As we reach Labor Day next week, it is becoming increasingly apparent that even the best of circumstances, the college hockey season will not be beginning on time in October as it traditionally does. The question then becomes: when will it actually start?
Mike McMahon of College Hockey News posted this promising tweet last week:
Re: the Hockey East stuff I posted yesterday ... I've heard a January date mentioned a few times, but there is growing optimism among some coaches & ADs that games could begin as early as November.— Mike McMahon (@MikeMcMahonCHN) August 29, 2020
This more or less mirrors what I’ve been hearing, but I wanted to expand on it a little bit.
The good news for college hockey is that I think some of the sport’s leadership has been out ahead of the curve in terms of contingency planning. Even as far back as last April, I had heard rumors of schools at least starting to think about and put together plans for a January 1st start date. Schools were understandably quiet about their plans for potentially pushing things back, but I do think most had a decent plan for starting on January 1st.
This stands in stark comparison to what we’ve seen in college football, which seemed to keep their head in the sand about the possibility of having to adjust their schedule beyond the minor tweak of a conference-only schedule until the last possible moment, and has since been flailing around tossing out proposals of a January start and spring start and trying to see if anything sticks. To be fair, football presents some larger challenges with being limited to one game per week and pushing back the season too far causing most of the top players to sit out to prepare for professional football in 2021. But it has been a mess.
What has changed in recent weeks is a strong push from college basketball to begin their season around Thanksgiving weekend. If college basketball is able to start, then there is little reason that hockey can’t be played as well. The theory is that most colleges will be sending students home after Thanksgiving and with no students on campus, it will be easier to keep the virus in check and out of locker rooms. I think there will be enough push to get basketball games back on the court that it will happen, and college hockey should be able to start around the same time.
There are still a lot of unknown variables, however, that could change things, both for the good and the bad. On the plus side, cheap, widely-available rapid saliva testing is looked at as a potential game-changer for allowing sports to go forward. If that becomes an option, we’ll almost definitely see sports this year. Increased awareness and mask use could also play a role in keeping virus counts heading in the right direction.
On the opposite side, I don’t think anyone really knows right now what is going to happen to case numbers as we move into the fall and schools re-open, the weather forces people into more indoor activities, and our health infrastructure also has to be deal with the regular influenza season. There is some concern that we’re barely handling things during what should be the easy time for controlling the virus and the difficulty may increase.
That just addresses the issue of whether college hockey games could be played this winter from a public health standpoint. But there are other factors to consider, the biggest of which will be whether fans are allowed in the building. Most college hockey programs aren’t wildly profitable ventures to begin with, but with no money from ticket sales and likely drastically less sponsorship money, most programs are facing massive deficits if they are able to play.
So far, we’ve seen the BCHL push back to a December 1st start date, and a number of the NAHL’s South Division teams opt out of the season not because of the virus itself, but because a season just isn’t financially viable if they can’t sell tickets. I don’t think those will be the last junior teams to make that call if fans aren’t allowed in the stands either.
College hockey programs are in a unique position compared to the rest of the hockey world though, in that they’re a small piece of a larger multi-billion dollar institution which provides a little extra insulation for those massive deficits. But it’s still expensive to run a hockey team and schools are already going to be incurring a lot of big losses elsewhere. If the season does go forward, I’d expect to see extremely limited travel. Eastern schools should be fine, but I’m not sure if the western leagues will be able to hold a full conference season because there is a lot of travel required to do so. I’d expect something closer to an extended non-conference slate with match-ups kept as local as possible.
What would that mean down the line for things like the Pairwise and the NCAA Tournament? If anybody knows, I haven’t heard it yet. I don’t think we’re there yet. All the focus seems to just getting players on the ice and having some sort of season and then dealing with those issues down the line once people have a better understanding of what the season will actually look like.
In total, I’m increasingly confident that there will be probably be some sort of college hockey season, but I don’t think, even with a delayed start, it will look anything like a normal college hockey season.