When Minnesota Duluth’s Scott Sandelin and Maura Crowell describe their 2020-21 captains — Noah Cates and Ashton Bell — you’d think the two head coaches were describing the exact same player.
Bell and Cates do all the right things on the ice and off it. They both set the bar when it comes to their daily routine. They’re competitive, and more than willing to adapt for the good of the team.
That last trait — adaptability — is what allowed both to have tremendous success a year ago, and will be even more important in 2020-21 as the two top ‘Dogs lead their respective squads through a season of uncertainty due to the still raging COVID-19 pandemic.
In addition to Bell, seniors Ashton Bell and McKenzie Revering are wearing letters for the UMD women, while seniors Louie Roehl and Nick Swaney and junior Cole Koepke wear letters for the UMD men.
As tough of a season as this has been and will be for players, it will be even more challenging to be a leader through every twist and turn, Sandelin said.
“I talked to our captains. I said, ‘This might be the hardest year you guys will ever have as leaders of a team, just because of all the abnormalities of what we're already going through, and probably could go through during the year,” Sandelin said. “It's difficult. We don't know in January or February, when you could have a pause. It could be a long pause. You don't know until you get to those points. We've got guys that I trust and I think have done a good job already and will continue to do a great job.”
Crowell told UMDBulldogs.com last week, “that character is revealed during challenging times,” and both Bulldogs captains proved that a year ago.
Bell made a major change heading into her junior season in 2019-20 by switching from forward to defenseman and, instead of taking a dip, had a career year. Her 11 goals and 32 points led all WCHA defensemen.
Cates was asked to move from wing to center late in 2019-20 as a sophomore after his older brother, Jackson, suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. Noah Cates posted a goal and five assists in UMD’s last five games to finish with 14 goals and 19 assists when the coronavirus shut down the season.
“He did it without blinking an eye and played great for us,” Sandelin said. “That’s what you love about him. It doesn’t matter. Some guys aren’t always like that. Some guys have to play with certain guys, some guys have to be here or there. They have a different attitude.”
Moving from forward to defense in the preseason, or from wing to top-line center overnight, could very well seem like child’s play to Bell and Cates this year as they try to navigate their teammates through a pandemic.
They turned to Zoom — “a lifesaver for us,” Bell said this week on the Season 3 premiere of the News Tribune's Bulldog Inside Podcast — this offseason as a way to get the team together while spread out across the globe. Then due to an extended delay to this season, the captains were asked to coach on the ice for over a month instead of the typical first weeks of September.
Crowell said Bell did a tremendous job running captains practices — both Crowell and Sandelin said this fall they would delay their return to the ice so their players don’t get sick of them — developing her own drills and drawing them up for the team on the whiteboard.
“That was particularly good this year, and needed because of that extended time we (the coaches) couldn’t be involved,” Crowell said.
Both Crowell and Sandelin are on the ice now with the men slated to drop the puck on the 2020-21 season on Dec. 1 in a pod in Omaha, Nebraska. The women have not announced a start date yet for their season, but are still hopeful they can get going in November.
But the return to the ice of the coaching staff doesn’t mean the captains are all back to leading as usual. It will be a long time before anyone sees “usual” again.
When players arrive, they have their temperature checked and fill out a health survey. They work out in small groups and dress in small groups — specifically who they live with — in separate locker rooms. They can’t shower after practice at Amsoil Arena. There’s no hanging out in the players’ lounges.
The only time the teams are completely together is on the ice for practice, and as great as that is, Cates said it’s difficult not having the team all together in the locker room.
“It’s tough to have that camaraderie when you’re not all in the same dressing room and can’t all work out, battle together,” Cates said on the podcast with Bell. “There is nothing like the locker room when guys are chirping each other, having fun and stuff. That’s where that team bonding is built. The only time we are together is when we are on the ice, so we try to do that on the ice and have as much fun as we can. That’s the only time we are together as a full team.”
Cates and Bell said they understand why they can’t be in the locker room together. It’s to keep everyone safe from the virus, and to ensure the entire team isn’t wiped out by an outbreak, possibly delaying their season further or canceling it entirely.
So far, both Cates and Bell said their teammates are buying into their new way of life at the rink, and away from it. Large group gatherings indoors have been replaced by small group outings to the golf course or hiking up the North Shore.
Everyone is willing to do whatever it takes to have a season, just like their captains did a year ago for their teams to have success.
“We are fortunate to be able to all practice together, which is a fun time to get everyone out there to see everyone,” Bell said. “I’m one of the ones in our main locker room. It’s weird not being in there with the whole group and vibing to the music, stuff like that, having a good time. We definitely bring that energy on the ice. That’s where we replicate it, bring lots of energy and have a good time out there.”