Monday marks the joyous return of high school football and volleyball, fall sports the Minnesota State High School League board of directors previously pushed to the spring of 2021 for COVID-19 concerns.

The board reversed course last week. But important related work remains. On Thursday, the board is expected to vote on the season start dates for winter sports. Decisions for each of those sports will be based, in part, by a recommendation from the league’s Return to Participation Task Force.

The task force, which includes several board members, met Sept. 23 and discussed whether to delay winter season-start dates. The idea is limiting overlap with fall sports and the potential for spreading the virus between student-athletes joining new teams.

Once rolling, the winter season will offer fewer competitions and, quite possibly, no state tournaments.

Sept. 30 is the next task force meeting, where members will determine its recommendation for the next day’s board meeting. The high school league board already has stated its desire for a 30% reduction in games/events and a 20% reduction in the length of the season for all sports in the 2020-21 school year.

Even so, boys’ hockey leaders have been busy preparing their visions for the fast-approaching season, balancing concerns for student-athlete safety and the desire for as much hockey as possible.

The Minnesota Hockey Coaches Association proposed two scenarios, the more ambitious of which features 24 games and full section and state tournaments. It includes a regular-season schedule, based on the college hockey model, consisting of two games per week against the same opponent. Those “home-and-home” games would be played on Thursdays, Fridays or Saturdays. In the event of a COVID-19 outbreak, playing twice a week against the same opponent allows for more precise tracking of a potential source.

Teams would be allowed to play 12 opponents from anywhere within Minnesota. That’s based on low COVID-19 numbers. Should numbers rise, a more stringent second scenario tightens things up.

Opponents must be from a surrounding region. Games could start Nov. 20, but teams could play only one game per week for the first month. Then a mandatory holiday break clears the ice from Dec. 20-30 other than practice. Should COVID-19 numbers allow, the “home-and-home” game schedule outlined in the first scenario begins as early as Jan. 1 – with postseason opportunities at season’s end.

“We think we presented a plan that was well-thought out, and that was because of the work already done by Minnesota Hockey and the Minnesota Department of Health,” said Jon Ammerman, association president and the head coach at Moorhead. “But if we’re not able to fulfill a regular season, we’re willing to be flexible. Safety and following guidelines are more important than sticking to our guns.”

In both scenarios, the boys’ hockey season would begin on Nov. 9, the original start date. However, the Return to Play Task Force spoke last week of a three-week delay to Nov. 30, a few days after the football season ends.

Another possibility, seen as less viable, is starting the season under the auspices of Minnesota Hockey and playing games in an Under-19 league until the high school season begins. Significant challenges include financing the mini-league as well as securing ice time and coaching.

While a three-week delay to start the boys’ season probably isn’t worth the headache for boys’ hockey coaches and players, their female counterparts could be facing a more significant wait.

Originally slated to drop the puck on Oct. 26, girls’ hockey could get pushed at least six weeks to a Dec. 7 start, according to discussions at the task force meeting.

The reason: Minimizing overlap with volleyball, which ends Dec. 12. Tim Morris, executive director of the Minnesota Hockey Coaches Association, understands the intent but disagrees with the application.

“I’ve told the league that those two sports don’t typically have crossover” of athletes, said Morris, the Lakeville South coach.

Morris said the girls’ hockey association, while not releasing detailed plans in an effort to avoid confusion, is counting on the league board vote on Thursday to determine the season’s start date.

Creating an alternative league to offset a delayed start isn’t ideal, Morris said, because, “our players are more safer playing within the league’s oversight rather than with entrepreneurs.

“We believe the best thing to do is start on time and not play more than two games per week,” Morris said. “We want to do whatever we can to mitigate the spread of getting kids sick.”

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