With Tuesday’s Big Ten decision to cancel fall sports, the clock is ticking for college hockey, a winter sport in name only.
The men’s season begins Oct. 3 — the Gophers are scheduled to host Bemidji State — and concludes April 10. The women’s campaign touches all four seasons, beginning Sept. 19, three days before summer ends, and concluding March 21, the second day of spring.
Full schedules for the Gophers men and women haven’t been released, but those September and October starting dates are in peril. “We’re 36 days away,” said Jennifer Flowers, commissioner of the women’s WCHA, on Thursday. “As everything keeps progressing, Sept. 19 becomes less and less realistic.”
What is a realistic starting date? That’s to be determined; officials are hopeful they’ll receive word from the NCAA within a few weeks.
“The situation is very fluid,” said Josh Fenton, commissioner of the NCHC, which includes Minnesota Duluth and St. Cloud State.
Added WCHA men’s Commissioner Bill Robertson, whose league includes Bemidji State and Minnesota State Mankato: “We may have to change on the fly 20 minutes from now or two days from now.”
With the traditional start in peril and casting aside the doomsday scenario of no season at all, conversations with coaches and officials point to two options for the season starting: Thanksgiving weekend and Jan. 1.
Thanksgiving weekend start
Gophers men’s coach Bob Motzko is a proponent of beginning the season Thanksgiving weekend, which would allow for a season that is less disrupted and would take advantage of students not being on campus. The University of Minnesota will conclude all in-person instruction by Wednesday, Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving. With few people on campus, the Gophers could be in a bubble of sorts.
“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 said. “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.”
That start might allow for some nonconference play. For the Gophers, having a chance to play rivals such as North Dakota, Minnesota Duluth and St. Cloud State is important, especially considering that Minnesota’s fan base hasn’t exactly embraced a steady diet of Big Ten opponents.
“Really all ideas should be on the table,” Fenton said, “and regionalized scheduling for the health and safety of everybody should at least be discussed.”
Jan. 1 start
Colleges and conferences have been pushing fall sports back to Jan. 1, and that might end up being the case with hockey. That could allow for a nine- or 10-week schedule for men’s hockey, likely intraconference only.
Motzko and Gophers women’s coach Brad Frost are encouraging the NCAA to push back the dates of the Frozen Fours to accommodate a longer season if it starts Jan. 1. The men’s Frozen Four is set for April 8 and 10 in Pittsburgh, the women’s March 19 and 21 in Erie, Pa.
“The key right now for college hockey is if we’re just sliding the calendar, moving the Frozen Four solves every problem we might have,” Motzko said. “That is something that the hockey coaches are united strongly about.”
Added Frost: “If they’re able to do that and it’s a Jan. 1 start date, then we’ll feel pretty good about it. … If they don’t push that championship back and it’s a Jan. 1 start date, then there’s a lot more questions because that would be a significantly shortened season.”
Fenton said conference commissioners have discussed moving the Frozen Four with the NCAA Ice Hockey Committee.
“I would tell you easier said than done,” he said. “As I sit here today, I would say that is unlikely, but it’s a discussion we’re having.”
Regardless of when the Frozen Fours are held, the NCAA plans to think of the winter sports first during the winter season.
“We have to give highest priority to the winter and spring sports because they lost their championships last March when we made that horrible, awful but necessary choice to shut down,” NCAA President Mark Emmert said.
Whichever schedule model is used, Motzko is confident college hockey will be played: “Colleges are hitting the pause button right now, and that’s what we have to do. We have to learn from each other and find that path forward, because there is a path forward.”