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End of college hockey season came swiftly, abruptly for leaders, coaches and players

A look back at the final 24 hours of the 2019-20 season, and how quickly it all came crashing down because of COVID-19

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National Collegiate Hockey Conference commissioner Josh Fenton delivers the State of the Conference address in September at St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center during the 2019-20 NCHC Media Day. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

NCHC commissioner Josh Fenton said discussions regarding the impact of COVID-19 on the league tournament, including the Frozen Faceoff, had been ongoing for a couple weeks.

While well aware the coronavirus was spreading in the United States — though not necessarily heavily through NCHC territory initially — Fenton admitted Thursday the league didn’t anticipate the rapid spread of the virus this week or the measures other entities would take.

“I originally started off saying, ‘We're living day-by-day,’” Fenton said during a conference call with reporters Thursday. “That day-by-day became hour-by-hour very quickly. That hour-by-hour, frankly, became minute-by-minute. The changes that were coming to us and to all other organizations across this country were coming fast and with not a lot of preparation on the front end.”

The NCHC began Wednesday afternoon by circulating a statement announcing enhanced measures that would be taken to protect participants, fans and media from the spread of COVID-19 — or any other germs and viruses — throughout the league quarterfinals and Frozen Faceoff. But like much that had gone on in the last three days, that news quickly became obsolete as Harvard and the Ivy League announced the immediate end to their seasons.

At 3:31 p.m., the NCAA announced it was limiting attendance at its events. States throughout the league — like Michigan, where Western Michigan was set to host St. Cloud State — were announcing they, too, were going to ban large gatherings and force sporting events to play without fans.

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The NCHC followed suit by announcing restricted attendance at 8:46 p.m. Wednesday. However, right around that time, the NBA announced one of its players had tested positive for COVID-19. The league suspended its season immediately.

Fenton said the league’s athletic directors, presidents and chancellors had “significant discussions” Wednesday about canceling the NCHC tournament. And those were renewed Thursday morning.

Among those presidents and chancellors, who serve as the board of directors, are two medical professionals Fenton said he “relied upon pretty heavily for medical information,” along with advice from local and national health organizations. Dr. Jeffery Gold is chancellor of the University of Nebraska-Omaha and president of the University of Nebraska Medical Center. North Dakota interim president Dr. Joshua Wynne is also dean of the UND School of Medicine.

By a unanimous vote of the athletic directors, presidents and chancellors, at 12:01 p.m. Thursday — a little over 15 hours after restricting attendance — the NCHC canceled its tournament.

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The NHL suspended its season at 12:35 p.m.

At 3:16 p.m. — just under 24 hours after initially banning fans — the NCAA called off all its winter and spring championship events.

“The decision-making process was grounded in what is best for the health and safety of all involved,” Fenton said. “There are a lot of circumstances and a lot of factors that come into these decisions. But there's no doubt in my mind that our membership was wholly grounded in what should we be doing for the safety and health of everybody that's involved.”

Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin met with his team after the NCHC announced its postseason tournament was canceled on Thursday, but not after the NCAA tournament was axed later that day. He had released the team after Thursday’s practice and given them off until Monday. That’s when they’ll meet again.

Sandelin said Friday he was still digesting the news himself that his team’s season was suddenly over.

The same for his four seniors — Jarod Hilderman, Nick Wolff, Hunter Shepard and Jade Miller — who unknowingly played their final college game on March 7, a 6-1 win over St. Cloud State in the regular-season finale at Amsoil Arena.

“It was pretty surreal. It happened so abruptly,” Miller said Friday. “You’re thinking you have a couple more games back here in Duluth in front of family and friends. It’s tough knowing you played your last game when you didn’t know it was your last game.”

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Jade Miller (26) of Minnesota Duluth talks with referee Timm Walsh during Friday's game at Amsoil Arena in Duluth, Minnesota (Clint Austin /caustin@duluthnews.com)

Miller said he found out his college career was over when Dylan Samberg woke him up from a nap Thursday afternoon. Miller said he checked his phone, his heart sank and he then sat on the couch “for about an hour” afterward.

As much as he wanted to believe the NCAA tournament would still happen after all the other cancellations, Miller said he had his doubts.

Shepard said he knew it was a matter of time, as well, with something getting suspended or canceled every 10 minutes that afternoon. There was still a feeling of shock when the NCAA's announcement finally came that the two-time defending national champion Bulldogs would not get to go for a three-peat in 2019-20.

“You play all year for the playoffs,” Shepard said. “That’s why a lot of us came back, to three-peat, to do something really special. It’s just a weird way to end your season.”

Bulldog Bites

  • In the wake of canceling winter and spring postseason championship events Thursday, the NCAA Division I council coordination committee announced “relief is appropriate for all Division I student-athletes who participated in spring sports.” The Division III administrative council is also granting an additional season/semester of eligibility for its spring sports student-athletes. According to reports, the NCAA is also discussing the eligibility of winter sports student-athletes whose conference and NCAA postseasons were canceled.

  • The NCAA banned in-person recruiting immediately for all Division I coaches Friday. All official and unofficial visits are to be suspended. The recruiting dead period will be in place until April 15, though telephone calls and written correspondence will be allowed.

  • The NCHC was scheduled to announce the nominees for its individual postseason awards on Thursday, but have pushed that back at least a week. It’s reevaluating how it will now announce its awards since the yearly ceremony on the eve of the Frozen Faceoff is canceled.

  • The Hobey Baker Memorial Award will still be presented this year and follow the same schedule, though under different circumstances. The winner will be announced in a ceremony closed to the public with limited attendance. The top 10 finalists will be announced Wednesday, March 18, and the Hobey Hat Trick Finalists will be revealed on April 2.

Co-host of the Bulldog Insider Podcast and college hockey reporter for the Duluth News Tribune and The Rink Live covering the Minnesota Duluth men's and women's hockey programs.
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