Ten weeks ago this morning, I made the 75-mile drive from Puck Drop headquarters in Eagan to the Mankato Civic Center. My assignment: Get the pulse of the Minnesota State men’s hockey team, and Mankato in general, after news came the night before that college sports was being shut down for the remainder of the 2019-20 season because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Checking the pulse of those who just had absorbed a devastating punch to the gut – as the Mavericks and much of the entire sports world had – would be a challenging task. Basically, you have to find a way to ask, “Hey, you just had your championship dreams dashed. How do you feel?’’ in a tactful and sympathetic way. What I found were players and coaches who were frustrated and hurting but still willing to share their stories with the media and public.
And that feeling has continued over the past 10 weeks in dealing with various athletes, coaches and administrators – in hockey and other sports. The pain of the initial blow has mainly passed, but the ongoing uncertainty is weighing on them. As terms like “social distancing’’ and “flattening the curve’’ have become the norm, they’re looking for answers and willing to share opinions and ideas. Mainly, they want to know when their sport will resume safely.
Looks as if we’re getting a sign of hope in hockey with the NHL inching closer to a return. The league and the players association have been negotiating a Return to Play plan, and the union’s executive committee on Thursday night began the voting process on the plan. The system reportedly would feature a 24-team playoff system with games at hub locations with fans not allowed to attend. The top four teams in each conference would receive byes but play a round-robin series that could impact first-round seeding. Meanwhile, the remaining eight teams would square off in best-of-five play-in series to pare the field to 16.
Under this scenario, which seeds teams by points percentage in the standings when the season was suspended, the Wild would be the No. 10 seed in the West and face No. 7 Vancouver in a best-of-five series.
Any system will be far from perfect, and there still are substantial hurdles to clear for the NHL to return. Player safety must come first, and they’ll be the ones potentially facing the most risk.
“To live in fear and be scared is not an approach that I’ve taken to life,’’ Wild veteran forward Eric Staal said during a videoconference Thursday. “But there’s definitely reservation there, and I’m sure there is for other guys.’’
Hockey shows us the ability to change on the fly, and that’s what Staal expects to continue, no matter what the decision on resuming play.
“It’s a total different landscape and you’ve just got to adjust and figure it out as you go. So, I will do the same, and I’m sure everybody else will, too.’’
Ten weeks into a world turned upside down, uncertainty still rules, but in hockey there are signs its reign will have an eventual end.