After an eight-plus month hiatus due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Bulldog hockey returns to Amsoil Arena over the Thanksgiving Weekend when the Minnesota Duluth women’s program hosts Minnesota in WCHA play Nov. 27-28.

The WCHA announced the first four weeks of its 2020-21 schedule on Friday, with UMD opening the season in two weeks on Nov. 20-21 at Minnesota State-Mankato.

Two weeks may not seem like much of a notice to start the season, however, Bulldogs redshirt junior Naomi Rogge said the league could have announced the puck was dropping this weekend and her team would be ready to go.

“We’re set up pretty well with how our coaches have been preparing us and how our practices and workouts are going,” said Rogge, who missed last season due to a knee injury. “I feel like we’re sitting in a good spot with how we feel right now.

“All of us have been waiting for that other opponent on the ice with us. We’re super ready for it.”

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The Bulldogs will also host St. Cloud State on Dec. 4-5 and then travel to Wisconsin on Dec. 11-12 before the league pushes pause and resumes “as early as” New Year's Day, the league said in its announcement. A post-holiday schedule will be released at a later date with the WCHA hoping to play between 22 and 24 games during the regular season, WCHA commissioner Jennifer Flowers said.

As for fans at these games, Flowers said the decision will be left up to the individual schools.

UMD athletic director Josh Berlo said his department is working with the DECC, as well as local and state officials, on the possibility of having fans at Amsoil Arena for the two November series. If fans are allowed, UMD and the DECC would have to adhere to the state of Minnesota’s guidelines limiting large gatherings to 250 people.

“While we want our great Bulldog women’s hockey fans to be able to support their team, it must be in the safest possible manner,” Berlo said. “Regardless, we are all excited to drop the puck very soon.”

The Bulldogs are coming off an 18-12-6 season in 2019-20 with a fourth-place finish in the WCHA at 11-8-5. UMD’s leading scorer from last season is back in junior forward Gabbie Hughes (20 goals, 31 assists in 35 games) and the WCHA’s top scoring blueline, too, in senior captain Ashton Bell (11 goals, 21 assists in 36 games). Redshirt junior Naomi Rogge, a top-three scorer in her first two seasons with 47 career points, is also back on the ice after missing all of last year due to injury.

UMD does have to replace Olympic gold medalist Maddie Rooney in goal after she graduated. Freshman Jojo Chobak, junior Emma Soderberg and senior Hanna Markel are all battling for the starting job.

“This was a long time coming,” said Bulldogs coach Maura Crowell of seeing games on the calendar. “It’s a great day for all the hockey fans out there and especially our players. I know they are thrilled. They’ve been dying to get something solidified. We knew something was on the horizon, but to actually see your opponents and see the dates with it, that’s really exciting for them.”

The last Bulldog hockey games at Amsoil Arena took place March 5-6 when the Bulldogs men’s program hosted St. Cloud State. Less than a week later, college sports were shut down by the NCAA due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The UMD men are still waiting for their 2020-21 schedule, though there won’t be any games played by them at Amsoil Arena again in 2020. The NCHC will play 10 games in three weeks in a pod in Omaha, Nebraska, starting Dec. 1. That schedule could come as early as next week.

Work still to be done for WCHA

Return to competition protocols are still being finalized and awaiting final approval, the league said in its announcement Friday.

That includes a universally agreed upon testing protocol for the entire league.

“Everyone’s protocols and opportunities are getting better by the day,” Flowers said. “We're excited, very excited to give our young women the opportunity to compete, but we still have a lot of work to do to finish it out, and to come to the place where we can have a complete schedule. It's all trending in the right direction and we're thankful for the commitment that all of our institutions have made. The health and safety of everyone is the absolute priority and so you take what you can get and we move forward with the excitement of the opportunity.”

For November and December, the WCHA’s seven teams have been organized into two groups due to the varying COVID-19 testing protocols in the league, with the three Big Ten teams — Minnesota, Wisconsin and Ohio State — in one and the three of the NSIC schools — Minnesota State, Bemidji State and St. Cloud State — in another. UMD, also an NSIC member, will hop between both groups.

For games between NSIC schools, teams will adhere to the guidelines set forth by the NCAA Sports Science Institute, which includes using a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) or antigen test three times a week on nonconsecutive days to test for COVID-19, beginning one week prior to the start of competition.

The Big Ten has set higher standards for all of its schools in all sports, and any teams playing its schools in any sport as well. Those standards include daily antigen testing and enhanced cardiac screening.

UMD, as a member of the University of Minnesota system, is currently able to meet the Big Ten standards, and with the rapid advancements in testing taking place nationwide, the league hopes the protocol gap can be bridged by the others come January when the league restarts.

“Our university has done such a phenomenal job to put us in a position to be able to play both Big Ten schools and NSIC schools,” Crowell said. “We’re very fortunate there.”

Anna Klein, second from left, is swarmed by her Minnesota Duluth teammates after she scored a goal during preseason practice in October at Amsoil Arena in Duluth. The Bulldogs will begin 2020-21 ranked No. 8 in the USA Today/USA Hockey preseason poll, which was released Tuesday. (Clint Austin/caustin@duluthnews.com)
Anna Klein, second from left, is swarmed by her Minnesota Duluth teammates after she scored a goal during preseason practice in October at Amsoil Arena in Duluth. The Bulldogs will begin 2020-21 ranked No. 8 in the USA Today/USA Hockey preseason poll, which was released Tuesday. (Clint Austin/caustin@duluthnews.com)

This story was updated at 4:25 p.m. Nov. 6, 2020, with comments from UMD's Naomi Rogge and Maura Crowell, and more information from WCHA women's commissioner Jennifer Flowers. It was originally posted at 12:54 p.m. Nov. 6, 2020.