The first signs of autumn have arrived at the Summer Dog House in northern Michigan. A few trees are starting to change color. The weather is cooler, and the daily position of the sun is a clear indication that summer is almost over. Normally, this is also means that college hockey and the Michigan Tech Huskies are soon to occupy the Old Dog on a daily basis.
But this isn’t a normal year. In fact, I’d say it’s barely even an abnormal year, and it all revolves around the way that the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting almost every aspect of daily life, and there’s no place this is more evident than in big-time college sports.
What We Know For Sure
All DII and DIII sports are cancelled, with no games and no championships for fall sports. The B1G and PAC-12 have cancelled fall sports as well, although it’s clear there’s a wave of both parental push-back (from the parents of pro prospects in particular) and political pressure that’s emerging to try and force these two conferences to reconsider, at least for football.
With the start of the season only a month away, the powers that be in college hockey have deferred and delayed as much as they can. If there’s going to be any college hockey, decisions need to be made, and very soon.
There are so many factors involved with this that it’s almost impossible to know where to start. However, it’s difficult to envision the B1G hockey teams playing games when their football teams are not. Both sports are contact sports and the implications for disease control are similar. If football is deemed to be too risky to play—particularly with the immense financial losses that cancelling football will cause—it’s extremely hard to imagine hockey going forward as planned.
While the NHL has proven that hockey can be safely played in a bubble environment, there’s just no way that college hockey can—or should—attempt to do that. College sports, even with encroaching professionalism, are still college-based and the Old Dog is Old School enough to believe that shouldn’t change.
Here’s What Is Online
A quick scan of the Web shows that the hockey conferences haven’t had much to say about the situation. All of them have posted general statements about the “welfare of student-athletes” but in general there’s been no final declaration anywhere as this column is written. We also know that any of this could change on a moment’s notice, but here’s what was current as of September 2nd:
- The WCHA website has nothing to say about the coming season. There’s a statement about Alaska-Anchorage’s dropping hockey after one more season. But there’s nothing about what might happen on October 1 when practices and games are permitted under NCAA rules.
- The ECAC has a statement dated July 10th that they will develop “schedule models” that include both league and non-league play, but nothing beyond that. And please note the date of that statement. The Ivy League, which constitutes half of the schools in the ECAC, has said flatly there will be no fall sports, and these schools have interpreted that to include hockey. In short, there will be no games for the Ivy teams until after January 1, 2021.
- Hockey East’s July 29 statement says that they have “intent” to play the coming season, with a priority on in-conference play. Because Hockey East conference games are all within bus distance, this diminishes both travel costs as well as viral exposure risks for teams. Intent, though, isn’t the same as a definite plan.
- As noted previously, the Big Ten has cancelled fall sports, but has had nothing conclusive to say about winter sports like hockey and basketball.
- Like the WCHA, the NCHC has nothing posted about what might or might not be planned for October. In a recent (August 31) interview in the Nebraska-Omaha student newspaper, NCHC commissioner Josh Fenton was quoted as saying “We are optimistic and hopeful that we will be playing hockey…but we don’t have anything definitive as of yet.”
- Ditto for Atlantic Hockey in terms of anything either formal or specific.
- Arizona State doesn’t even have a schedule for next season on their site yet.
- Michigan Tech’s site still shows a full schedule for the Huskies, including most non-league games, but a previously scheduled series with Arizona State has vanished without any comment.
- The NCAA has instituted a new rule which says “student-athletes whose institutions will not be playing hockey during the fall semester will be permitted to participate in non-collegiate, amateur competition i.e. junior hockey on an outside team during the fall 2020 term (subject to school and conference approval).” They can remain enrolled at their school, they can’t be given expense money for playing, they have to remain in good academic standing, and they can’t play any games during scheduled class time.
- Finally, a number of players have either said they’ll return to juniors without staying enrolled or will return to Europe to play. Some commitments (particularly for Ivy League schools) from incoming freshmen have been withdrawn and new commitments made to schools that seem more likely to play in the fall.
It’s Clear: Nothing is Certain Just Yet
As far as speculation goes, there’s plenty of that to go around. A usually reliable source reports that the WCHA may have an announcement on September 4 and a schedule of league-games only that will start either late in 2020 or early 2021 will be revealed at that time.
It’s my guess that things will start to shake out in the next two or three weeks. When that happens, there will be a long list of questions that probably won’t have answers. This includes how (or if) the NCAA tournament and Frozen Four will unfold.
Like life in general in these troubled times, nothing is definite and everything is day-to-day.
We’ll just have to wait and see what happens.