Power play: Student hockey players hit the ice to cool off from pandemic

Players+on+AAA+U16+Team+Illinois%2C+including+Latin+junior+Jacob+Pohl%2C+gather+together+for+a+group+photo+after+winning+the+CCM+World+Invite+Detroit+Oct.+16-18.+

Photo provided by Jacob Pohl

Players on AAA U16 Team Illinois, including Latin junior Jacob Pohl, gather together for a group photo after winning the CCM World Invite Detroit Oct. 16-18.

Grace Holleb, Features Editor

Stepping onto freshly resurfaced ice rinks, wearing jerseys and skates, with sticks in hand, Chicago youth hockey players now look up into the stands with few spectators compared to past seasons. They travel to other states more than usual to comply with Illinois regulations. Even so, the players are grateful to have the escape of their seasons, although the games and practices look different this year. They are thankful to be competing.

For U-High sophomore Kunal Gangwani and Latin School of Chicago junior Jacob Pohl, the dedication of their club or team has allowed their elite hockey seasons to be underway and run as smoothly as possible under state restrictions and regulations. To them, the ice rink has become an escape from the craziness of the outside world of the pandemic. 

Kunal switched from playing for a Chicago-based team to a Wisconsin-based team, the AAA U15 Green Bay Junior Gamblers, this year. With school via distance learning, he spends most of his time in Wisconsin but travels to games and tournaments almost every weekend. 

“One of the benefits of playing in Wisconsin this year is that because of [Illinois] rules and regulations we can’t play many real games in state,” Kunal said. “There aren’t many regulated games in Illinois right now.”

Kunal has learned to take this season day by day and although he may not agree with all of the pandemic regulations, he abides by the rules. 

“I just gotta go with the flow,” Kunal said. “It kind of sucks that things have to be difficult because it’s a little frustrating. People don’t really think that a lot of the rules make a ton of sense, that they’re just there to be there, but you just have to kind of deal with it, at least you’re getting to play when a lot of people aren’t.”

I just gotta go with the flow. It kind of sucks that things have to be difficult because it’s a little frustrating. People don’t really think that a lot of the rules make a ton of sense, that they’re just there to be there, but you just have to kind of deal with it, at least you’re getting to play when a lot of people aren’t.”

— Kunal Gangwani

“It kind of sucks that things have to be difficult because it’s a little frustrating. People don’t really think that a lot of the rules make a ton of sense, that they’re just there to be there, but you just have to kind of deal with it, at least you’re getting to play when a lot of people aren’t.”

Jacob’s team, AAA U16 Team Illinois, took a long break from practicing before and after Christmas, but players have since been practicing every day, watching film and having weekly games. Although he is still competing, he cannot bring others outside of his family to games because of the “one spectator per person” mandate at most games. 

“At the beginning of the year we weren’t allowed to have any fans, and even before COVID, it was usually only parents that came to our games,” Jacob said. “It definitely affects my play as well as my teammates just to know that you have people supporting you and your friends and family at your games.”

According to Jacob, Team Illinois has done a great job getting as many games as possible scheduled while also following pandemic guidelines and mitigation efforts. Especially inside the rink, coaches are trying their best to be safe and to ensure each player’s hockey experience is as good as possible.

Jacob has noticed his mindset and motivation differing to previous seasons.

  “It’s a lot harder to switch your mindset from sitting down all day in your room doing homework and online school, and then traveling, for me 50 minutes, to practice,” Jacob said. “It’s difficult to switch that mindset from school to hockey when you’re sitting around all day and not active.”

For Kunal, in a year when there are so many uncertainties, hockey is reliable.

“It’s the only thing that’s kind of consistent — just going to practice every week and weekends games,” Kunal said. “I think that relative to other sports and to what even other hockey teams and programs are doing, I’m just pretty grateful for what we’re still able to do.”  

According to Jacob, some of the best parts about playing hockey are separating yourself from all of your problems outside of the rink and focusing on having fun at practice and games, being with your team and having fun together. 

“I would 100% say it’s an escape from everything right now,” Jacob said. “When you’re on the ice you know you’re just with the guys and you don’t have to worry about COVID or school or anything. Your mind is just on competing and playing hard against your competitors.”