On March 8, the final games of the 2019-20 college hockey season were played. Four days later, sports in North America were shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Now it’s eight months later, and college hockey returns to play beginning Friday with a couple of games – Wisconsin at Notre Dame, and Adrian (Mich.) at Bowling Green.
It’s a time to celebrate the work that’s been put in by the administrators, coaches and players to get to this point, but also it’s a time to acknowledge the tightrope that must be walked just to keep the new season going as COVID-19 numbers continue to rise.
“I don’t think any of us expect our schedule to come off without a hitch,’’ WCHA men’s Commissioner Bill Robertson said Wednesday during the league's media day video conference.
Robertson and his conference have plenty of positives to point to as the 2020-21 season begins. Minnesota State Mankato is seeking an unprecedented fourth consecutive WCHA regular-season title and enters play ranked No. 4 in the country by U.S. College Hockey Online. Bemidji State is ranked No. 16 and poised to grab an NCAA tournament bid that COVID-19 took away last March. And even Alabama Huntsville, targeted for elimination, received $17 million in support for its long-term future.
Still, hanging over the WCHA and every conference returning to play is the pandemic, which has done a number on college football schedules. This week alone, four of the seven SEC games, plus four others at the FBS level, were either canceled or postponed.
Ty Eigner can relate. The Bowling Green coach saw his team’s exhibition against USA Hockey’s Under-18 team postponed last week because of COVID-19 issues with the National Team Development Program in Plymouth, Mich. A few months ago, Eigner saw the virus hit his team, too.
“If we’re surprised by a cancellation or a postponement, then shame on us,’’ Eigner said, referring to the college hockey fraternity.
Eigner, who played at Rosemount High School and later coached the Irish and Brainerd High, is hopeful but realistic when it comes to the season.
“We’ve had some situations with COVID within our team since we got back in late August. We’ve tried to learn from that,’’ he said. “Every day, you watch ESPN or look at your phone, and there’s another cancellation or another player gets put into COVID protocols.
“We’ll try to be as cautious and safe as possible,’’ he added. “Hopefully, we get a chance to play all 18 league games and the playoffs and it goes off without a hitch. The reality is the chances of that happening – I don’t know the odds, but chances are they’re not too great.’’
The biggest issue Eigner sees is the fact that it’s not human nature to socially isolate, especially when you’re talking about college students.
“The thing that you’ve got to remind yourself: These are young men. Whether they’re athletes or not, these guys think they’re invincible,’’ he said. “They believe we were kind of, sort of in a bubble because they live together, we train together, we practice together, we eat together. The reality is that every time someone goes to see their girlfriend or goes to get dinner or a buddy comes over who’s not necessarily a student-athlete. Those are opportunities for the virus to be transmitted.
”The only real bubbles are the NBA and the NHL,’’ he added. “When no one gets in and no one gets out, that’s why you have 30,000 negative tests.’’
College hockey doesn’t have the locked-down bubbles that the NHL used in Edmonton and Toronto to pull off a COVID-free playoff. Instead, coaches will rely on their players to be diligent in adhering to protocols. Even then, there are zero guarantees that teams will emerge unscathed.
“We feel good about the process,’’ Eigner said. “I feel that anybody involved in athletics feels good about their process. I’m sure Clemson football felt good about their process until their quarterback turned up positive.’’
Buckle up, folks. The ride should be fun, but promises to be bumpy, too.