College hockey announced the inevitable on Thursday.

After seeing its 2019-20 season end prematurely in the spring, the sport announced it is now being forced to delay the start of the 2020-21 season this fall due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in the United States.

Those who lead the sport are optimistic there will indeed be a 2020-21 season — though no one is sure what it will look like yet — and the hope is they can drop the puck by Thanksgiving.

“I generally feel more confident in our ability to get back on the ice this season than I have felt for a long time,” said WCHA women’s commissioner Jennifer Flowers. “I do think we’re headed in the right direction. Yes, we need some things to go in our favor, but the commitment level from our membership and from the league office to get these women on the ice has never wavered.”

WCHA women's commissioner Jennifer Flowers. File / WCHA photo courtesy of Bryan Singer
WCHA women's commissioner Jennifer Flowers. File / WCHA photo courtesy of Bryan Singer

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NCHC won’t start prior to Nov. 20

The NCHC, home to the Minnesota Duluth men’s program, said Thursday a variety of start dates are being considered, but the league now anticipates dropping the puck “on or after” Nov. 20.

“We want to be flexible, we have to be flexible,” Fenton said. “These are the times we are living in.”

Fenton said the NCHC felt Nov. 20 “was a responsible date to put out,” for a variety of reasons.

NCHC commissioner Josh Fenton. File / News Tribune
NCHC commissioner Josh Fenton. File / News Tribune

Medical guidance the league has received indicates mid-November as the earliest timeframe for schools to be in compliance with the NCAA’s return to play protocols, which for sports such as hockey include weekly testing for COVID-19.

A Nov. 20 start also allows the league’s eight members to reopen and operate their campuses safely before reintroducing athletic competition, and the weekend of Nov. 20 is when many NCHC members will be sending students home for an early and extended holiday break this school year, lessening the density of campus populations.

“We are optimistic that we can get there,” Fenton said of playing in 2020-21. “I can't give you the exact date of when we're going to get there, but I can tell you that we're optimistic that we will get there. Having said all that, we're going to do it in a safe and responsible manner, and if the science or the data, or the leadership at our institutions deem that it's not safe to do that for campus communities — in particular our student-athletes — certainly we will make decisions to alter course.”

WCHA caught in middle of Big Ten football debate

Meanwhile, the women’s WCHA — home of the UMD women’s program — did not provide any potential start date for the 2020-21 season, though in an interview with the News Tribune, WCHA commissioner Jennifer Flowers said there is some cautious optimism their league could also return in early or late November.

“It just felt more appropriate and it was much more the position of the (WCHA Board of Directors) that we not put a date out there that doesn’t have any true meaning behind it yet,” Flowers said. “I think our coaches and student-athletes have a pretty good handle of where we are at and we just didn’t feel like having a date was going to do anything positive.”

Flowers said the WCHA is still trying to build uniformity across the all seven teams’ COVID-19 testing platforms and a delay may buy the league the necessary time to accomplish that. Some schools are unable to meet the NCAA’s testing requirements, while some are able to test more than others at this time.

Flowers said the league is also beholden to the status of the multisport conferences WCHA members compete in — the Big Ten and Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference. The NSIC — home to UMD, St. Cloud State, Bemidji State and Minnesota State-Mankato — has paused all competition until Jan. 1 while the Big Ten — home of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Ohio State — has made it known it will be tough for the league to play any sports until a plan for football is in place.

“Very honestly, it’s huge. It’s huge for us to get the Big Ten playing football,” Flowers said. “It’s been pretty noted that across the Big Ten institutions that if there is no football, it will be a real challenge to really have anything else.

“As I said to our coaches yesterday, the really interesting part about all of this is that so many of the things that we need to happen are completely unrelated to hockey, has nothing to do with hockey. It has everything to do with sources and actions outside of hockey that need to go in our favor so that we can get back on the ice.”

Bulldogs easing into delayed season

Teams will still be allowed to commence in-season practices based on existing NCAA rules during the delay, in conjunction with local, state and institutional restrictions and guidelines for activities during the pandemic. Per NCAA rules, coaches are currently permitted to be on the ice with their team for four hours per week. Women’s teams may begin practicing 20 hours per week on Sept. 19 while the men can begin Oct. 3.

“We knew delays were inevitable, so it’s hard to necessarily get going. I’ve kind of gone through some things, but now we’ll formalize a plan moving forward,” said UMD men’s coach Scott Sandelin. “It’s going to change, we’re going to have to do some things that keep it fresh for guys.”

Minnesota Duluth head coach Scott Sandelin, shown during 2019 NCHC Media Day at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. File / News Tribune
Minnesota Duluth head coach Scott Sandelin, shown during 2019 NCHC Media Day at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. File / News Tribune

Both UMD hockey programs returned to campus in late August after dispersing in the spring at the start of the pandemic. While captains practices are underway, Sandelin and UMD women’s coach Maura Crowell said Thursday neither is in a hurry at the moment to join their teams on the ice, using the delay to ease back into the season after a tumultuous offseason.

“This allows us to use more time to get everybody up to speed, to acclimate the freshmen to the group,” Crowell said. “It's allowing our captains to take on more leadership responsibilities without coaches being around for a few weeks, so I see it as a positive.”

Thursday’s announcements by the NCHC and WCHA came shortly after a joint statement by the College Hockey Commissioners Association, which is made up of the 11 NCAA Division I men’s and women’s hockey leagues.

Only the NCHC and WCHA — men’s and women’s — made their own announcements Thursday.

“The 11 Division I men’s and women’s ice hockey conferences, represented by the Hockey Commissioners Association (HCA), are committed to providing memorable experiences for our student-athletes during the upcoming season,” the statement reads. “The conferences have been working together on plans to return to play with a focus on the health and safety of everyone associated within our campus communities. Due to the impact COVID-19 continues to have across the country and within higher education, the start of competition for the Division I college hockey season will be delayed. Each conference will announce plans for the season individually. We look forward to enjoying the college hockey experience this season.”

This story was updated at 4:09 p.m. on Sept. 10 with comments from NCHC commissioner Josh Fenton and Bulldogs women's coach Maura Crowell; and at 1:52 p.m. Sept. 10 with comments and details from WCHA women's commissioner Jennifer Flowers and Bulldogs men's coach Scott Sandelin. It was originally posted at 12:03 p.m. Sept. 10.