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The Richmond Olympic Oval in Richmond, B.C., in 2010.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Earlier this month, Deirdre Norman, a pick-up hockey enthusiast who organizes both co-ed and women’s shinny games in west-end Toronto, posted a query to her “Women of Winter” Facebook group. What, she wondered, are people doing to prepare to get back on the ice?

It’s a question that has become increasingly salient with the resumption, in many neighbourhoods, of private ice rentals, plus the strong likelihood that, across the country, adult house leagues and pick-up will be back in business in the fall after an 18-month hiatus.

The answers were, well, a bit chilling.

“Does Mini Putt count?” one person joked. “My cardio sucks big time during this pandemic.”

“Cycling a lot,” another said. “And THEN sitting in a rink parking lot with a beer and a bag of chips.”

“Praying,” a third added.

“In a lot of the conversations about coming back, people are saying this is going to be risky,” Norman says.

“The whole world is out of shape,” adds Jason Nykor, who has played in pick-up and organized games for years.

According to a 20-year-old Canadian Medical Association Journal study on adult ice hockey injuries, about 700,000 men and 50,000 women were playing casually as of the early 2000s – numbers that almost certainly rose significantly in the intervening years. Many are middle-aged, and sometimes dubbed “weekend warriors.”

Among those who play, fitness-related injuries are well known – everything from muscle pulls and dislocated shoulders to the occasional heart attack. The reason is that ice hockey, with its bulky gear, bursts of intense activity and illegal body checks, is a uniquely strenuous pastime.

The return to play after a long period during which many people packed on pounds, drank a bit too much, stressed over the pandemic and were cut off from regular fitness routines marks an unprecedented experiment in the world of amateur adult sports.

Some physicians expect to see the consequences in their hospital ERs. “There’s going to be a rebound in the number of events we’ll see coming out of the pandemic,” predicts University Health Network cardiovascular disease expert Michael Farkouh, citing episodes of arrhythmia, angina, strokes and heart attacks. “It’s almost guaranteed to happen.”

Yet, as he and others are quick to point out, sports and the accompanying social engagement are crucial for a healthy lifestyle and the return to normal. Getting back into the swing of the game, Farkouh says, “has to be done gradually with eyes wide open.”

Indeed, the best approach, observes Mike Evans, a former family physician at St. Michael’s Hospital who specializes in health prevention advocacy, marries common-sense preparation with something that is standard practice for younger, high-performance players. “Give yourself a preseason,” says Evans, who played house league in Toronto for many years.

He recommends players take stock of pandemic weight gain and begin to incorporate more cardio fitness into daily routines – walking, biking, stairs and so on. Evans says players coming back shouldn’t just rely on a few minutes of stretching while the Zamboni finishes a flood. “Stretching a cold muscle isn’t too helpful.” Postplay massages and warm-downs are also important.

He further suggests all players be especially attentive to on-ice symptoms, like light-headedness and chest discomfort. If they have lingering health concerns or have been prescribed new medications during the time away, check in with a physician.

CBC broadcaster and children’s author Kevin Sylvester, a goalie, recently resumed playing three times a week, and was mindful to go about it the right way.

“Have never been happier that I did some online cardio for the past few months,” he says, adding a piece of advice: “One of the first things we did for the first game was make sure we knew where the defibrillator was before we got on the ice.”

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