MINNEAPOLIS — As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, Minnesota Gophers men’s hockey coach Bob Motzko has been losing sleep. But his insomnia is for a good reason: after months with nothing to root for, there are finally pro sports to be seen on TV.
“I have not missed many Twins games, and I’m up way too late watching hockey games, but its been awesome,” Motzko said on Thursday afternoon, two days after the Big Ten announced that fall sports like football, soccer and cross country will be paused until the spring of 2021, at the earliest.
“Obviously as a hockey coach, we’re concerned about our season, but I’m going to stay with the (idea) that we’re going to find a path forward,” he said. “I think the fact that we’re watching three sports go at it, they’ve got terrific medical people, we’ve got terrific medical people, the path is out there. Those worlds have to collide and we’re going to find the path.”
College hockey is classified by the NCAA as a winter sport, even though players traditionally begin practice in September and the first Gophers game of the 2020-21 season was scheduled for Oct. 3. While there has been no revised schedule announced by the Gophers or the Big Ten, there is very little expectation anywhere that the season will begin on time. Motzko said hockey may be a true winter sport this season, if they are able to play.
With most students going on break a few days before Thanksgiving and not returning until January, the coach speculated that a mostly-empty campus could provide the college version of a bubble similar to the isolation that NHL and NBA players are living in, and could be a safer environment for college athletes to begin seasons like hockey, basketball and wrestling.
“That may be a great time to look at starting winter sports. Earlier if possible. If there is a way before that, great,” Motzko said. “But we look at a situation where we’re pretty lonely on campus when no one is around. And we’ll know a whole lot more by then as well, as far as testing and what has worked for the other sports.”
Classes at the U of M are scheduled to start Sept. 8, and student-athletes will be returning to campus in late August. Motzko said a hockey schedule and a list of incoming recruits — neither of which has been released yet — could come together fairly quickly, if and when, they get the green light to hit the ice.
If all of that comes to fruition and they can start practicing and playing games, the next hurdle comes in the scheduling of the NCAA tournament. The regionals are usually played in late March, and the Frozen Four has traditionally begun on the second Thursday of April, in a NHL team’s building. But with the current NHL season expected to conclude in October, the next season will not begin until much later than normal and NHL teams will likely be in the midst of their regular seasons in April.
The 2021 Frozen Four is scheduled for Pittsburgh and to be played there, the Penguins would have to vacate their home rink for a week to accommodate the college games. But if NCAA tournament games are played without fans or with a reduced crowd due to social distancing requirements, they could potentially be moved to on-campus venues or smaller facilities.
Among the topics of conversation when coaches talk is the hope that with college hockey season likely starting later a 34-game campaign can still be played, Motzko said. If the Frozen Four could be moved back to later in April or even to May or June, it would allow for a re-set of the college hockey calendar and something closer to a full regular season.
“That’s on our wish list as coaches, and we’re darn-near unanimous that if there is a path for the NCAA to move the Frozen Four, we can do anything, and we’ll figure out how to play our season,” Motzko said. “That is one of our goals, and we’re hopeful that it comes to fruition.”