For the second time this year, RPI has called off hockey.
This time, in the case of the men’s team, it’s not the tail end of a breakout regular season heading into a promising postseason, but the entire 2020-21 season.
Citing “a continued effort to safeguard the students, faculty, staff and community from the COVID-19 virus,” RPI announced Monday that men’s and women’s ice hockey would not compete this season.
The move comes on the heels of an announcement last week that the Ivy League had canceled all winter sports, now leaving ECAC Hockey with just five teams, Union, Clarkson, St. Lawrence, Colgate and Quinnipiac. In response to the Ivy League cancellation, the ECACH said it would announce plans for a conference season “in the coming days.”
It was a tough pill to swallow for both Engineers programs, but one that they knew might be coming.
“Long-term, for RPI hockey, this is a major blow, but one that assistant coaches] Chuck [Weber] and Scott [Moser] and [operations coordinator] Mathias [Lange] … we have tremendous staff and have built tremendous momentum that ended abruptly in March,” men’s head coach Dave Smith said on a Webex conference call. “We will continue. Our guys have been working their tails off more uniquely and creatively than before, and we will find a way back to build on this past momentum. It will absolutely be a challenge, but will be one that this particular staff can handle.”
“Our seniors, you think of them immediately,” women’s head coach Bryan Vines said. “It’s their last chance, maybe, to play a competitive hockey game at the highest level. So your heart goes out to them.
“Then down the line through your roster, they’ve been doing this their whole lives and have been on skates since they were 5. It puts things into perspective that these decisions are massive. A lot of people are making a lot of sacrifices, and they’re going to make another big one here.
“As you might imagine, I just met with our two teams, and it’s always a difficult and complex discussion with them,” RPI athletic director Dr. Lee McElroy said. “They had lots of questions and lots of concerns about our decision and how we went about the decision and how we got to this point.
“We’re dealing with now what’s being called the third wave of the pandemic, so when we look at the health and safety of our community, which includes our coaches and student-athletes and staff, it’s a very difficult decision. We made it based on that information.
“Literally, the ground is shifting every day, with the pandemic and COVID-19.”
While the Engineers women’s team went winless in 34 games in 2019-20, the men’s team enjoyed a substantial turnaround in Smith’s third season at the helm, finishing 17-15-2 overall and 13-8-1 in ECACH, after going a combined 16-50-7 in Smith’s first two seasons.
RPI earned a bye in the first round of the ECACH playoffs and home-ice advantage for the quarterfinals against Harvard, but Harvard pulled out because of the pandemic, and after the Engineers were assigned Colgate as an opponent, RPI also decided to pull the plug on the playoffs.
Then the ECACH called off the rest of the postseason, and there also was no NCAA Tournament.
“On a lighter note, our win streak remains intact for a longer time,” Smith wryly noted, in reference to the last four games of the 2019-20 regular season. “The story we can tell is one of momentum on the ice.
“Scott Moser and Chuck Weber, who are our primary recruiters, have been knocking it out of the park in recruiting because of the story we can tell. We have a wonderful story to tell about progress, we have a clarity in our mission to be successful here. It takes time, and decisions like canceling a season, we don’t know how that’s going to affect us.”
One possible ramification is players deciding to transfer out to schools that are playing this season, which includes every Division I conference except the ECACH.
RIT has canceled its season, and Vermont, which was supposed to open this Saturday, announced on Sunday that it would delay until Dec. 18, after a recent significant uptick in COVID-19 cases in that state.
Brad Schlossman of the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald reported via Twitter last week that RPI’s star goalie, Owen Savory, had entered the transfer portal.
Smith declined to confirm that, but said, in general, about players wishing to leave RPI, “If they’re a sophomore, we’ve had 700 days to convince them [to be here]. My job is not to convince them today. That’s a Hail Mary.
“I’ve had 700 days to show them, and if they decide to transfer, it’s based on one of two things, they believe their hockey clock is ticking and they need to play, or they feel their academic clock is ticking and they need to go somewhere else.”
The RPI men’s and women’s hockey players were informed via Webex Monday afternoon that their season was over.
McElroy said seniors will retain a year of eligibility.
“The ECAC, the Ivy League, the pandemic and the scope of it, the timing of it, the fact that our campus is shutting down on Nov. 20 and we won’t be back until 2021, in-person [classes] won’t start until Feb. 1, all went into it,” he said. “The ECAC plans to compete, and we had to make a decision not only in the best interests of men’s and women’s ice hockey, but the entire university community.”
“It’s a difficult day, it’s disappointing and we’re going to digest it over the next few days and continue the communication process with the student-athletes and where their heads are at,” Vines said. “They’re here for their academics, too, and that’s where we’ve shifted our focus, making sure they’re staying on track toward their degrees. How it’s going to impact the program, we’ll see, but we’ll be creative and as always provide the support and give them the best experience we can offer.”
“Maybe the biggest answer is it’s all hard; everything is hard about this,” Smith said. “It’s hard studying remote-only. Their on-campus experience is not the same. Mental health is hard for them, because their identity is as a hockey player.
“They came to RPI to play hockey, and now that’s been removed, so their routine is disrupted, their conversations with their friends and family is disrupted. Their academic pursuit is disrupted. There isn’t a single thing about this that is convenient or easy.”