Coach Mike Hastings was near the boards when a coach let him know the Wolverines could be the third team to withdraw from the tournament this week, joining Notre Dame and St. Lawrence University. Hastings recalled memories of telling his team the tournament was canceled last season due to the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic, remembering it as one of the toughest times he’s had experienced as a coach.
Although his team had no positive tests, the fact that another team followed all protocols – including testing their players, coaches and essential staff before traveling and retesting them for two days at home. ‘arrival at the respective regional site. before being cleared for the ice – and still having a positive test on Friday was a stark reminder that the mat could be pulled from any team at any time.
“What happened to Michigan, I don’t know when [positive test] came, but I guess this test would have been [Friday], which is game day, ”Hastings said. »We did not elaborate on this subject [with the players], because I don’t need them to think about it, but that’s what I’m struggling with. They’ve been clean on all of those and then it shows [Friday] Morning; that one, I think, made everyone feel stale. ”
The players had taken the protocols seriously, but seeing teams pulling out of the tournament, erasing the hard work they put in all season to get there, raised awareness for everyone at the four regional venues. . The reality is that teams that have gone home are not coming back, and their hopes for a national championship this season have faded.
On Wednesday, the original 16 teams visited their respective locations in Fargo, North Dakota, Bridgeport, Connecticut, Loveland, Colorado and Albany, New York. Anyone traveling with the team was required to produce a negative PCR test before leaving campus within 48 hours of arrival, then was required to produce two negative tests within 48 hours of arrival.
The trip was one aspect of the tournament that created a challenge. Each team had different travel arrangements and had to coordinate how to safely get their team to each site.
For Boston University and head coach Albie O’Connell, they were about a three-hour bus ride from their destination in Albany. The team took three buses, socially left behind on the buses as best they could and wore masks throughout the trip.
This was not the case for the state of Minnesota, however. The Mavericks took a 90-minute bus ride to the airport, flew in a charter plane to Denver spread across all 31 rows while socially distancing themselves, then took another 90-minute bus ride all the way to Loveland while trying to keep the seating charts the same in every vehicle.
O’Connell felt comfortable with the team’s journey, but once the other programs started to pull back he made his players realize the gravity of the situation. His team had only played 15 out of 24 possible games this season due to COVID-19 issues, so he knew how quickly things could change and the immediate potential impact.
The daily tests that take place for each team are necessary, but they have become as nerve-racking as coaching in a live match.
“I’m telling you what, being there as a coach, the kids think they’re going [test] negative every time, ”O’Connell said. You go there at the head of the group, and it’s a bit of a pressure cooker. I went, the first day I did, and there are about 30 socially estranged people waiting in chairs for their results.
“We had a guy with a bit of a fever and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, that’s not good.’ It’s scary and they block the swab a bit high up there too; a little higher than when you administer yourself. ”
Protocols are as strict as they get, so there isn’t much that coaches can change to avoid testing positive at this point.
The NCAA has implemented policies that include COVID-19 testing areas, areas reserved for level 1 and level 2 test takers, which include players, coaches, medical staff, coaches and staff members of the the team involved. There are designated bathrooms for Level 1 individuals, a buffer zone in the arena that includes the first five rows of the seating area or 20 feet from the back of the team bench.
The playing field and team areas are thoroughly disinfected between each competition and training, the teams are separated at the hotel on different floors and the players are either in their own single room or have a roommate to continue their distance social.
Some of the team meetings are held in conference rooms with only four players at a table with 10 tables spread throughout.
Protocols require players to participate only in team activities, which means they have been stuck in a hotel since Wednesday with nothing else to do but get tested for COVID-19 and train.
The state of Minnesota skated Wednesday morning on its campus, traveled to Colorado and did not retreat on the ice until Friday. This is not a normal procedure when preparing for a national tournament and trying to keep the athletes in optimal condition.
“We try to keep them active and we discussed taking a bus or buses and going to a place to hike,” Hastings said. “We decided not to do it because one bus is a tight environment, even two buses. As staff we are talking about how we don’t want our guys to stay in their hotel rooms all day. ”
The typical option is to walk outside the hotel, do yoga with the team while being socially distant and masked, or have a meal at the hotel and bring it back to their individual rooms for eat it.
But risking unnecessary exposure that could lead to withdrawal on their own just to hike is not worth the risk. Players have sacrificed to get tested multiple times a week all season long, with some staying away from their families to avoid exposure, and they’re not risking anything now.
This sacrifice is not easy for a student, however, as mental fatigue begins to set in. Their normal routine has been thrown out the window, and they fight for a national championship while navigating protocols and limitations that normally wouldn’t. does not exist.
Minnesota Duluth was the team scheduled to face Michigan in the first round and found their game had been called off on game day. After all the preparation, some players were going into their pre-game nap when told there would be no game.
Sure, they moved on to the next round, but the way it turned out was shocking and added to the myriad thoughts going through their heads about how to keep their own team in the tournament.
“There’s no doubt you get nervous every time you test now when you see what’s going on,” said Minnesota Duluth head coach Scott Sandelin. “So keep your fingers crossed every time when you test that everyone is negative. It’s a crazy thing, like I’ve told a lot of people, the weird year just keeps getting more and more weird. ”
Every day players and staff are tested, this presents another chance that a team can be eliminated without losing on the ice.
These programs did not have the opportunity to compete for a championship last season when the tournament was canceled, so they are grateful for the chance. But they know that tomorrow is not guaranteed.
They understand that they have to be diligent and more careful than they have been if they are to see the opportunity to the fullest. The wins and losses they can face knowing they left it all on the ice, but not having that chance to compete is not how other programs want to end their season.
“We said at the start of the year, the team that could end up at the end is the team that stays the safest and the smartest and takes the most care,” said O’Connell. “Whether it’s tomorrow, today or the rest of the weekend, if we have the opportunity to move on, we’ll have to pack it all up. ”