Western Collegiate Hockey Association men’s commissioner Bill Robertson has been through his share of challenges over a long career, though none can compare to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’ve never seen anything as challenging as a pandemic and having to navigate and work through this as a collegiate hockey commissioner,” he said Wednesday.
Conferences across the country have canceled or postponed fall sports. As of last week, that includes the primary athletic conferences for all 10 WCHA members.
No decision has been made as to when the college hockey season will start, or what it will look like. Robertson and the other hockey conference commissioners have been holding weekly calls to discuss the latest pandemic news and guidelines, while trying to formulate a way for teams to return to the ice.
The NCAA is requiring high-contact risk sports like hockey to test athletes and personnel for COVID-19 weekly, including within 72 hours of competition. The feasibility of testing, both financially and logistically, could be another roadblock to the hockey season.
“I still am a believer that we’re going to be playing hockey this year,” Robertson said. “What I have learned through all this is you need to be adaptable and flexible in these times. Things change daily, weekly, monthly. It’s really hard to plan, but I do believe we’re playing hockey.”
The Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference (Bemidji State and Minnesota State), Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (Ferris State, Lake Superior State, Michigan Tech and Northern Michigan) and Gulf South Conference (Alabama Huntsville) have suspended all competition until Jan. 1. The Great Northwest Athletic Conference (Alaska and Alaska Anchorage) has suspended sports until Dec. 1. The Mid-American Conference (Bowling Green) has called off fall sports, but no decisions have been made for its winter sports.
The story is similar in the WCHA women’s league.
Minnesota, Ohio State and Wisconsin are members of the Big Ten, which has also called off fall sports. The league’s other schools — BSU, MSU-Mankato, Minnesota Duluth and St. Cloud State — belong to the NSIC.
WCHA women’s commissioner Jennifer Flowers has said the sport’s Sept. 19 start date is looking less realistic as time goes on, though an official decision to delay the season has not yet been made.
As much as everyone is eager to play, Flowers knows the situation is complex.
“The layers to every decision are incredibly deep and I think people need to be really cognizant and aware that it isn't just, ‘Do we want to play, yes or no?’” Flowers told the Duluth News Tribune this week. “Because the answer is ‘yes,’ everybody wants to play, no doubt about it. The question is, ‘Can we, and can we do it in a safe and healthy way for everyone?’ That’s the challenge right now.”
Eight nonconference games have been wiped out for the BSU women, including a Sept. 25-26 home series against RPI that was originally set to be the season opener. The Beavers have not officially released a 2020-21 schedule, though head coach Jim Scanlan said nonconference series against Lindenwood and Penn State, as well as a trip to Washington, D.C. for a Thanksgiving tournament, will not happen.
The Beaver men have released their schedule, and the Oct. 3 season opener at Minnesota is still on as of now. The team has already replaced a planned Thanksgiving trip to eastern schools Merrimack and UMass-Lowell with a home game against the Gophers.
The season will most likely start later than usual, Robertson said, though nothing has been determined yet as the league looks at different scheduling models.
“I’d say we are trending towards more of a December/January start date that would be with heavy consideration of playing conference-only games,” he said. “It may be very challenging this year to play nonconference games, but there may be the ability after the New Year to play some weekday games, as well as the traditional Friday/Saturday games.”
Robertson said a decision on the season would likely be reached sometime in September.
“We want a season to be played,” Robertson said. “But we also have to do it safely, and with the health and welfare of the student-athlete in mind. If we can’t do those two things the right way, it’ll be a big challenge. That’s what keeps me up at night because the information we get changes. I’m hopeful that we’ll have a vaccine during this pandemic. What it looks like a month from now may be very different than it is today.”