Dacia Vienna Vikings HC Chris Calaycay drawing up a blueprint for pandemic play

More than a year has passed since the coronavirus pandemic brought the world to a screeching halt and while vaccination efforts have left many feeling optimist, the sporting world is still struggling to cope with the virus.

In Europe, Spain is the only football league playing right now and while France recently announced the cancellation of its second consecutive season, Austria is slated to become the next to resume play at the end of this month.

For many teams, playing in a pandemic will be an unprecedented experience, but for the Dacia Vienna Vikings, it’s become business as usual.

In 2020, just two Austrian teams suited up for games while the world remained largely shut down. The Vikings and the Graz Giants played a series of games for the Austrian title, a championship swept in three outings by the Vikings. A year later, head coach Chris Calaycay believes the experience gives his club the upper hand ahead of the 2021 season.

“That’s a big deal to go out there and say we’re the Vikings and we’re going to try to do everything we can to have the best organization that we can and try to provide a little bit of hope for sport in Austria,” Calaycay explained when asked about the advantages of playing through the pandemic.

“Just the experience of playing a season or at least preparing for a season, even though it was a short one. Getting that on film, having our coaches have those resources to use to our advantage and finding out what we liked and what we didn’t like about the game plan or about specific schemes.”

Chris Calaycay on the sidelines during Dacia Vienna Vikings 2020 title series against the Graz Giants Photo: Peter Kramberger

Calaycay and his Vikings staff have become seasoned veterans when it comes to managing ever-changing safety protocols. Everything from home workouts to cohort practices have been used over the last year, but as training camp rolls on ahead of the team’s 2021 opener, things look a lot more normal than they once did.

“The most noticeable aspect is me having to handle more paperwork than normal,” Calaycay chuckled.

“All of our COVID lists, the daily health checks, we record and log in Austria. You have to have a negative COVID test before each week of practice. They have to send that into me and I’ve got to make sure that’s documented and what date they tested negative. If they’re eligible for practice that week, then each practice they come in and they have to take a temperature check, logging any kind of symptoms that they may have if they’re not feeling well. We just say, if you’re not feeling well, you stay home. It doesn’t matter what it is.”

While many organizations in North America are struggling under the burden of COVID testing, the Vikings have been ahead of the curve since last year. While individual PCR tests were being sold for as much as 140 Euros each back then, the team found a group testing facility that got them done for 28 Euros per player. Though not required to by government, the Vikings made sure it was part of their weekly regime.

“The club invested in that. We wanted to make sure that we were doing that even though at that point, we didn’t have to,” Calaycay said.

Now, that type of testing is available free in the city and players are able to get it done on their own time. Coaches wearing face masks still show that training is happening in peculiar times, but otherwise the football remains unaltered.

“We don’t have those distancing rules in practice. We do have a mask mandate in the locker rooms and we opened up extra locker rooms so we have more space, but on the football field, the social distancing thing, you can’t really duplicate that,” Calaycay said.

“It’s hard when you have an offensive lineman and defensive lineman basically kissing on every play.”

Chris Calaycay adressing Vikings after recent practice Photo: Hannes Jirgal

Despite stringent protocols, that means the Vikings must stay constantly vigilant to prevent an outbreak.

“There probably will be a case at some point. We have to be vigilant about making sure we talk to the guys daily about it,” Calaycay admitted.

“Outside of practices is the most dangerous time, when you’re at work or on the way there in the underground. Make sure you’re washing your hands, make sure you’re wearing your face mask as best you can.”

Still, the Vikings emerged virtually unscathed from a much bleaker public health outlook last season. Only two players tested positive for the virus and both were quarantined before exposure to the team, providing a template for a return to play that the entire Austrian league is now following to the letter.

“I think we showed that it was possible to do it as safely as possible. We got it done and we got to play football. That was the most important thing,” Calaycay said. “I think that was a good sign for society in general or sport in general, that it can be done.”

He’s proud that his organization helped to pave the way towards the return of sports in Austria and while Calaycay cautions that the fight against COVID-19 is not yet over, he’s excited that long-suffering fans and players will get to enjoy the fruit of their struggle come March 27.

“I think everyone’s looking forward to playing football again,” Calaycay said smiling.

“I know we got to do it, but I think the whole fan community, the football community in Austria and Europe, is ready to get outside and watch a football game.”

J.C. Abbott is a student at the University of British Columbia and amateur football coach in Vancouver, Canada. A CFL writer for 3DownNation, his love of travel has been the root of his fascination with the global game.