Hockey games are chaotic, and so was the start of the 2020-21 college season in New England.
When Hockey East, the region's top college hockey conference, announced its schedule for the 2020-21 season, flexibility was the priority, since the coronavirus pandemic would likely stop teams from playing with a moment’s notice.
About a month in, that flexibility has been put to the test, as every program on both the men’s and women’s sides of the conference has had some form of scheduling headache, including a number of postponements. Twenty-eight men’s games and 20 women’s games have not been played through the first four weekends of the season.
“We’re just like anybody else: running a program, running a business, running a family and trying to learn as much as we can to stave off any potential hazards that loom down the road,” said Boston College men’s head coach and Hockey Hall of Famer Jerry York.
All of New England’s states are dealing with surges in coronavirus cases. They prompted all six states' governors, as well as New Jersey’s, to pause interstate youth hockey competition until at least the end of the year. In October, New Hampshire and Massachusetts enacted two-week pauses to all youth hockey activities in an effort to curb the spread of the virus in the hockey community, which the governors said was likely due to social interaction around the game rather than the game itself.
But collegiate and professional hockey, as well as U.S. national team activities, haven’t been affected by the states’ bans.
To keep going, Hockey East has done acrobatics with the schedule, matching schools that did not have any positive coronavirus tests and still putting on games after canceling other contests. Nevertheless, at least for the start of the year, the composite schedules on the men’s and women’s sides of the conference became skeletons of what they originally were. (Here are the initial versions of the men’s and women’s schedules.)
“It's been pretty interesting to see all the scheduling changes,” Northeastern women’s senior goaltender Aerin Frankel said. “The league has done a good job making sure games are still happening, as opposed to just canceling all the games. I think it's good to keep the league playing, and that way, hopefully, less teams fall behind.”
On Tuesday came another change brought by the pandemic: Hockey East announced that all its programs would qualify for the 2021 conference tournaments and all games would count towards league standings. (While there aren’t any games outside the conference this season, certain contests had been designated as “flex games” that did not count towards the league standings.)
Hockey East Commissioner Steve Metcalf said in the announcement that making the changes “gives our players the best possible experience of postseason competition while respecting the importance of each regular-season game.”
The league is hoping to reschedule as many postponed games as possible in hopes that most, if not all, teams play each other at least twice.
The schedule-makers were faced with conflicts from the get-go. The University of Vermont announced on Nov. 15 -- five days before the start of the season -- that it had delayed the start of its winter sports season by over a month. Less than a week later, Northeastern University announced its winter sports would also be delayed, then the University of Maine put its winter season on pause.
After BC’s men’s team had series called off for the first two weekends of the season, the Eagles, ranked second in the nation in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine poll, pulled off a two-game home-and-home with Massachusetts on Nov. 27 and 28 -- UMass had their original series called off that weekend as well.
"There's no manual for us to look up chapters or verses in," York said. "So we've been playing it, right from the start, day by day. We can't even go week by week or month by month, or any extensive outlook."
He added, "We're just trying to stay healthy and prepare our team, and whatever team we play, we play."
Meanwhile, Boston University's men's team is yet to play a game after its opening series with Vermont was not played and a member of the BU program tested positive this month, postponing a series with UMass. Merrimack College’s women’s program, UNH’s men’s program, Maine’s men’s program and UMass Lowell all finally played their first games of the season last weekend, while Maine’s women’s team resumed their season this past weekend as well.
“I feel badly for the teams that are practicing, practicing, practicing but can't get on the ice to play games,” Massachusetts head coach Greg Carvel said.
Due to its pause, Northeastern was forced to watch from the sidelines as well, before returning to the ice in the second weekend of December. The Huskies, currently ranked second in the nation, were picked to win the women's side of the conference in a preseason coach’s poll for the third-straight year.
"It's definitely been a challenge to just stay focused on our goals for the season, and obviously my personal goals as well," Frankel said. “I just try to have the mindset that I need to be prepared for when games do come, and just try to go to the rink every day and do my best to make myself and my teammates better.”
'The Most Unique Season I've Had'
With national championship aspirations this season, Northeastern is definitely anxious to get back on the ice for games. Huskies head coach Dave Flint understands why players are eager to get going.
“Every time we think we’re going to play, we don't,” Flint said. “Just watching around college hockey leading up to weekends and you just see games postponed, postponed, postponed – it’s been challenging to say the least.”
Like Flint, Carvel knows this season has been hard on the players. He and his staff have made it a point to check in with their group throughout the semester, and they’re mostly making the best of it, but it’s not easy.
"Gratefulness is a word that I hear often, but you're kidding yourself if you don't think that this situation doesn't have a negative impact either," he said.
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Flint thinks Hockey East and first-year commissioner Metcalf are doing the best they can after "stepping into a mess" and dealing with a season that's been "difficult for everybody."
However, there are still some frustrations for Flint and his team, especially in following separate protocols set by each school, as well as the league's and the NCAA's.
"The frustrating thing is there's not a lot of consistency," Flint said. "One decision is made here and then something's different is made here. You might go to a school where there's no mask mandate during games, and then you go to another school where there is a mask mandate, so it's just tough."
He added that it’d be nice to have all the programs on the same page, “but I know everybody's doing the best they can to to work with what they have."
One thing almost everyone seems to agree on is just how different the start to this year has been.
"It's definitely, by far, the most unique season I've had in 25 years of coaching," Flint said. "It’s stressful and it's maybe making me a better coach, being able to learn how to deal with these things."
For goaltender Frankel, Northeastern’s approach to this “very unique start to the season” has been staying flexible: “Whatever adversity comes our way, we just have to do our best, as these are obviously different circumstances than we've all had to deal with in the past.”
“It's different for sure,” UMass graduate forward Carson Gicewicz said. “Sometimes we don't know who we're playing until early middle of the week. Obviously this is something I haven't seen before.”
Regardless of the challenges it has faced, the league appears intent on making this season work. In fact, the league added games to this weekend's slate as Vermont re-enters the fold. That means, for the first time this season, all teams that were originally scheduled to play will take the ice. (Update: The Maine-Lowell series on Dec. 19-20 will note be played, Hockey East said Thursday after Maine paused all men's team activities after a member of the program tested positive for COVID-19.)