SCHENECTADY — It’s not unusual for Union men’s hockey head coach Rick Bennett to refer to his team’s approach to the preseason as “crawl-walk-run.”
This year, you can qualify the first step to a “slow crawl.”
With no game schedule set and some added disconnection between the coaching staff and players due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s not even clear when the Dutchmen will begin team practices on the ice yet.
They will start some on-ice skills sessions next Tuesday, but the 2020-21 process will be dictated in part by return-to-play rules that aren’t in place yet and just a general adjustment to a sports world still dealing with a deadly pandemic.
“With COVID, everything is just slow,” Bennett said on Sunday. “Our program decided that we wanted to take it slow. We pushed everything a week back, took a pause, wanted to see everyone get acclimated academically first and then walk into the off-ice work.
“Then we’ll get into both, off-ice and a few sessions on the ice, just to see where we are. It’s more from a cardio perspective. We’re just going to walk into it.”
At least there isn’t any immediate urgency to get into game form and fitness, since college hockey schedules could be postponed until well into the winter.
The Dutchmen usually begin the regular season the second weekend in October, but at this point, Bennett doesn’t expect to get more than a few games in before the New Year, if that.
Since the spring, ECAC Hockey has been looking at schedule models that could include some non-league games, but any model will have to take into account policies that are already in place for Brown, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton and Yale, who are separately under the auspices of the Ivy League.
Ivy League schools have travel, public gathering and campus visitation restrictions in place that likely will prevent the hockey teams from playing before Jan. 1, 2021.
Students began to arrive on the Union campus in August for the scheduled Sept. 9 start of classes.
“For us, we need to know what’s going to happen with return-to-play protocol,” Bennett said. “This changes every week, and we’re trying to learn from that before the schools or the league make an announcement.
“Will it be before January 1? I really don’t know that. Do I feel there’s hope for that? Certainly. Especially when a lot of schools have gone to that trimester look that Union has always done. Students are gone before Thanksgiving. That’s an awful long time, to be in December practicing still. Hopefully, we can add some games in there.
“I just think we’re making steps in the right direction, from what we hear and watching college football get off the ground, and basketball announcing. We’re just kind of in a little more wait-and-see, and we’re learning as we’re going along into the season.”
Bennett is taking his time looking for a replacement for associate head coach Jason Tapp, who left for an assistant’s job at Dartmouth.
“We’re going through it right now, making sure we find the right person,” he said. “We’re still in the process. It’s good for [assistant coach] John Ronan, too. He has many hats on right now.
“For our guys and for coaching, the past few years it seemed like we were sprinting to get to the first week of October. We’re taking a step back and enjoy the skill sessions, and before you know it hopefully we can get team practice at some point. I can’t tell when that will be.”
The Dutchmen lost senior Parker Foo, who signed a pro contract with Kunlun Red Star, a KHL team based in China. His first game with Red Star was last Saturday, as he joined his brother, former Union star Spencer Foo, in the lineup, something he never did in three seasons at Union, since Spencer left after his junior year.
Last week, Union announced its incoming 2020-21 recruiting class, which includes five forwards and two defensemen.
“What I like about it is it’s older,” Bennett said. “We kind of got back more to our Union ways, and it’s a nice blend of size, speed, and we attacked the areas we thought we needed to fill.
“The sophomore class was a pretty darn good class last year. It’s tough for me to comment on the incoming class because I didn’t get a chance to see them live, because I wasn’t able to get out because of COVID. Yes, there’s film, but it isn’t the same.
“But the way they showed up on campus, I’ve been impressed.”