The Minnesota State men’s ice hockey team was practicing Friday when rumors surfaced that Michigan might be eliminated from the NCAA tournament because of a positive test for COVID-19.
Coach Mike Hastings was close to the boards when he learned that the Wolverines could become the third team to be eliminated from the tournament this week, after Notre Dame and St. Louis. St. Lawrence University. Hastings recalled telling his team that the tournament was cancelled last season due to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, calling it one of his most difficult moments as a coach.
While his team did not test positive, the fact that the other team followed all protocols – including testing their players, coaches and staff before the trip and retesting them for two days after arriving at their respective regional location before being allowed on the ice – and still tested positive on Friday was a stark reminder that the wool can be pulled over any team’s eyes at any time.
What happened with Michigan, I don’t know when that [positive test] came, but I think the test would have been done [Friday], which is game day, Hastings said. We haven’t talked about it [with the players] because I don’t want them to think about it, but it’s something I’ve struggled with. They were all clean, and then morning [Friday] came; then everybody sat down, I guess.
The players took the minutes seriously, but watching teams get knocked out of the tournament and all the hard work they had put in all season to get here made everyone at the four regional sites more aware. The reality is that the teams that left are not coming back and their hopes of a national championship this season are dashed.
On Wednesday, the first 16 teams traveled to Fargo, North Dakota; Bridgeport, Connecticut; Loveland, Colorado; and Albany, New York. Everyone who traveled with the team was required to have a negative PCR test before leaving campus and then two negative tests within 48 hours of arrival.
Getting to the venue was one aspect of the tournament that posed problems. Each team had different travel options and had to coordinate how to get to each location safely.
For Boston University and head coach Albie O’Connell, they were about three hours away by bus from their destination in Albany. The team travelled in three buses, spread out as socially as possible across the buses and wore masks throughout the journey.
However, this was not the case in the state of Minnesota. The Mavericks traveled 90 minutes by bus to the airport, flew to Denver on a charter plane with 31 separate rows of seats, then traveled another 90 minutes by bus to Loveland, trying to keep the seating arrangement in each car the same.
O’Connell felt comfortable with the team’s run, but when the other programs began to distance themselves, he made his players realize the seriousness of the situation. His team has played only 15 of a possible 24 games this season due to COWID-19 issues. So he knew how quickly things could change and the impact that could have in the near future.
Daily tests for each team are necessary, but they have become as taxing as practice during the game.
I’ll tell you what, since I’ve been coaching there, every time the kids think [the test] will be negative, O’Connell said. You go in, you lead the group, and it’s a little pressure cooker. I came in on the first day and about 30 people, socially dispersed, were sitting on chairs waiting for the results.
We had a guy with some heat, and I was like: Oh, my God, this is not good. It’s a nervous breakdown, and they shove the blob up there a little bit; a little higher than if you were treating yourself.
The protocols are as strict as it gets, so coaches can’t change much at this point to prevent positive tests.
The NCAA has a policy that provides for COVID-19 testing zones, which are reserved for those who will be tested at Level 1 and Level 2, including players, coaches, medical staff, support staff and appropriate team personnel. There is a designated Level 1 restroom, a buffer zone in the arena that includes the first five rows of seats or 20 feet from the back of the team bench.
The field and team rooms are thoroughly disinfected between each game and practice, the teams are housed on different floors of the hotel, and the players are either housed in a separate room or have a roommate to keep them dating from a distance.
Some team meetings are held in conference rooms where only four players sit at a table, while ten tables are scattered all around the perimeter.
The protocols state that players may only participate in team matches. That means they’ve been stuck in a hotel since Wednesday with nothing to do but get tested for COVID-19 and train.
Minnesota State skated on campus Wednesday morning, traveled to Colorado and didn’t get back on the ice until Friday. This is an abnormal procedure when preparing for a national tournament and trying to keep the athletes in top shape.
We’re trying to keep them active, and we’ve talked about jumping on the bus or buses and walking, Hastings said. We decided not to do it because we are very tight in the bus, even in two buses. As a staff, we talk about how we don’t want our guys sitting around lazing in a hotel room all day.
A typical option is going out, doing yoga with the team while being socially isolated and wearing a mask, or picking up food at the hotel and taking it back to individual rooms where they can eat.
But risking unnecessary exposure that can lead to self-deprecation just to take a walk is not worth it. The players sacrificed by getting tested several times a week during the season, some stayed away from their families to avoid exposure, and now they are safe.
However, this sacrifice is not easy for the student, as mental fatigue sets in. Their usual routine has been thrown out the window, and they are competing for the national championship, having to navigate protocols and restrictions that don’t normally exist.
Minnesota Duluth was the team that was supposed to play Michigan in the first round and learned the day of the game that it had been cancelled. After all that preparation, some players got up to take a nap before the game when they were told there would be no game.
Sure, they made it to the next round, but the way it happened was amazing and added to the myriad of thoughts that were running through their heads about how to keep their team in the tournament.
There’s no doubt you’re nervous every time you see what’s happening right now, Minnesota Duluth head coach Scott Sandelin said. So keep your fingers crossed that every test is negative. It’s crazy, as I’ve told many people, it was a weird year that got weirder and weirder.
Every day that players and staff are put to the test, there is another chance that the team will be taken out of the game without a loss on the ice.
These programs did not have the chance to compete for a championship last season when the tournament was cancelled, so they are grateful for this opportunity. But they know that tomorrow is not guaranteed.
They recognize that they must be more determined and cautious than in the past if they are to take full advantage of this opportunity. They can take the wins and losses knowing they left everything on the ice, but without that chance to compete, none of the remaining programs want to finish their season.
We said at the beginning of the year that the team that can play out the year is the team that stays the safest, is the smartest and takes the most precautions, O’Connell said. Whether it’s tomorrow, today, or the rest of the weekend, if we want to have any chance of moving forward, we need to step up.
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