Sports Fight the Coronavirus, Too

By Grace Heidinger  

Social distancing and self-quarantine have become the new normal for people across the world as a result of the Coronavirus outbreak. Surrounded by uncertainty, people are filled with mixed emotions about what the future holds for all aspects of life, including sports. Once COVID-19 began to rapidly spread across the country, it was only a matter of time that the sports world was going to experience symptoms of the virus, too. Due to the global pandemic, the sports world has been on pause more than a month and people are wondering what the future holds for sports.   

Sports are a big part of the culture in the city of Buffalo, even if the Buffalo sports teams are not always winning. Former Buffalo Beaut Hayley Williams does not forget her Buffalo roots after moving to Russia to continue her hockey career. She recently decided to start coaching online hockey training through Zoom for girls in Buffalo.

Williams meets with players live online Monday through Friday and if a player was unable to make the session because of school or other obligations, they receive a recording so they can follow along later in the day.

“It is very rewarding for me to still work with these players even in these tough times,” she said.

While Williams works a lot on stickhandling, mobility, stability and strength, she doesn’t stop there. In addition to her online coaching, she also designed offseason training programs for hockey plays and for her own offseason training.

“All in all, I’m staying very busy and involved in hockey, even if I can’t go to the rink,” she said.

Through training programs, athletes are still able to train during this time in preparation for the next time they will be able to put a jersey on and play a game. But for some high schoolers, the last time they put on their jersey or played a game on their home field would be their final time. High school senior Ariana Nieves had her final year of high school sports and senior year at Buffalo Seminary cut short due to the virus.

“It has definitely affected my senior year as a whole because I am not able to have that bond with my teammates, have a senior night, or final practices with my team,” she said.  

Nieves was a member of the basketball and lacrosse team at Buffalo Seminary. Her final high school lacrosse season was completely cancelled, but her basketball team advanced to the state championship for the first time in history- and they could not even compete in it.  

“These things are what you look forward to all four years of high school, and to have it taken away from you so suddenly is hard, especially when you don’t get another shot at it,” she said.

While some people ended their sports career in high school, some continued to play in college. Sam Bulow is a member of the Women’s Lacrosse team at Buffalo State and was less than halfway through the season when the NCAA and Athletic Directors in the SUNYAC league cancelled the remainder of the season.  

“It is a moment that I’ll never forget as a couple of my teammates and myself went into our coach’s office after what was our last practice, and anxiously waited for our Athletic Director to give the verdict of the season,” Burlow said.     

The virus also affected Burlow’s workout habits as the student athletic center and gyms closed shortly after the decision was made to cancel their season. What were mandatory lift sessions and cardio training turned into backyard training for Burlow.

“While I keep up with my stick skills in my backyard every day, my weight training is not as strong because of lack of equipment,” she said.

The verdict to cancel the season is still not easy for Burlow and her teammates to process.

“At the end of the day I know it was the right thing to do, but it does not make it easy when I look at a calendar and realize that we should have a game this day,” she said.

What was hard news for student athletes to face, was an even harder decision for athletic directors to make. Bishop Timon St. Jude High School athletic director, Joe Licata, is still hard at work despite the current absence of spring sports. Licata, along with other athletic directors from the Monsignor Martin League in Buffalo, N.Y., have weekly meetings via Zoom to discuss different options for the season if students were to return to school.

“The main thing is to give our seniors one last send off so we are going to try to do whatever we can to make that happen,” he said.

Licata is also the football coach and gym teacher at Bishop Timon, so he has been sending at-home workouts to his students and athletes to stay active.

“Staying physically fit and active during this time will keep everyone sane,” he said.

On top of being involved at Timon, Licata has his own football program that runs in the offseason to train football players, which was also affected. He was in the middle of a 10-week program with two weeks left when he had to postpone the session, but he plans to make it up to the athletes at some point in the future.

“Yes, it’s frustrating but people’s health is more important. Sports do give an outlet for people, so if we can get back to some normalcy, hopefully we can get back to sports,” he said.

While high school and college sports have been affected by the Coronavirus, so have all aspects of major- and minor-league sports. Neal McMullen, the director of corporate sales for Pegula Sports and Entertainment, which oversees corporate partnerships for the Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres, is lucky enough to continue working during this time. But that is not the case for others in the organization.

“Unfortunately, our department had to furlough eight people due to the current pandemic and in total, 104 people were recently furloughed in our entire organization,” McMullen said.

His daily routine transitioned from working in an office to now working from home with his family of six, which was an adjustment. Due to the fact that McMullen cannot be in the office, he spends his days on phone calls and then catches up on emails in the evening, or on the weekends.

“It’s tough to stay focused with all the different activities going on in my house, but despite the big adjustment, my routine is starting to feel normal,” he said.

Unlike other major league sports, as of right now, business in the NFL has not been affected. However, the offices and training facilities are completely closed to everyone.

