On Tuesday, the Big Ten announced its men’s hockey league would begin play as soon as Nov. 13.
However, that doesn’t mean the Western Collegiate Hockey Association women’s hockey league — made up of three Big Ten schools and four from the Division II Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, including Minnesota Duluth — is ready to announce a start date.
To return to play during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic in the United States, WCHA women’s commissioner Jennifer Flowers said Wednesday the biggest hurdle for her league remains developing a COVID-19 testing protocol that can be both agreed upon and attainable for all seven of the league’s members, which include Big Ten members Minnesota, Wisconsin and Ohio State and NSIC members UMD, St. Cloud State, Minnesota State-Mankato and Bemidji State.
“Much like every other league outside the Big Ten men, we’re constantly working towards merging two or three or more multisport leagues,” said Flowers, who added that she and other college hockey commissioners continue to meet regularly. “So all of us are in the same scenario right now trying to really understand the needs of our institutions and finding ways to balance those needs, and get together in a protocol that can be both attainable and agreeable. We remain in that space right now.”
Big Ten men’s hockey — which includes Notre Dame, an affiliate member, and for this season only, Arizona State, though the Sun Devils are not postseason eligible — is adopting the same protocols that were put in place for football by the conference’s return to competition task force, including daily testing and enhanced cardiac screenings.
Student-athletes, coaches, trainers and essential staff at practices and games are required to take a point of care antigen test prior to each practice and game. Those who test positive then must take a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test to confirm the COVID-19 diagnosis.
Those testing requirements are much stricter than the health and safety guidelines released by the NCAA on Sept. 25 for basketball — and expected to be implemented for other high-contact indoor winter sports like hockey in the near future — which suggest testing of student-athletes, coaches and other essential staff three times per week on nonconsecutive days throughout the season.
And all of that is much stricter than the guidelines that were issued back in August suggesting high-contact sports test once a week, within 72 hours of competition.
UMD athletic director Josh Berlo said the Bulldogs women's hockey program can meet whatever protocols the WCHA eventually agrees upon, even if it's the Big Ten's high standards.
"UMD is well positioned to meet whatever conference standards are decided upon in the WCHA due to the hard work of our staff and our partners at Essentia Health," Berlo said. "We've been able to secure significant access to antigen testing and are prepared to utilize that in the interest of the health and safety of our hockey student-athletes."
With technology continuing to evolve, Flowers said the NCAA since August has opened the door for other testing methods beyond the lab PCR test, which is a nasal cavity swab that is considered the gold standard when it comes to testing for COVID-19. A diversity of testing methods is something that other college hockey commissioners have pointed to as being key to getting back on the ice this season.
Flowers is optimistic the women’s WCHA can work together to get back on the ice in 2020-21, and that a November start date is still within reach. That’s the goal, she said.
“I’m proud to say we’re making great advancements. I think everyone is very committed,” Flowers said. “It’s a challenge unlike any of us have ever had to go through and I just remain really proud of our membership. We continue to work together, work for the good of our women, our student-athletes, who we want to get back on the ice competing. I feel good about that. We just have to continue to work, be honest and find a solution.”