MINNEAPOLIS — As of Labor Day Weekend, the start of the 100th season of Minnesota Gophers men’s hockey is less than a month away. Officially.
Although unlike other programs and conferences, the Gophers never had that fit of optimism that caused them to release a 2020-21 schedule during the spring or summer, schedules revealed by other conferences and other programs had 3M Arena at Mariucci hosting a Friday, Oct. 3 game between the U of M and Bemidji State, and the Gophers taking a trip to Duluth the following weekend for the Icebreaker tournament.
The former almost surely will not happen, and the latter was officially cancelled over the summer. So the biggest question in the minds of most fans of the Gophers in particular and college hockey in general is this: If and when will the 2020-21 season begin?
The simple, honest and straightforward answer is this: We do not know. But if you are one who enjoys wild speculation, here are two plans, based on rumblings and ideas put forth by folks in the know, that could provide a road map for something close to a “normal” 34-game college hockey regular season.
Plan A — The Holiday Bubble. Each season, the Gophers players talk about the eerie quiet on the U of M campus between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, when the school is between semesters, there are no classes to attend, and the members of the hockey, basketball and wrestling teams are among the very few students in Dinkytown and Stadium Village. Gophers coach Bob Motzko has offered the idea that this would be the perfect time to have student-athletes in a kind of “bubble” where they could keep to themselves (away from the general student population), be tested regularly, and get the college hockey season underway roughly seven weeks later than normal.
Plan B — The 2021 Only Season. One of the first conferences to suspend athletic competition due to the coronavirus pandemic was the Ivy League, which has decreed no intercollegiate games in any sport until Jan. 1, 2021 at the earliest. This means that traditional hockey notables like Yale, Harvard and Cornell are out of the mix for games in the rest of 2020. Another theory for how college hockey could start is getting games underway after that 2021 wall calendar filled with yawning cat pictures or Route 66 vistas is tacked to your kitchen wall. Again, both of these ideas are speculative, based on chatter we have heard in college hockey circles. We can expect more official words as we get closer to what would have been the October start of the season.
On a more micro level, many fans in Minnesota have been wondering: When will the Gophers start practice? Big Ten watchers have noted that as of this week, four of the conference’s seven hockey teams are on the ice in some form. Notre Dame began classes in mid-August and the Irish have been skating in small groups since then. This past week, defending Big Ten champ Penn State, along with Michigan and Wisconsin all took to the ice of their respective arenas as well. Ohio State and Michigan State will be on the ice next week.
These are not traditional full practices, as schools are taking strict precautions to try and stem the spread of COVID-19, which has been a huge problem on campuses from coast to coast, as students rushing back to “normal” life have caused outbreaks at many schools. Video of the Wolverines’ first practice noted masks are everywhere, time in the locker rooms is limited, and the size of the on-ice groups is restricted. That may be the way of the world until the virus is under control or a vaccine is available.
For the Gophers, who have officially announced that they will have a four-player freshman class (as opposed to a year ago, when a dozen newcomers joined the team), Motzko is reportedly cognizant of the risks of burnout, and does not want players skating and skating and skating, with no games on the horizon. Sources close to the team indicate that with classes at the U of M beginning on Tuesday, the Gophers will start testing and meetings, with the goal of their first on-ice practice on Monday, Sept. 14.
Along with the revealing of a revised schedule, one of the biggest bits of training camp news each season is, Who will be the Gophers’ captain or captains?
This one has half of a pretty easy answer, as junior forward Sammy Walker is returning and will almost certainly wear the "C" on his jersey again. Walker, who won the Mr. Hockey Award as a high school senior at Edina and was named the Big Ten rookie of the year as a Gophers freshman, was the first sophomore in the modern era of U of M hockey to be named a co-captain a year ago (alongside then-senior Tyler Nanne) and will very likely reprise his role as the team captain in 2020-21.
The question then is who will have the secondary leadership role, either as a co-captain or an alternate captain. Among the leading candidates for that extra patch sewn on their sweaters are a trio of seniors: goalie Jack LaFontaine, forward Brannon McManus and forward Scott Reedy. Of those, LaFontaine is the most vocal and proved last year to be a stand-up representative for the good and the bad on the squad, while also becoming the team’s de facto every night goalie. Reedy led the team with 15 goals last season, but has always had a more quiet kind of leadership. If the Gophers want someone who is relatively vocal and stands up for the team, and they do not want a goalie in a leadership role they may look to McManus, who was second on the team (behind Walker) offensively last season and is generally viewed as likable and responsible. As Motzko has said in the past, “the players pick the captains, and they always get it right.”
As we often have said since the world changed abruptly on March 12, “stay tuned” for answers to those and many more college hockey questions.