How the coronavirus is battering Bay Area hockey

Just two fans attended the San Jose Sharks’ last practice at home.

Madoka and Yuta Okamura came to Sharks practice on March 10, one day after Santa Clara County banned mass gatherings of more than 1,000 people for the rest of the month, one day before San Jose played what might be their final game of the 2019-20 season.

In this climate of uncertainty, they came on a mission. 12-year-old Yuta Okamura was taking notes.

“I look at their edges, how they skate when they’re going in another direction quickly. Going backwards, transitions,” Okamura revealed. “I also check how they’re shooting. It’s important to shoot quicker to score goals.”

That afternoon, as the Sharks were in the air for the road trip they wouldn’t finish, Yuta took the ice by himself. Power skating coach Craig Miller accompanied him, while Madoka cheered her son on.

Seven days a week, for the last two months, Okamura has been training at Solar4America Ice at San Jose. Even on a school day, he’ll wake up at 6 a.m., work out for an hour, go to class, then come back in the evening and work out for another hour. His short-term goal is to make the Jr. Sharks U14 squad; his long-term goal is to play in the NHL.

Okamura is making up for lost time. His interest in hockey was sparked by San Jose’s playoff run last year. His first live NHL game was on November 9 this season, the Sharks’ 2-1 shootout victory over the Predators. On Christmas Eve, he skated for the very first time.

“Not even in three months, we’ve got him to do backwards cross-overs, which most people won’t get to in their first year or two of skating,” Miller gushed. “Watching his progress has been absolutely amazing.”

Okamura’s dream, however, has been deferred by COVID-19 and the temporary closure of Solar4America Ice. This isn’t the only example of how Bay Area hockey has been touched by the pandemic that’s infected every corner of our lives.

“I’m someone who loves what I do,” Miller noted of teaching skating. “Before the shutdown happened, I had three days off this year. I’m used to working seven days a week. I’ve gone from working seven days a week to staying at home.

“It’s my only source of income.”

Miller is one of several instructors at Cathy’s Power Skating, which has taught skating for hockey in the Bay Area since 1998 and considers Solar4America Ice its homebase.

“The bulk of my business is private hockey skating lessons,” Cathy Andrade said.

The founder of Cathy’s Power Skating observed that what makes hockey special also makes those involved with the sport especially vulnerable right now: “I’ve been coaching for 35 years. That’s the one thing that I’m always asked, what can we do off the ice? There are certain things you can do, but ice is ice. Skating is skating.”

Solar4America Ice at San Jose is just one of over 1,500 indoor ice rinks in the United States.

“Everybody in the hockey world is affected,” Miller said. “There’s literally not a single piece of ice you can touch now outside of your refrigerator.”

Fortunately for Miller, who teaches Learn to Skate classes in the employ of Solar4America Ice — and not every rink is this fortunate — Sharks Sports & Entertainment will pay Solar4America Ice employees in San Jose, Fremont and Oakland for scheduled hours through the month of March. This won’t cover private skating lessons, but it’s some consolation.

Other losses, however, money can’t compensate for.

On March 8, the Jr. Sharks 18U AAA Tier 1 boys squad made team history, winning the Pacific District Championship to advance to USA Hockey Nationals for the first time.

Three days later, USA Hockey canceled 2020 Nationals for every tier and age group.

For some of these kids, the Pacific District Championship will be their last game with the Jr. Sharks.

“You hear about people who didn’t realize it was their last game when they were actually playing their last game,” Jr. Sharks Director Curtis Brown lamented. “Nobody could envision the order of events that have taken place. They hoisted that championship trophy with full expectation of participating in Nationals. It’s definitely been a whirlwind of emotions.”

He added: “Not just this team, but numerous other Jr. Sharks teams that qualified for postseason, their participation has also been postponed or canceled.”

For Brown, the challenge now is to engage his players with off-the-ice activities that will keep them sharp for when they do return to the ice. On Twitter, the Jr. Sharks have been posting video drills designed for individual workouts.

“This is very unique not only for my own kids, but so many,” Brown said. “It’s all dependent on the individual and how they want to come out of this pause with their hockey career.”

