By Scott Lowe - MYHockeyRankings.com
One of the positives to come out of the pandemic was the unexpected hearty dose of Stanley Cup playoff hockey we were gifted throughout the late summer and into the early fall. Unfortunately, that pleasant surprise also has created a huge void for hockey fans who are used to watching professional and college hockey in October and November.
That is about to change.
The long-awaited and delayed NCAA Division I men’s hockey season gets underway Friday, with teams from the Big Ten and Atlantic Hockey facing off as part of college hockey’s opening weekend.
Wisconsin, unranked but receiving votes in the USCHO Division I poll
, travels to Notre Dame to take on the 20th
-ranked Fighting Irish as the Big Ten opens play Friday and Saturday in South Bend, Ind. Friday’s game can be seen live on NBC Sports Network at 7 p.m.
In Atlantic Hockey’s season-opening contest, D1 newcomer Long Island University travels to West Point to take on Army Saturday at 4:30 p.m. LIU will be playing every team in Atlantic Hockey twice this season but will not be eligible for the league’s postseason tournament.
Also on tap this weekend, No. 15 Arizona State plays a pair of games at No. 12 Michigan Saturday and Sunday as part of the Big Ten’s regular-season schedule. Saturday’s game is set for a 3 p.m. start, and Sunday’s 7 p.m. tilt can be seen on the Big Ten Network. ASU, an independent, will play all seven Big Ten hockey teams four times each this season but will not participate in the league’s championship tournament. Division III Adrian takes on Division I-foe Bowling green in an exhibition game Friday as well.
NCAA Division I women’s play gets underway the following week, with Minnesota-Duluth, No. 8 in the USCHO national poll
, traveling to Minnesota State and St. Cloud State hosting Bemidji State Nov. 20. Those four teams face off again Nov. 21, while No. 4 Minnesota also hosts fifth-ranked Ohio State.
On the men’s side, in addition to the Big Ten and Atlantic Hockey, the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) and National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) have announced their plans to return to play along with at least preliminary schedules, and Hockey East did the same Wednesday.
At this point, the only league that hasn’t formally announced a return-to-play plan of some sort is the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC), which may be waiting for a final decision from its Ivy League member schools – Cornell, Brown, Princeton, Yale, Harvard and Dartmouth – about plans for their seasons. In July the Ivy League canceled fall sports and determined that it was unlikely any winter sports would be played before Jan. 1, 2021. The ECAC has six additional teams – Colgate, Quinnipiac, Clarkson, St. Lawrence, Union and Rensselaer – in addition to the Ivy League representatives.
Division I leagues are deferring to state, local and institutional COVID-19 guidelines when it comes to staffing, spectators and other concerns while also developing their own protocols for testing, how to handle student-athletes who test positive and team travel, among other issues.
By and large, the conferences have prioritized ensuring that their teams play a complete equitable league schedules along with postseason championship tournaments while attempting to minimize risk factors. Keeping this in mind, conferences have built in scheduling flexibility to allow for potential COVID-related postponements, taken advantage of the opportunity to isolate team members from the rest of the student body by scheduling more games in December when most students are away from campus, split into geographically based divisions with unbalanced schedules to limit travel and overnight stays, and for the time being at least, eliminated most non-league games.
NCHC Bubbles Up
The NCHC has gone so far as to create a plan that will send each of its eight member teams to a “pod” in Omaha, Neb., to compete in the first portion of the league schedule between Dec. 1 and 20. Each NCHC team will play in 26 conference games, for a total of 104 league contests, with the first 40 of those taking place in at Baxter Arena in Omaha.
““The ingenuity of our membership to think creatively about how to construct a schedule that focuses on the health and safety of people associated with our programs has been impressive,” NCHC Commissioner Josh Fenton said in announcing the plan Nov. 9 “The geography of the Conference makes it nearly impossible to truly regionalize the schedule, but through this unique approach, we were able to build something that provides deserving student-athletes the competitive experiences they’ve earned, while prioritizing their health and safety.”
