SCHENECTADY — The fall term is only weeks old, and the Union men’s hockey team has already graduated.
With still no 2020-21 game schedule to speak of — and none on the horizon — the Dutchmen have been making a slow progression through what amounts to a protracted training camp.
On Tuesday, that progression moved up a step from a four-man pod format they used for the first two weeks to a split squad set-up, which puts more players on the ice during practice at any given time, but does not lift the no-contact, six-feet-of-separation restriction.
Last week, senior co-captains Josh Kosack and Sean Harrison said they were encouraged by evidence that their team had taken the offseason seriously, while hampered by the difficulty to find ice time. Then the Dutchmen were off ice for the first four weeks since returning to campus, but now that they can get on the Messa Rink sheet on a regular basis, at least they can work on stick and skating skills while knocking the rust off.
“We’re hopeful that we’ll start [playing] in December, but who knows, right?” Kosack said. “I’ve heard a bunch of different stuff, so we’re trying to take it day by day and control what we can control, then see what happens.”
“It’s good to get back on your edges and get a lot of puck touches,” Harrison said. “But I know guys are itching to get back into full team skate. I’m not sure when that’ll be. We’re just taking care of what we can do.
“There was a little rust in the first couple skates, as there should’ve been, because it was four weeks of not being on the ice since we got to school. Once that was knocked off, you could start to see guys’ skill sets come through.”
“I’m not going to sit here and tell you it was Mites tryouts, but … let’s just say it looked like a bunch of guys who haven’t been on the ice in awhile,” head coach Rick Bennett said with a chuckle on Wednesday morning.
In a typical October, the Dutchmen would be starting their regular season this weekend.
The 12-team ECAC Hockey has been holding weekly conference calls to keep tabs on how everyone else has been handling the pandemic-induced limbo.
The Ivy League, which has six member schools in ECACH, has said it won’t play hockey before Jan. 1.
Then the Yale Daily News, the college newspaper, reported on Tuesday that six Bulldogs hockey players had tested positive for COVID-19, and that the school had shut down all varsity sports activities until at least Oct. 21.
Bennett said he’s been pleased with how Union and his team have taken care of coronavirus business so far, even as the possibility of a positive test constantly looms.
“It’s all predicated on the protocol and how we’re going about things on campus and those guidelines,” he said. “We’ve taken it really slow here. We had two weeks, then another two weeks, and hopefully after the split groups we’ll be able to get into full team. Now, whether full team is contact or not, well, I guess that’s up to the governor.
“Our trainer, Cheryl Rockwood, has been terrific, she’s been on top of everything, and we’ve followed the guidelines that she’s put out for us. We’ve followed it to a tee, and the way I look at it, it’s got us to week 3. We’re working and hoping to get to week 4.”
During the two weeks of small-pod work, Union would have just eight total players on the ice for each session, four forwards at one end and four defensemen at the other.
The four goalies had their own separate pod, while working with new volunteer coach Bryan McDonald, who owns the Albany-based MAC Goaltending, a skill development and consulting company. McDonald worked in a similar capacity with Colgate last season. Former associate head coach Jason Tapp, who left for Dartmouth in the offseason, had been the designated goalie coach.
“[Assistant coach] John [Ronan] has the forwards, and I feel bad for the ‘D’ that they’re stuck with me,” Bennett said. “Bryan was able to really specialize with the goalies and work on things he believes in. Then we incorporated them [into the split-squad] this week, which is nice.”
In the split squad, there are from 10-12 players on the ice at a time, but they still are restricted to shooting, skating and stickhandling drills.
“It’s a lot of individual stuff while keeping our distance on the ice, no physicality, nothing like that,” Kosack said. “It’s passing and shooting skills, which is kind of nice to get back into, but definitely a lot different than a normal practice. We’re just trying to play it by ear for now.”
“It’s been really kind of productive,” Bennett said. “It’s been good for the guys, and we’re giving them more rest between drills as they build up their cardio. Some of these guys haven’t been on the ice for a month. The way we looked at it is the first two things that suffer, when you haven’t been out on the ice for awhile is obviously cardio, and the second is your hands.
“Every week we have a call, and every call we get closer, but still, every week brings something different. That’s [schedule] going to come from the commissioner’s office. But as a coach in this league, that’s up in the air at this time.”