And then there were four.
Union College decided Tuesday to cancel its 2020-21 men’s and women’s hockey seasons as a means of keeping COVID-19 cases in check.
Athletic director Jim McLaughlin said the decision was made in consultation with college president David Harris and vice president of academic affairs Strom Thacker and was timed to coincide with finals and a holiday break before the start of the winter trimester in January.
While most Division I hockey conferences plan to play this season, the Union announcement, coupled with RPI canceling hockey on Monday and the Ivy League canceling all winter sports last week, leaves the 12-team ECAC Hockey with just four teams in 2020-21, Clarkson, St. Lawrence, Quinnipiac and Colgate.
McLaughlin, Union men’s coach Rick Bennett and women’s coach Josh Sciba informed the players of the decision Tuesday morning and will meet with them individually to talk about future plans, including whether players may want to transfer out.
“I appreciate our administration waiting until the last second to see if we could figure out a path to make this work,” Bennett said. “At the end of the day, it was the right decision, based on the way the [pandemic] trend is going.
“I just feel for our student-athletes. And everyone across the country that’s lost someone to COVID. And the numbers.”
“It’s certainly a disheartening day for our players,” Sciba said. “They’re going through a bunch of emotions right now. You’ve got kids that are sad, they’re frustrated. There are kids that are angry. But when you look at this, what we appreciate is the time and effort that was put into this decision. And it’s a hard decision, and it was the right one, given the circumstances and the world around us.”
“Obviously, an incredibly difficult and disappointing day,” McLaughlin said. “We had a Zoom call with the players at 11 this morning. I knew it was going to be difficult; I didn’t know it was going to be that difficult. It’s heart-breaking, given how hard they’ve worked and wanting to move on.
“We wanted to make sure we were doing the responsible thing. The priority that was guiding us was the health, safety and well-being of our student-athletes, our coaches and staff and the entire campus community.”
Union has been practicing, having gradually shifted through phases that increased the number of players on the ice, but with a no-contact restriction.
The men’s team even had three non-conference games lined up, according to the collegehockeystats.net schedule page.
In the ever-shifting college hockey landscape, RIT reversed a decision not to play, announcing the move around the same time that Union dropped out, and Vermont has postponed the start of its season until Dec. 18 because of a spike in COVID-19 cases in that state.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Tuesday that of the 159,852 tests reported on Monday, 5,088 (3.18%) were positive and that there were 29 fatalities in New York.
“We waited as long as we could to see if we could find a path forward, but over the last week, when we see a million cases in six days, it just didn’t appear to be the responsible thing to do for the entire community and everybody involved,” McLaughlin said.
“We had engaged in conversations over the last couple weeks, just like every other institution, and we were going to arrive at our own decision on what was best for Union College and our students. Given the recent trends, it just wasn’t the responsible thing to do.”
Union students begin finals this week and will not be back on campus until Jan. 11.
The hockey teams will continue to practice, even without a game schedule, and per NCAA rules, the players won’t lose a year of eligibility.
McLaughlin said one scenario could be for hockey players to defer the winter and spring terms and make those up in the fall and winter next academic year while competing.
“Seniors and everybody involved will have another year,” he said. “That’s something we made very clear on the call. We gave all of the available options to them, which could mean staying on path to graduate, finishing out your academic career and utilizing that year as a graduate transfer. I think we’ve seen in the transfer portal a lot of the Ivy League players doing that.”
It’s unclear what long-term impact the cancellations will have on the programs.
“It’s a process that we’re going to talk to our current team first,” Bennett said. “We’ll evaluate the recruits that have committed to Union College, see where they stand and then find that perfect balance coming in.
“Everyone’s in the same boat. The seniors are a bit different. For some this is a huge decision. Was that the last time, the last game, wearing the jersey? Or not. It’s going to come from them. But I know our coaching staff, I know Jim and the administration will support whatever these seniors decide to do.”
“I think they’re going to take a deep breath here and kind of process everything,” Sciba said. “We’ve been very lucky. The kids that we have want to be at Union, and I’m pretty confident that at the end of all this, they’re going to take a deep breath and have some productive conversations that they’re going to want to come back and work on their game and be ready for next season.
“If kids want to leave, that’s their prerogative. I’m confident we have the right kids who want to be here.”