Like every other college freshman across the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic, Blake Biondi and Wyatt Kaiser’s first semester at the University of Minnesota Duluth has not gone as they first imagined it would when they committed to the Bulldogs hockey program in high school.
They’re on campus, but on Zoom instead of in the classroom.
Amsoil Arena is now their hockey home, but they’re not allowed to dress yet in the Bulldogs’ locker room.
And in another twist that only 2020 can bring, Biondi and Kaiser are not using the first full week of October to prepare for their first regular season college hockey games. Instead, they're getting ready to hear their names called during the 2020 NHL Entry Draft.
Because the NHL still wanted to hold the draft between the end of the Stanley Cup Final and start of free agency, the draft was moved from June 26-27 in Montreal to this week. The first round starts at 6 p.m. on Tuesday while rounds 2-7 get underway at 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday.
Like college classes, the draft will also be virtual.
“Kind of getting a rhythm going,” Kaiser said of his first month as a college student-athlete. “I looked at the calendar and it’s already October. The draft kind of snuck up on me. September went away pretty fast. I’ve been getting used to (college life). It’s been fun, but it hasn’t been easy.”
Biondi and Kaiser are two of the six freshmen the UMD men brought in for 2020-21, in addition to a pair of transfers. The women’s program welcomed five freshmen for this season.
While both teams are now skating and practicing together in full, neither has been allowed to set up shop yet in the Amsoil Arena locker rooms. Broken up into groups of 10 or fewer people, they pick up and drop off equipment in the locker rooms, but dress socially distant in the hallway.
Kaiser said he has no complaints about the precautions being taken to keep the team healthy. He also admits he doesn’t know any other way at UMD, being a freshman.
“With 2020 and everything that has been going on, I feel like I’ve adapted myself to living that lifestyle where everything is going to be different,” Kaiser said. “I’m making the best out of it. It’s different definitely going to pack up your gear in the locker room and carrying it into a hallway again to dress there.”
Biondi called his first month of college “unpredictable at times,” but after working out in his yard and basement over the summer, Minnesota’s Mr. Hockey in 2020 said it’s exciting to be on the Amsoil Arena ice skating with his UMD coaches and teammates.
And the lack of a locker room environment has done little to impede any team chemistry. Outside of the the few in-person classes for those who have them, team members only associate with each other.
“It’s great for team bonding, to be honest,” Biondi said. “We’re together a lot, we’re not really with anyone else just because of our little mini-bubble. You try and find the positives and we’ve been with the guys a lot, so that’s a good thing.”
Both Biondi and Kaiser are likely second-day prospects in this year’s draft, based on where they were slotted in the late spring and early summer.
Kaiser, a 6-foot, 173-pound defenseman out of Andover High School, said he spoke to all 31 NHL teams during a three-and-a-half week span this offseason. He ranked No. 37 among North American skaters in the final NHL Central Scouting 2020 draft rankings while TSN’s Bob McKenzie — who relies on NHL scouts for his rankings — has him slotted No. 81 overall.
Biondi — a 6-foot, 181-pound forward out of Hermantown — said he’s spoken with at least 26 teams. He is 64th in the NHL Central Scouting rankings and 93rd in McKenzie’s after leading the Hawks within a win of another Minnesota Class A state championship.
Those rankings are now all months old, however, and while there has been no live hockey for scouts and general managers to watch prospects in since then, teams have found other ways to evaluate kids like Biondi and Kaiser.
“‘How tall is your mom? How tall are your sisters?’ Just information like that,” Biondi listed among the questions asked by teams. “I’m still growing, kind of. They’re just trying to see my genetics, I guess. It’s kind of funny to look at stuff like that.”
Biondi and Kaiser will both be allowed to catch this year’s draft at home with their families — a nice consolation to actually being at the draft in person. Both players said the watch party this week will be small due to the coronavirus.
And you won’t hear any complaints about that from either Biondi or Kaiser, who despite the current circumstances are happy to be Bulldogs and excited to be drafted into the NHL.
“We’re happy for this process and we’re glad it's finally working out,” Biondi said.