FARGO, N.D. — Minnesota Duluth hit the ice in Fargo, North Dakota, at 2:30 p.m. Friday, letting out a cheer as the Scheels Arena buzzer sounded, signaling the start of practice.
That’s right. Practice.
Not a game, not a game, not a game.
The third-seeded Bulldogs’ NCAA regional semifinal against second-seeded Michigan on Friday was declared a no contest around noon, only a few hours prior to the 3:02 p.m. puck drop. The Wolverines were forced to withdraw from the NCAA tournament due to positive COVID-19 test results.
UMD, making its sixth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance and now playing in its sixth-consecutive regional final, will play No. 1 North Dakota at 6:30 p.m. Saturday in Fargo.
Neither the Bulldogs nor Wolverines held a traditional morning skate Friday prior to their eventually canceled game — they weren’t scheduled to do so because of the early start — though UMD was granted time for practice from 2:30 p.m to 3:45 p.m., starting right around the time they would have been hitting the ice for pregame warmups.
UMD kept it lively, mixing in a scrimmage halfway through. The Bulldogs won the scrimmage, defeating the Bulldogs 1-0.
“It was kind of a quick reset,” UMD coach Scott Sandelin said after practice. “The guys were good, they’re excited to keep playing. They would have rather played the game, but they were good today. We’ll have another morning skate tomorrow and get ready for whoever we play tomorrow night.”
Still the two-time defending national champions, the Bulldogs will be chasing a fourth-consecutive regional championship on Saturday and fourth-consecutive berth in the NCAA Frozen Four, this year April 8-10 in Pittsburgh.
The first of UMD’s three straight regional crowns came four years ago at Scheels Arena in Fargo when they beat Boston University 3-2 in overtime thanks to an Adam Johnson goal 1:57 into the extra period to reach the 2017 Frozen Four in Chicago.
The last two regional final victories came over Air Force in 2018 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and in 2019 against Quinnipiac in Allentown, Pennsylvania. There are 13 players still on the UMD roster who played in Allentown and six who were on the team in Sioux Falls.
“We felt it was going to be a great game, but as I just told a couple people, the weird year continues. We'll just try and get ready for whoever we're going to play.”— Matt Wellens (@mattwellens) March 26, 2021
Bulldogs advance to regional final after COVID-19 knocks out Michigan @TheRinkLive https://t.co/Ez19qIqHTX #fb
Friday was an entirely new postseason experience for everyone in the program during a season that’s been full of surprises.
“It sucks,” Sandelin said of Friday’s game being canceled. “Listen, it’s been a really weird year. It was remarkable that we got our regular season in with 24 games. Only two teams didn’t play 24 games. We got our league tournament in and we’re at this point. I hope nobody else goes through it.”
‘Cross your fingers every time’
The Bulldogs have been tested four times for COVID-19 since arriving in Fargo on Tuesday, and while Sandelin is confident in the safety protocols his program has in place, that doesn’t mean he’s confident every one of those tests will continue to come back negative.
“There’s no question you get nervous every time you test now when you see what’s gone on,” Sandelin said. “Just keep your fingers crossed every time that everybody’s negative.”
Michigan is the third team forced to withdraw from the NCAA men’s hockey tournament thus far. ECAC postseason champion St. Lawrence withdrew prior to the announcement of the bracket on Sunday, allowing the NCAA to allow another team in. That team was Notre Dame, but the Fighting Irish were forced to withdraw after positive tests in Albany on Thursday.
Per the same NCAA protocols used last week in Erie, Pennsylvania for the women’s tournament — in which all seven games were played without incident — teams arrived three days prior to their regional game. For the four in Fargo, that meant a Tuesday evening arrival for their initial COVID-19 test. Teams were then quarantined at their hotel throughout the day Wednesday and only allowed to leave for their second COVID-19 test.
All four teams were cleared from quarantine Wednesday night and allowed to practice on Thursday at Scheels Arena, though according to the schedule put out by the NCAA prior to the regional, the Wolverines were the only team to take their third COVID-19 test after practice, not prior to.
All four teams took a fourth COVID-19 test Friday morning, with Michigan up first this time.
The NCAA didn’t say when the positive test results occurred for Michigan.
In a statement issued by the University of Michigan, Wolverines coach Mel Pearson said he didn’t completely understand the decision by the NCAA — made in consultation with Fargo Cass Public Health — but, “I have to respect it.”
“I'm devastated for these players,” Pearson said in his statement Friday. “These student-athletes have done a wonderful job all year of making sacrifices to get to this point of the year. It's unfortunate.
"They've given so much and to get this opportunity taken away from them, it's hard to swallow. I know it's just a game, but it's extremely important to these young men. It's two years in a row now we've been denied an opportunity to compete in the national championship. It hasn't quite sunk in yet.”
This story was updated at 9:55 p.m. on March 26, 2021 with the result of the North Dakota vs. American International. It was originally posted at 5:16 p.m. on March 26, 2021.