“The NFL is very proactive, and they know they need to have a plan in place for a number of possible scenarios in the fall as no one knows what kind of situation we could be looking come the fall,” he said.

Due to the unforeseen circumstances, the NFL Draft could not happen in person, but they successfully pulled it off virtually while setting a record when over 8 million people watched it. With the uncertainty surrounding the season in the fall, live entertainment for fans could be much different than anything anyone has ever experienced.

“People are starving to get their mind off the realities of everyday life, and entertainment is the best way to do that,” McMullen said.

While there is still potential for the NFL season to take place in the fall, the start of the Minor League Baseball season is still delayed due to the virus. The stands at Sahlen Field, home to the Buffalo Bisons, were empty on April 17, the originally scheduled home opener- and remain empty through the postponed season thus far. Mike Buczkowski, President of Rich Baseball Operations, fears that there won’t be a season.

“The unique thing about the Bisons is that we have to wait for the government to say it’s okay to gather, but we also have to wait for the MLB to determine what they’re going to do,” Buczkowski said.

A challenge that Buczkowski is facing with the Bisons, like all other sports teams, is working through all the different scenarios with other states as each state is in a different situation with the virus. The problem arises that every state has to allow sporting events for the season to happen.

“You can’t have a league if one state has different rules and guidelines where that one team can’t play,” he said.

The MLB might play in empty stadiums and stream games on TV, but that does not work for the minor leagues.

“It’s hard on everybody because our business is all about the people coming to the ballpark, the fans miss baseball, and we miss the fans,” he said.

All sports are going to have to learn and adapt to the new norms once the business can reopen. Leagues are going to have to put different things in place that they did not have before the virus.

“Despite having plan A through Z ready, there is no clear cut plan on what is going to happen, but we will learn as we go to figure out what’s going to be the best and safest for everyone,” Buczkowski said.

Where the Minor League Baseball season was unable to start, the NHL regular season was coming to an end and the Stanley Cup Playoffs were approaching when the virus hit. The Buffalo Sabres were in Montreal preparing for a 7 p.m. game against the Canadiens when the team’s General Manager, Jason Botterill, informed them that the game that evening and the rest of the season was delayed until further notice.

The team followed their normal morning routine, but they were not allowed to hold their morning skate at the Bell Centre, home of the Montreal Canadiens. Botterill told them to act as if there was going to be a game that night so the players continued to stretch and enjoyed their pregame meal.

“At around 3 o’clock they were told there would not be a game played that night, and the next hurdle to jump was to get a plane to fly into Montreal and fly the team back home to Buffalo,” said Head Equipment Manager Robert “Rip” Simonick.  

Throughout these challenging times, Simonick still stays in contact with the players. But he misses the in-person interactions with the players at the rink on game days and shaking their hands after a win. The passion for all sports throughout the team is something special Simonick and the players bond over.

“What’s on the first page in the sports section is what these kids live and die for, and what we talk about in the locker room. I’m sure the most recent conversation would have been about Tom Brady going to Tampa,” Simonick said. 

After being with the Sabres for 50 years, this is the most consecutive games Simonick has not participated in, even through other viruses and strikes.

After being with the team for so long, not being able to go to the arena makes the days long for him. Despite the uncertain status of the NHL season, he knows he has to be ready.

“We have all the sticks, pucks and gloves ready to go so if the light switch comes on, we will be there,” he said.

Going about everyday life without sports is hard for all organizations, people who work for these sports teams, the fans, but for the professional players, too. For Buffalo Sabre Jake McCabe, hearing the news that the rest of the NHL season was postponed was still shocking to hear, even though he saw it coming.

“Once the NBA cancelled, I figured we were next and everything happened very quickly once they made the decision,” he said.

Like all athletes, the virus forced McCabe to come up with and adapt to a new workout routine to stay active while away from the game. Although McCabe’s at-home gym looks slightly different from the workout room at the KeyBank Center, he is adjusting to his spin bike and other exercise equipment he has access to. 

“I’ve also been going on a lot of runs because it’s also allowing me to get outside along with getting a workout in,” he said.

Although he misses going to the rink, hanging out with teammates and competing out on the ice, being away from the rink does have a perk for McCabe and his family. On April 20, McCabe and his wife, Gabriella, welcomed their new baby girl, Georgia.

“The silver lining through all of this is I’ve been able to spend every second with my little girl and it’s the best thing in the world,” McCabe said.  

People don’t realize how important sports are to their everyday lives until they are without them. Throughout this time, organizations are working on potential plans for the future when they are able to return to normal while still providing entertainment for fans. Teams are using social media to their advantage to keep the fans engaged and playing games or memorable moments from previous seasons.

“We are doing the best we can for what we have to work with and in hopes that everything gets under control, we can get fans back in arenas and current sports games back on TV,” Simonick said.

Photos courtesy of Grace Heidinger  

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