Winter is coming.
Winter sports are not, for many college athletes.
Union College hockey, for one, is forging ahead with the idea that there will be a 2020-21 season, and the men’s team even has two games tentatively scheduled in late December.
The rest of the winter sports at Union and its Division III Liberty League cohorts got the bad news on Monday that the conference had decided to cancel the season “due to the evolving COVID-19 pandemic,” which affects basketball, swimming and diving, indoor track and field and squash.
In response to the Liberty League decision, Union issued a general statement about the fate of winter sports, with a paragraph specific to hockey that Division I ECAC Hockey “hopes to have more clarity on the 2020-21 men’s and women’s ice hockey seasons by mid-November.”
Lacking that clarity, all Union men’s hockey head coach Rick Bennett can do is continue to prepare for the season while still under some pandemic-related restrictions during practice.
The Dutchmen have non-conference home games “scheduled” for Monday, Dec. 28, against Army and Wednesday, Dec. 30, against Sacred Heart.
“It’s premature right now with that [scheduled games],” Bennett said. “That’s a hypothetical. We’re just trying to plan in advance and be ready so that if we get the go-ahead, we’re ready to try and go, at least. All those games are tentative. That’s why I tell people pencils have erasers.”
Besides Union, Liberty League schools include RPI and Skidmore.
The conference decision was based on a vote of 11 administrators on the Liberty League Presidents Council.
The member schools are concerned about off-campus travel limitations, restrictions on visitors to campuses and how playing winter sports might compromise efforts to maintain physical distancing, the Liberty League statement said.
“The decision to cancel Liberty League competition and championships was made after careful consideration and review of relevant facts and data,” Liberty League commissioner Tracy King said in the release. “COVID-19 infection rates continue to increase throughout the country and we have also seen spikes in our college communities, which creates additional challenges for our institutions.
“We understand the deep sense of disappointment felt by our student-athletes that have trained and prepared for competition and we understand and share in their disappointment.”
“As we have seen the number of COVID-19 cases rise both in the region and across the country, this was a very unfortunate and difficult decision that we had to make,” Union athletic director Jim McLaughlin said in a release from the school. “The health and safety of our student-athletes, coaches, staff and entire community continue to remain our top priority as we look to maintain the positive steps our campus community has taken so far this year.”
Skidmore athletic director Gail Cummings-Danson echoed those points in a statement from her school:
“We are deeply disappointed that this decision was necessary; however, we remain fully committed to our teams and all our student-athletes, coaches and staff.
“The health and safety of our student-athletes, coaches, staff and entire community remains our top priority. We will continue to monitor the situation and alter our guidelines and protocols as necessary. We thank everyone for your support, patience and understanding as we navigate these unprecedented times.”
One Liberty League school, Rochester Institute of Technology, announced that hockey would be included in its winter sports cancellation, even though the Tigers hockey program plays Division I and is a member of the Atlantic Hockey Association.
The RIT men’s hockey team issued a statement saying it plans to fight the decision and wants to meet with school president David Munson to make its case.
The Union men’s hockey team has progressively been allowed to expand what it can do at practice, but it remains no-contact.
They spent two weeks in a pod format, with just six players at either end of the ice, then used more of a split-squad approach.
As of a few weeks ago, they’ve been practicing with the whole team on the ice at the same time.
“It’s difficult, but at the same time, we’re together and trying to make the most of it,” Bennett said. “[Athletic trainer] Cheryl Rockwood is up to date with all the COVID rules, and we’ve been following all those guidelines and what our athletic director Jim McLaughlin has told us. We’ve been following it to a tee. If a drill gets a little out of hand, it just stops and you learn from it. We’re just trying to do the best we can with what we have and within the guidelines.”
Like ECAC Hockey, Hockey East continues to hang in limbo, but some hockey conferences have come up with schedules and will begin as early as this Friday, when Wisconsin will play at Notre Dame.
The National Collegiate Hockey Conference has split into two divisions based on geography and will play a 26-game conference schedule. The first portion will begin on Dec. 1 and will take place in a pod format in Omaha, Nebraska, and the second portion on campuses will begin on Dec. 31.
The Big Ten has worked out about 10 games per team through Dec. 20, beginning with the Wisconsin-Notre Dame game, has non-conference games against Arizona State scheduled for each member school and plans to hold the single-elimination Big Ten tournament March 18-20.
The Western Collegiate Hockey Association has a mix of conference and non-conference games scheduled and plans to start on Nov. 20.
“Let’s just say it’s good to see,” Bennett said. “We’re an outsider looking in, from our league perspective, so, yeah, it looks good, but every league is different and is making different decisions.”
Bennett said practice, limited though it is, has served as a welcome relief from current events for his players.
“It’s really quite simple. They’ve attacked their schoolwork, and when it’s time to go to the rink, I think that’s like a getaway for them. And they’ve been excellent, as far as practices, and it’s just a different feel from last year. It’s tough to explain, from the fact that you’re battling this whole COVID thing and then you have this release to do something you love and just go to the rink and kind of forget about everything.
“I kind of feel for everybody. But, yeah, I guess there is a soft spot for the seniors. I feel for the seniors that were in a spring sport last year, and how about the poor seniors that were in the fall. We’re not going to sit here feeling sorry for ourselves. We’re sitting here waiting for the word.”