The good news for Gophers men’s hockey fans: Your team has a 2020-21 season, and it could start as soon as Nov. 13.
The not-so-good news, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic: The Gophers won’t be playing traditional regional rivals such as North Dakota, Minnesota Duluth and St. Cloud State in the regular season.
The Big Ten on Tuesday announced its plans for the upcoming men’s hockey season, which will start six weeks later than usual. The key points on the 28-game schedule, which will be released later, include:
• Big Ten teams will play a 24-game conference slate, with four games against each of the other six opponents.
• Big Ten teams will play four nonconference games each against Arizona State, with each game at a Big Ten venue. Arizona State, an independent team, has agreed to use the same COVID-19 testing protocols as the Big Ten.
• Big Ten teams won’t be allowed to play nonconference games against other opponents in the regular season, multiple sources with knowledge of the Big Ten’s decision told the Star Tribune.
• Big Ten teams will follow the same medical protocols that were developed by the conference for the return of football, including daily antigen testing and enhanced cardiac screening.
• The conference will return to a single-site tournament from March 18-20, with all seven teams participating at a venue to be determined.
“I can tell you there’s a group of young men who are awfully fired up when we made that announcement after practice,” Gophers coach Bob Motzko said. “They’ve been waiting since last March — all of us. All they’ve been living on is hope.”
Like the rest of the college hockey world, Motzko and his Gophers saw their 2019-20 season end March 12 when the NCAA shut down winter sports. They were two days away from playing Penn State in a Big Ten tournament semifinal. Now, they have the certainty of a season.
“It’s a home run all the way around,” Motzko said. “Now, it’s up to our guys. It’s up to athletes all across the country. They’ve wanted to play, and they’ve been given a date. Now, doggone it, we’ve got to adhere to the protocol. We have to be smart.”
The addition of Arizona State to the schedule enabled the Big Ten to reach 28 games. It also helps the Sun Devils, who were trying to cobble together a schedule. They’ll likely have seven trips, coach Greg Powers said, playing at Minnesota and Wisconsin, for example, on back-to-back weekends.
“It just made a lot of sense to partner with the Big Ten because they only had seven teams and were going to league-only play,” Powers said.
Though nothing has been announced yet, there likely will be attendance restrictions at 3M Arena at Mariucci when the Gophers begin the season. Motzko said he discussed moving games to adjacent Ridder Arena — and its NHL-sized ice dimensions — but will stay on the Olympic ice sheet at Mariucci because of the program’s events surrounding the celebration of 100 years of Gophers hockey.
Missing out playing nonconference regional rivals was a bit disappointing to Motzko.
“First and foremost, we’re just happy we’re playing. Living in COVID, that takes precedence,” Motzko said. “We’re so appreciative that the Big Ten is able to make this happen. … Deep down, yeah, absolutely [he’ll miss the regional rivals]. It’s just not in the cards this year.
“Let’s put ourselves in the best position to keep playing and fight to get in that NCAA tournament,” he added. “If it’s got more of a regional flair, guess what? We’re all going to find each other in March.’’