What was inevitable became official Thursday, when the Hockey Commissioners Association announced that the 2020-21 Division I college hockey season will be delayed indefinitely because of the coronavirus pandemic, wiping out the Sept. 19 start for women's games and the Oct. 3 for men's games.
When the seasons actually will start remains to be determined. Each conference, according to the commissioners association, will decide on its own season start. The Big Ten and WCHA didn't list a target date to start play, while the NCHC in a statement said it "anticipates that competition for NCHC programs will commence on or after November 20."
"I am convinced we will have a college hockey season in 2020-21," WCHA men's Commissioner Bill Robertson said. "The determination of our start date is part of our larger return-to-play discussion. We want to give our student-athletes the opportunity to safely play as many games as possible this season."
Gophers men's coach Bob Motzko and other coaches have been pushing for a start in November. Motzko pointed to a season start near Thanksgiving, when the University of Minnesota could take advantage of a bubble of sorts because all in-person instruction will conclude by Wednesday, Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.
"November might be a very positive time for everybody to start looking at, because you keep hearing the virus is coming back, and that's going to bring some unknowns," Motzko, whose team was scheduled to open against Bemidji State on Oct. 3, said in August. "Well, in November [the students] are all going home. All over the country they're going home, and they're going to be home for a couple of months."
A November start might allow for some nonconference play, which would benefit the Gophers, who have strong rivalries with regional foes such as North Dakota, Minnesota Duluth, St. Cloud State and Minnesota State Mankato. If COVID-19 protocols can match up between conferences, the chances of regional nonconference play would increase.
Complicating matters for the two Gopher teams, however, is the situation with Big Ten football. The conference has postponed its football season but is receiving substantial pushback to reconsider and play this fall. If the Big Ten doesn't play football this fall, would it allow its hockey teams to play in November?
"There's some question marks coming from the Big Ten, specifically around football," said WCHA women's Commissioner Jennifer Flowers, whose conference includes Big Ten teams Minnesota, Ohio State and Wisconsin. "As I told our coaches yesterday, to be really honest, the factors that are in play have absolutely nothing to do with hockey. … We're all very hopeful they have a plan to get football back, because that's beneficial for every other sport, including hockey."
Starting the season in December or on Jan. 1 are other options conferences might explore. The ECAC, for example, has six programs from Ivy League schools, and the Ivy League shut down all athletic competition until Jan. 1.
How long the season might last depends on when it starts and if the NCAA would be willing to move the Frozen Four to later in the spring. The men's Frozen Four is scheduled for April 8 and 10 in Pittsburgh, the women's for March 19 and 21 in Erie, Pa.
"It's ever-evolving. There are so many layers to it," Flowers said. "It's just not as simple as saying, 'We want to play. Let's play in November.' "