Matt Wellens column: If there is a 2020-21 college hockey season, what will it look like?
Breaking down possible scheduling scenarios for NCAA Division I hockey as the coronavirus pandemic rages on.
Everyday a new college sports league is unveiling its latest plan to somehow hold a 2020-21 sports season.
And with eight weeks to go now before the NCAA Division I women’s season drops the puck and nine until the Division I men begin play, it seems college hockey is due to start unveiling its plans in the midst of an ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that continues to show no signs of slowing down.
Below are some potential scenarios I have come up with for college hockey in 2020-21 based loosely on conversations with those in the sport, with my own added twists thrown in.
Plan A: On-time start
With the United States averaging over 65,000 new coronavirus cases every day this week, and over a thousand deaths per day because of COVID-19 , it seems impossible that NCAA Division I women’s hockey will be dropping the puck in late September and the men a week later during the first weekend of October.
It would be highly irresponsible at this point to start the season on time as we’d likely see series getting canceled on a regular basis due to COVID-19 outbreaks (such as the Miami Marlins fallout). Entire programs could see their seasons decimated by an outbreak in their locker room.
Returning too quickly could result in a quick end to the season if too many programs are impacted.
Plan B: One-month delay
I’ve described the slow erosion of the fall 2020 sports season — which seems almost impossible to play in the fall at this point — as death by a thousand paper cuts, and we’re already starting to see this in college hockey.
Exhibitions have been canceled. Travel between programs in the East and West has been axed. Special events, like the 2020 Ice Breaker at Amsoil Arena, are being postponed to 2021.
When college hockey — either league-by-league or as a collective whole — starts making major scheduling announcements, I anticipate the first move will be along the same lines.
The first being declaring Nov. 1 as the new start date for regional non-conference play while all conference play will be pushed back to Jan. 1.
It’s a logical step that would allow programs who feel comfortable and safe playing games to start playing games. It’s a gradual return to normalcy by limiting travel and creating a flexible environment where games could easily be rescheduled if need be due to potential outbreaks.
And because there will be no fans in the stands still at that point — we’re so far off from fans being allowed into buildings — a Tuesday night makeup game against Bemidji State at Amsoil Arena in 2020 will feel just like it did back in 2016 .
Plan C: See you in 2021
If college football struggles to put together a season in the fall — multiple Big Ten teams have already had to push pause on summer workouts due to coronavirus outbreaks — the rest of college hockey will follow the lead of their Ivy League colleagues and suspend all play until Jan. 1, 2021.
If it comes to this, it will likely be conference-play only. That could very well be what the 2020-21 college hockey season looks no matter when play begins, with Hockey East already stating its intention to prioritize league play above all else.
League-only play makes perfect sense for the eastern leagues. They can set agreed upon standard coronavirus protocols and limit travel, with a few small exceptions.
In the West, however, realignment has created a trio of men's leagues that span multiple time zones. Most NCHC, WCHA and Big Ten programs finding themselves traveling more within their league than outside of it. The only way to limit travel for men in the west would be to abandon league play for a season and create temporary regional leagues or pods, as Minnesota State-Mankato superfan and Minnesota Wild scribe Dan Myers has suggested .
This, of course, would require unprecedented cooperation among those three leagues in scheduling and coronavirus protocols. And would they include Arizona State? It might be the only way for the independent to have any sort of season.
What about the NCAA tournament?
Because the Pairwise — the system used to select at-large teams and seed the NCAA tournament — relies so heavily on nonconference games, and nonconference games are looking more and more unlikely for a significant portion of college hockey, a new selection process will have to be determined. A new format for the men's and women's tournament may have to be considered too.
I’m probably getting ahead of myself when it comes to thinking of NCAA tournament scenarios. All of college hockey likely is. You can’t have an NCAA tournament without a regular season, and we won’t have a regular season unless we as a country get this pandemic under control.
If you want any sort of college hockey season in 2020-21, please wear a mask, wash your hands and social distance. Only then will we drop the puck again.