Like fans throughout the Midwest, Bob Motzko was eagerly awaiting word on what might happen with Big Ten football and likelihood it will return to play in October. When told Tuesday afternoon during a video conference with local media members that reports were pointing toward Big Ten teams playing football this fall, an about-face amid the coronavirus pandemic , the Gophers men's hockey coach wasn't quite ready to celebrate.
"No one's going to hide from the fact that all eyes are on getting Big Ten football started,'' said Motzko, whose team began skill instruction sessions on Monday at 3M Arena at Mariucci, the team's first official on-ice gathering in 186 days. "Yes, there seems to be a lot of positive rumors floating out there, but let's wait until it's official and things really move forward. That will give a lot of clarity to athletic departments.''
Football is the big boulder that sits in the way of college winter sports moving forward. The Big Ten in August postponed fall sports indefinitely, and the prospect of the conference playing winter sports indoors when football wasn't allowed to be played outdoors created uncertainty. But with improvements in COVID-19 testing and the Big Ten reportedly becoming more comfortable with information about the viral heart infection myocarditis, football appears to be on track for an Oct. 17 start.
What the college hockey season might look like is to be determined, and college hockey coaches and conference commissioners have been working together to address the issue. Motzko was optimistic that regional nonconference play would be included in the season.
"How our schedule is going to look is all under discussion right now,'' Motzko said. "We keep hearing that new things in testing that are going to change the game for us. Do I think we'll play nonconference? I think there is a strong possibility. One reason is because we hear basketball is going to play nonconference. That hasn't been addressed yet with hockey, but it will be very soon.''
The NCHC has discussed using a hub site to gather teams for multiple games, the Grand Forks Herald reported. Motzko indicated the Big Ten, too, is looking at all options.
"We're discussing everything,'' he said. "… This new development with football gives us more encouragement now that we don't have to do [a hub site] if we can get to our season quicker.''
Another possible game-changer for hockey: moving the NCAA Frozen Four from its scheduled April 8 and 10 date to something later in the spring.
"To get your season to look healthy on how hockey wants to look, if we could ever move the Frozen Four, we could save everything,'' Motzko said.
All of this, of course, must wait for a Big Ten football announcement, which could come Wednesday.
"Let's get football done,'' Motzko said, "then we'll go knocking on doors and see if they're ready to talk about hockey.''
Good first impression
His team has had only two skills sessions so far, but Motzko likes what he sees. The Gophers will be more of a veteran team this season after having to use nine freshmen in key roles last season. The coach is happy with his team's approach amid all the coronavirus-related uncertainty.
"The biggest thing I can tell you is I give our guys an enormous amount of credit. Last March, we get shut down, and here we sit today and have no idea of how this is going to look or play out, and yet their enthusiasm and their spirit is off the chart,'' Motzko said. "They're excited to be back with each other, even though we're in three different locker rooms, got our faces covered and it's a new world. I don't think it's even fazing them.''
The Gophers and the coaching staff have had to adjust to smaller-sized meeting groups off the ice, but Motzko is stressing that his team stays positive while adjusting to changes.
"Whatever's happening, we're never going to complain. We're going to accept it,'' he said. "What's most important is when we get to our season, we're ready to play.''
When his players are away from the rink and on their own, Motzko is preaching common sense to avoid infection.
"Just be smart. If you're in a crowded indoor space with people you don't know without a mask on, you're going to put yourself at risk,'' he said. "Be with people you know, have your mask on, wash your hands, stick in a small group. Make our bubble as tight as we can make it.''
The fact that the team is back practicing eases Motzko's concerns.
"The quicker we can get started, we have better control over our bubble,'' he said. "… Once we start playing games, on Friday night, they're not out. They're in the locker room. On Saturday night, they're not out. They're in the locker room or on the ice.''
Colleagues called to the U.S. Hall
On Monday, three college men's coaches – former North Dakota coach Dean Blais, Wisconsin's Tony Granato and Boston College's Jerry York were named to the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame's Class of 2020, along with former Minnesota Duluth and Gophers women's standout Jenny Potter. Motzko was happy for his coaching colleagues.
"Tony Granato's too young, doggone it,'' Motzko said of the 56-year-old former Badgers star. "He was a terrific college hockey player, one of the best ever at Wisconsin. He's been a great addition to college hockey [coaching].
"Jerry York is Jerry York. He's a legend,'' Motzko added. "He's been an inspiration to all of us coaches.
"I'm very close to Dean Blais. One of the very best, and one of the best guys to hang out with, too. … He's a Gopher grad, though he wore those green colors for a long time. What a fabulous job he did.''