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Hugs and heartbreak as college hockey season ends abruptly

There was shock, sadness and resignation all around the region's college hockey programs and conferences on Thursday, as first the WCHA, NCHC and Big Ten cancelled their postseason tournaments, and then the NCAA cancelled the rest of the playoffs, bringing a season of promise for so many to an abrupt end.

For a college hockey player, having your senior season abruptly end with an overtime loss in the playoffs was generally considered the worst way to go out. All of that changed on Thursday afternoon, March 12, with the news that the college hockey post-season tournaments, and the NCAA playoffs, were canceled due to coronavirus fears.

For Minnesota State Mankato, that means no shot at the Mavericks' first NCAA Frozen Four trip. For top-ranked North Dakota, the drive for a ninth NCAA title is over, just like that. For Minnesota Duluth, the chance to become just the second school to win three straight NCAA titles is on hold for a year. For St. Cloud State, Bemidji State and the Minnesota Gophers, there is similar heartbreak.

Earlier in the day on Thursday, the WCHA and NCHC announced cancellation of their postseason playoffs, after initially planning to play them without spectators. The Big Ten followed suit in the afternoon, about the time that the NCAA announced the cancellation of the tournaments for all winter sports, most notably men's and women's basketball and the NCAA Frozen Four, which was scheduled to open in Detroit on the second Thursday of April.

"The health of our student-athletes, staff and fans are the No. 1 priority and we support the decision of the NCHC to cancel this year's Frozen Faceoff tournament," SCSU coach Brett Larson said in a statement released by the university. The team was already in Kalamazoo, Mich., preparing to play a first round series at Western Michigan. "The Frozen Faceoff is one of the premiere events in college hockey, so it is disappointing to have the tournament cancelled. But we fully understand the need to take precautions during this difficult time.

"We appreciate the continued support of our fans and their understanding of this situation."

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Colorado College's team bus was somewhere on the freeway between Minneapolis-St. Paul airport and Grand Forks, where they were to play the Fighting Hawks this weekend. They turned around and headed back to the Twin Cities, sending out a picture on Twitter of hugs for the team's seniors being shared on the way.

Like the devastating effects the virus is having on the global economy, the cancellation of postseason games will mean huge hits in revenue for the respective leagues. NCHC commissioner Josh Fenton, in an afternoon conference call, said the eight-team league has been building a reserve fund during its six years of existence, preparing for a potential year of revenue shortfall. Fenton did not reveal how much was in the reserve fund.

"The amount in there is an amount that we and the membership feel comfortable to manage difficult situations, whatever those difficult situations may be. . . this year being one of them," Fenton said.

The WCHA also noted the abrupt end of the season, prior to the NCAA announcement.

“In light of the current health issue gripping the nation, we are canceling the remainder of the WCHA postseason,” WCHA men’s league commissioner Bill Robertson said in a statement. “The health and safety of our student-athletes as well as our coaches, officials, fans, institutional and league staff is our top priority. Over the last several days we have discussed options for continuing the competition but at the end of the day, we felt it was best for all concerned to end the season immediately.”

The Gophers were scheduled to fly to State College, Pa., on Friday for a one-game Big Ten semifinal game at Penn State.

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The National Hockey League on Thursday also announced a postponement of its season, with its minor league, the American Hockey League following suit. The junior United States Hockey League also announced a suspension of its season on Thursday.

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Jess Myers covers college hockey, as well as outdoors, general sports and travel, for The Rink Live and the Forum Communications family of publications. He came to FCC in 2018 after three decades of covering sports as a freelancer for a variety of publications, while working full time in politics and media relations. A native of Warroad, Minn. (the real Hockeytown USA), Myers has a degree in journalism/communications from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He lives in the Twin Cities. Contact Jess via email at jrmyers@forumcomm.com, or find him on Twitter via @JessRMyers. English speaker.
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