. “We’re a big club and if you allowed it to come back and with everybody going crazy stuck at home, they will all be out there for the games – so how do you police social distancing? How do you tell four-year-olds to stay away from each other? It was daunting. Best case, we wouldn’t be out there until July, and (when) you get down to it, I couldn’t cancel one section and have other age groups playing.

“If I can’t let the kids play, I can’t let the adults play. It doesn’t work like that.”


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Kevin Gardner is VP of operations for the London Junior Knights minor hockey organization. (Derek Ruttan/The London Free Press)

If a pandemic had limited ice time when Drew Doughty or one of London’s other NHL stars was a child, maybe they’d have wound up playing golf or tennis.

Those are the first sports able to emerge from the COVID-19 lockdown.

“The worst-case scenario is when this is all said and done, kids don’t come back,” said Kevin Gardner, the Jr. Knights vice-president of hockey operations. “The kid that has a future in hockey, their parents say, ‘We’d love to have you play, but I’m six months behind on the mortgage and mom lost her job.’

“All of a sudden, a kid misses a year and might think they have fallen behind too far. Then, they decide not to come back.”

A decade ago, Alison Doherty took a close look at Windsor’s sporting community after a downturn in the auto industry.

“You think minor hockey would be the last to go,” said the Western University professor, whose research interests include management of non-profit and voluntary sport at the community level, “but it really took a big hit. Parents could not afford to put their kids in hockey.

“Now, you’re looking at what it might look like next and will the community sport organizations have the capacity to adjust. You’re going to need sanitizers, maybe masks, and there is talk of fewer kids and coaches on the field or ice or court. This is going to be a big struggle,” she said.

“Now, our numbers are cut in half because families can’t afford it or aren’t interested. Will they come back in droves when it’s over because they’re excited, or have they become quite happy with their bicycles?”


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No one can predict the trickle-down effect of this sports stoppage. Ottawa recently funnelled $72 million to amateur sports to deal with pandemic fallout, but every group still has to cope with the registration numbers and interest in their activity locally.

“The effect will be felt about 15 years from now,” Gardner predicted. “The youngest kids, if they don’t get exposed to the game, they just don’t sign up. If you don’t start, you don’t finish.

“You want kids in organized sports. It teaches them a lot and there is the bonding with friends,” he added. “Some of the pros today, they still talk about their minor hockey days and it what it meant to them.”

It’s a job now and it wasn’t then.

If the new health and safety restrictions take the joy out of the game or fundamentally change the sport, many kids will not stay.


London Whitecaps U17 coach Jeff Cambridge and striker Jamie Lefebvre. (Derek Ruttan/The London Free Press)

Athletic identity and its ties to personal self-worth have mostly been studied at the end of careers or with retirement looming.

But what about the young?

The London Whitecaps under-17 girls soccer club is one of Ontario’s best. They are supposed to be gunning for a national championship this season, if it ever starts. Theirs is a year-round commitment, with scholarships on the horizon.

When this is over, every one of the players will find their way back to the field. Until then, they are trying their best to enhance old bonds and build new ones.

“We have the fitness programs and online drills, but it’s not even close to the same,” coach Jeff Cambridge said. “Our Zoom meetings are more of a social get-together. In one, we had a trivia night with none of the questions about soccer. We do silly things like wear your favourite ugly shirt.


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“Soccer is a full-time gig and you take that away for four months or however long, it’s tough on everyone,” he added.

“The parents tell me they miss going to the soccer field four days a week and seeing everyone. That’s a big part that is missing.”

That social connection piece means everything for kids in the latency stage of development through their elementary and high school years. Every shutdown like this, every education strike or prolonged absence eats away at those critical moments.

“You can run drills or practise online,” said Sarah Leyes, who offers talk, art therapy and play-based counselling and psychotherapy for London-area kids and families, “but you don’t have that face-to-face visceral and sensory experience you get when you’re passing a ball or catching a baseball with a leather glove. Sport is great for building that sense of community that gets created when you’re working towards a common goal.

“They’re playing differently now — online video games, or with siblings, but really missing out on being with their peers.”

When kids aren’t being as active as usual, they’re missing the tactile interactive learning that goes along with developing self-worth in relation to others.

“They try something and see how people react to it — and learn,” Doherty said. “OK, somebody did it that way. Someone went across the monkey bars at the playground. I’ll try to go across, too. We’ve lost that social aspect of learning.


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“We connect through Facetime and Zoom, but the kids tire of that. You’re not sitting beside someone anymore.”

Kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are really struggling right now. Leyes also worries about families who were already facing significant issues — such as poverty or housing — before COVID-19 hit.

“I often compare it to the elective surgeries being postponed,” she said. “Those conditions might get worse and are so ripe for trauma. I’m hearing a lot from parents that children need that physical relief and they do so much better when they’re active.

“Sport is great for getting out those stress hormones.”

If you apply the famous Maslow’s hierarchy of needs — a theory of human motivation typically presented as a pyramid with basic needs at the bottom, rising to self-actualization at the top — to sports, it doesn’t start with winning titles or trophies.

“Ask kids what they miss the most,” Doherty said, “and they’ll say being with friends, getting physically active and pushing themselves.”

That’s the core benefit of sport and physical activity.


Abigail Knowles and her Whitby Wolves teammates celebrate an OT goal that gave them a 2-1 victory and the Atom BB championship at the 30th Annual London Devilettes Tournament this winter. (Derek Ruttan/The London Free Press)

Eager Beaver’s Peters believes the Ontario government, which has started inching the province out of lockdown, will open something up to let kids gather and play this year.

“If it comes to it, we’ll offer free sandlot baseball,” he said. “Show up on a Tuesday and Thursday, I’ll donate jerseys and we’ll have a great time playing organized/unorganized baseball.”


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This isn’t Wimbledon. Minor sport groups lack the means to buy pandemic insurance, so some will emerge from the lockdown in better financial health than others.

“If (Eager Beaver baseball) is cancelled and we have to refund everyone, we worked really hard to have an emergency contingency,” Peters said. “I pay for the jerseys, baseballs and equipment a year in advance. We’re a big family. We subsidize the kids playing ball and haven’t had registration changes in a decade.”

Fundraising will be a challenge for the foreseeable future. East London Soccer, for example, doesn’t keep much surplus and, like many clubs, uniforms and balls have already been bought.

“That’s just money and we’ll figure that out somehow,” Kirk said. “It’s going to be a really difficult summer for us not being at the field, but the way you have to look at it (is) we’re totally ready for 2021. We’ve never been better prepared for a season.”

The club is offering its families incentives to stick with them next year. There won’t be a fee increase, despite expected inflation, and children moving up divisions will still be charged at the 2020 rate.

Hockey associations are committed to keeping families at the rinks, too.

A minor hockey season without tournaments? It’s a possibility. READ IT HERE

“There’s going to be change, no matter what,” Gardner said, “but we all want to see hockey back and kids involved.”

The hockey organizer has a path behind his house. Every night, he sees kids, many in Jr. Knights jackets, zipping up and down on inline skates.

“I don’t think the kids are losing interest,” he said. “They just really want to get back to it and we’re going to find a way to get them back safely.”