MINNEAPOLIS — The 2019-20 college hockey season came to an abrupt end on March 12, with the coronavirus pandemic causing cancellation of the conference and NCAA playoffs. If all goes per the Big Ten’s plan, the 2020-21 college hockey season will begin almost exactly eight months later.
On Tuesday the Big Ten announced the resumption of on-ice competition as soon as Nov. 13, with each of the conference’s seven hockey programs playing a 24-game conference schedule and four additional games — all of them at home — versus Arizona State. The conference season will finish with a single-elimination Big Ten tournament featuring all seven teams, to be held March 18-20, 2021.
"We're beyond excited, beyond happy, with what we've gone through since last March. What the guys have done all summer is lived on hope, so it's great for the Big Ten to come forward and allow this to happen," Minnesota Gophers coach Bob Motzko said. "We got to announce it to our players on the ice at practice and they're fired up. All they wanted is a date. Now they can go home and circle that date on the calendar and we can start to make plans for hockey season."
The health and safety of players is a paramount concern for the conference, which noted that hockey teams will follow the same medical protocols that were developed by their Return to Competition Task Force and announced last month. Those protocols include daily antigen testing, enhanced cardiac screening and an enhanced data-driven approach when making decisions about practices and games. Arizona State, which is a member of the Pac-12 for most sports and is an independent for hockey, has agreed to adhere to those testing protocols.
"Now more than ever, players have to take responsibility. They got what they wished for, they got what they wanted, and now the ball is in their court to social distance, wash hands and wear a mask," Motzko said. "If you're smart and do the things you're supposed to do, you can avoid it."
Gophers captain Sammy Walker said that being smart, being safe and wearing masks outside the rink is a small price to pay for the chance to finally get back on the ice next month.
"We've just been kind of sitting around waiting, so to finally hear the date is awesome. We're super excited," said Walker, a junior forward. "We're ready, and it's going to be fun."
The 28 games will be the only ones permitted by the conference, meaning no further non-conference games, and a six-game reduction in the college hockey schedule, which is normally 34 games plus tournaments. Motzko admitted disappointment at not getting to play regional rivals like North Dakota and the four other schools in Minnesota this season.
"Going into it, if we knew it would land on 28 (games), we'd be ecstatic with that, with all that's going on," Motzko said. "Playing our regional rivals is always primary in our sights, and unfortunately for us it sounds like we're going to have to miss that for the year."
Similar to the first four years of Big Ten hockey, when the postseason tournament rotated between St. Paul and Detroit and was held over one weekend, the 2021 Big Ten Hockey Tournament will return to the three-day, single-elimination format. All seven conference teams — Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin — will compete, with three games on Thursday, two games on Friday and the championship game on Saturday. A site for the tournament was not announced.
“The 2020-21 schedule and the modified Big Ten Tournament format have been structured in a way that maximizes flexibility for the season,” said retired former Michigan coach Red Berenson, who now serves as special advisor to the Big Ten commissioner, for hockey operations. “The opportunity to return to competition in mid-November and the scheduling agreement with Arizona State is an exciting time for Big Ten Hockey.”
Arizona State coach Greg Powers, in a Tuesday afternoon Zoom call, said the arrangement is not indicative of a longer-term affiliate agreement with the conference. Notre Dame hockey is currently one of just three affiliate members of the conference. Johns Hopkins men’s and women’s lacrosse are the others. Power said that although his team will have no homes games this season, all of the Big Ten teams have agreed to play two road games at ASU in the future.
"It's going to be seven road trips where we'll play Minnesota and Wisconsin in the same trip, or we'll play Ohio State and Notre Dame on the same trip," Powers said, adding that they plan to make one trip to Penn State for four games versus the Nittany Lions over a several-day period. "We're used to traveling 10 to 11 times over the course of a season. We're going to have seven road trips this season."
The full 2020-21 Big Ten and Gophers hockey schedules, including times and television designations, as well as further details regarding the 2021 Big Ten Hockey Tournament will be announced at a later date. One Gopher athletics official said it is still to be determined whether and how many fans would be allowed at home games played at 3M Arena at Mariucci.