The former Sharks forward drew on his own experience as a boy in Saskatchewan: “I grew up on a farm where it was normal to be isolated. I didn’t have buddies across the street to play with. Essentially, they have to do what my parents and grandparents told me to do, which was find something to do or we’ll find something for you.”

The closure of Solar4America Ice at San Jose has literally rippled across the street, where Bay Area Hockey Repair has stood since 2016.

There isn’t a shop like BAHR in California — specializing in repairing used hockey equipment — and few like it in the world.

“My walk-in business is non-existent. That’s 60 percent of my business. The other 40 percent, mail-in orders, it’s slowed down too,” owner Essan Galo offered.

Because business has been crippled, Galo had to lay off five employees. To make ends meet for himself, the repair guru has gone back to his roots.

“I have basic sewing skills that my grandmother taught me in the Philippines,” he said. “I’m doing random work. I’ve always done that, but I’m increasing it. I’m doing seat belts, farming equipment, forklift seats, anything really, to stay afloat.”

That’s the reality for so many around the globe: To skate through this crisis, they will have to adapt. But a helping hand — whether from individuals supporting local businesses like Cathy’s Power Skating and Bay Area Hockey Repair or from corporations like Sharks Sports & Entertainment — makes a difference.

A SAP Center usher spoke anonymously about how Sharks Sports & Entertainment has stepped up: “It was scary to see that they were shutting down the season. My income is pretty dependent on the sports season going on. When you started to hear that they were going to keep paying us, at least for this month, it felt like a weight off my shoulders.”

March, in particular, was going to be a busy month for this usher and SAP Center.

“We had a couple Sharks games, some Barracuda games. We also were in line for some concerts and Anthony Robbins,” the usher said. “They covered like 10 shifts for me. Sharks games are like three to four hours. Concerts are like five. For Anthony Robbins, a lot of people had eight-hour shifts.”

The usher added: “We haven’t heard anything about April yet. Regardless, compared to March, our April was just four events because they were blocking off space for the Sharks playoffs.”

Per Sharks Sports & Entertainment, at this time, there are no plans to reduce compensation or employees at any of SSE’s businesses.

That’s some positive news in this do-or-die time.

“This [shutdown] impacts small businesses that make their living off the hockey community more swiftly than it does businesses that can absorb it,” Randy Andrade, who owns near-by Extra Hour Off-Ice Hockey Training with Cathy, noted. “If this thing extends another month, two months, it’s probably going to leave a large wake of destruction when it comes to small businesses who can’t hold on.”

”We’re suffering,” Galo said.

This spring, for the Bay Area hockey community, it’s not about the Cup — it’s about survival.

Addendum (4/28/20)

After this article was published, two former BAHR employees contacted Fear the Fin, claiming BAHR had not paid them from December 2019 — January 2020. Galo could not be reached for comment.

In addition, the same SAP Center usher clarified previous comments, saying Sharks Sports & Entertainment paid employees for scheduled Sharks and Barracuda games after March 11, but not for scheduled concerts or events after that date.

The presumption is most of these concerts and events will be re-scheduled. According to this usher, SAP Center employees were paid for scheduled Sharks and Barracuda games in April.

Also, SSE announced yesterday they were establishing a relief fund that “will provide individual grants to the more than 1,800 part-time staff” at SAP Center, Solar4America Ice at San Jose, Solar4America Ice at Fremont and Oakland Ice Center. This includes Aramark food service employees who work at SAP Center.

According to SSE, ownership, players, coaches, front office staff, corporate partners and close supporters have already pledged more than $200,000. SSE also encouraged “all fans with available resources to make a monetary donation to the fund in support of the people who help make SAP Center events possible and manage Sharks facilities.”

In more good news, Extra Hour Training is now offering hockey training classes for different age groups on Zoom. Among the courses being offered are shooting skills, puck skills, goalie training, hockey mobility and girls-only skills classes.

Randy Andrade wrote in an e-mail: “Small businesses are activating their entrepreneurial creative juices to create opportunities to survive.”