St. Cloud, MN – Were it a normal year, the St. Cloud State University Huskies would be suiting up today (October 3rd) for an Exhibition game vs the University of Guelph at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center. In June, in response to the Coronavirus epidemic, Canada West suspended all fall athletics including exhibition games in the United States for it’s hockey team. That initially eliminated an early October start for the Huskies. Subsequently, on September 10th, the National Collegiate Hockey Conference issued a statement announcing a delay to the start of the 2020-21 hockey season.
So, where do we stand right now? In September, the Hockey Commissioners Association announced the non-specific statement “Due to the impact COVID-19 continues to have across the country and within higher education, the start of competition for the Division I hockey season will be delayed. Each conference will announce plans for the season individually.” Subsequently, the NCHC announced “The conference anticipates that competition for NCHC programs will commence on or after November 20. Numerous scheduling models with a variety of start dates are being considered. The specific details regarding the new schedule, start date, number of games, matchups, and other details will be released later. Teams will be able to commence in-season countable athletically related activities (e.g. in-season practice) with their student-athletes based on existing NCAA rules and in conjunction with local, state, and institutional restrictions and guidelines for various types of activity.”
Ultimately, and sooner rather than later, a decision will have to be made concerning a strategy for the season. Most assuredly, the teams will play in some format whether with or without fans but in what format? Unusual times requires creative thinking and possibilities could include regional scheduling or competing in a “bubble” format much like the National Hockey League Stanley Cup Playoffs. On October 2nd, the USA National Team Development Program traveled to St. Cloud for two games with the St. Cloud Norseman, a North American Hockey League team. Attendance was limited to 250 in a rink that has a capacity of 2000. The point is it can be accomplished with good risk management.
The NBA, Major League Baseball, the NHL and collegiate football have operated in various formats. One of the worlds greatest sporting events, the Tour de France recently completed the 2020 tour in September with 21 stages all across France. They too, were in a “bubble” format with testing of all cyclists and staff on rest days. In a sport with extreme exertion competing in packs, not one of the 750 or so cyclists tested positive for the virus in their final testing day in the last week of the race. The fact is, in a structured environment athletic events can continue with successful results. This week, Abbott Labs announced a new point-of-care test that has a high level of sensitivity and will show if an individual is at risk of spreading Covid to others. It’s fast and provides results in 15 minutes. It needs to be administered by a nurse but will be available to schools. This could be a game-changer.
Possibly the biggest deterrent to commencing the season is the cost of testing. For a school like St. Cloud State University, it has been suggested it could cost $250,000 or more to do the amount of testing of athletes that would be required. With an athletic budget already stressed it’s a huge obstacle to overcome.
Although it’s merely speculation at this point, the rumor of a “bubble” format for the NCHC season merits further consideration. A split conference season at two locations, say Grand Forks and Omaha (both with more than enough lodging to house eight teams) with two sets of 10 games could be accomplished in a little over 30 days each. Far-fetched? Not exactly, here’s why: The increased cost of housing the players could be offset by the elimination of travel costs (and eliminating incidence risk) usually associated with the season. Economies of scale at the two locations could create lower lodging costs than normal due to the current state of the hospitality industry. Presumeably, all games would be streamed with NCHC.tv subscriptions expected to soar which could also help offset “bubble’ costs. Much like the NHL model, a structured environment would lower testing costs and incidence rates. And, the athletes would continue their education online which is no different than what many schools are currently doing. Financially, it could work. Logistics for post-season play would have to be strategized.
In the meantime, the Huskies have been practicing for about a month with skilled practices as allowed by the NCAA. October 3rd is the date the NCAA allows teams to practice 20 hours per week. Despite the confusion over the start of the season coach Brett Larson told me ” (the) Boys spirits are really good. It was good for them to hear the announcement in September from the NCHC. The team looks really good. We’re fast and the defense looks good. They are not flashy but will get the job done. The goaltending is deep too. It’s been fun so far.”
Junior forward Nolan Walker who is expected to make a huge impact at forward in 2020-21 is also upbeat. “The team is doing very well, we have been practicing and working out in two pods. The morale is good and we are hoping to be back mid November playing games. Even though we are starting late we have the mentality that we can get ahead of other teams and get in the best shape we can. We have been doing a lot of competitions in practice and pushing each other. The new guys are fitting in well and it’s been great to get to know them. There aren’t a lot of them so it hasn’t been hard to bring them into our team and show them what we are about. Everyone is excited hopefully to be playing hockey in the next month and a half. It’s been great so far.”
First-year defenseman, Brady Ziemer is simply taking things in stride. “I’m settling in very well. It’s been a pretty easy transition and the guys have been very helpful. I love being here and being able to be with the guys everyday. We are dealing with the delay of the season just fine, obviously we want to play games but right now we are controlling what we can control and are making sure that we are taking steps in the right direction everyday. The practices have been great. They are very fast-paced and competitive every time we hit the ice. Everyone has the same goal in mind, so we are pushing each other at practice to make sure we keep going in the right direction. My new teammates are great, I can’t say enough good things about them. I’m very blessed to be able to play with this group of guys.”
Key games with Arizona State, Boston College and Northeastern are already cancelled. On November 20th and 21st, the Huskies are scheduled to play home and home games with Bemidji State University. With limited fans, it’s feasible these games can be played. A lot can happen in the next month and a half. Let’s stay positive.