The NCHC is dividing into two divisions based on geography to assist with scheduling. The East Division includes Miami, Minnesota Duluth, St. Cloud State and Western Michigan, while Colorado College, Denver, North Dakota and Omaha will play in the West Division. Teams will play their divisional opponents six times each for a total of 18 games and each team in the other division twice. All of the cross-divisional games will take place in Omaha.
During the three weeks in the “pod,” for the most part there will be two games per day during the week – except on Mondays – and three games per day on weekends. Teams will play 10 total games in the pod, including the two against cross-divisional opponents and one against each divisional rival. There will be a short break once play in Omaha is completed, with league play resuming Dec. 31.
The NCHC season begins Dec. 1 with a doubleheader in which Colorado College faces Omaha and St. Cloud State takes on 18th-ranked Western Michigan. Four NCHC teams – North Dakota (1), UMD (3), Denver (5) and WMU (18), open the campaign ranked among the nation’s top 20, with St. Cloud and Omaha also receiving votes.
Hockey East Enters the Chat
Hockey East, which just announced its plans for the season Wednesday, boasts the nation’s second-ranked team in Boston College as well as No. 7 Massachusetts, No. 11 UMass Lowell, No. 17 Providence and No. 19 Northeastern. Boston University, Maine, Connecticut and New Hampshire also received votes to place among the preseason top 40. That leaves Merrimack and Vermont as the only two Hockey East programs not mentioned as potential top-40 teams.
League play in Hockey East is slated to begin Nov. 20, with each of its 11 teams scheduled to play 20 conference games. The schedule will feature weekend home-and-home series that allow for day-of-game travel only with the exception of games involving Maine and Vermont. Three of the weekends will be considered “flex” weekends, which can be adjusted, if necessary, to maintain a competitively balanced schedule for each program if there are COVID-related postponements on other weekends.
The primary objectives when creating the Hockey East plan were to provide a double round-robin schedule for each program and to avoid having multiple campus populations coming together during a single weekend. There will be vigorous testing for teams, staff members and officials, and each institution will be able to determine how many spectators will be permitted to attend games in conjunction with local and institutional COVID-19 guidelines. Details about the format for the 2021 Hockey East Tournament will be released at a later date.
“We’ve worked closely with all our member institutions in establishing protocols in an effort to play as safely as possible, while also giving our teams a complete and meaningful season,” Hockey East Commissioner Steve Metcalf said in announcing the league’s plan.
Every Hockey East game during the 2020-21 season can be viewed live on either the New England Sports Network (NESN) or free online via one of VIACOM/CBS Digital’s platforms. The NESN TV schedule beings with a women’s matchup featuring Boston College at New Hampshire on Nov. 20 at 4:30 p.m. and includes a pair of men’s contests that evening, including New Hampshire at Boston College and Massachusetts at Maine at 7 p.m. A minimum of 30 Hockey East men’s and women’s games can be seen on NESN between Nov. 20 and Jan. 1.
Atlantic Hockey Was Ready to Roll First, But Now …
Atlantic Hockey was the first Division I league to present a complete plan for its COVID-impacted season, announcing the schedule and season format Oct. 15, but the league hit a bump in the road earlier this week.
The announced conference schedule featured 24 games and allowed for teams to play up to 28 total contests. Play still begins this weekend with the Army-LIU matchup and concludes with all competing member programs participating in the league’s championship tournament, which culminates in March at Buffalo’s LECOM Harbor Center.
“It’s been a long process, and involved quite a bit of discussion, but it’s a testament to all those involved that we have managed to get Atlantic Hockey on the ice in 2020-21,” Commissioner Robert DeGregorio said when the plan was announced. “We put this schedule together to maximize the student-athlete experience during such uncertain times. We found a way to schedule up to 28 games while maintaining a focus on the health and safety of all parties by reducing travel times and overnight trips as much as we could.”
To accomplish this, the league separated into eastern and western “pods,” with Air Force standing alone because of its location. The eastern pod includes American International, Army, Bentley, Holy Cross and Sacred Heart, while Canisius, Mercyhurst, Niagara and Robert Morris will form the western pod. Rochester Institute of Technology also was slated to play in the western pod before announcing this week that its team will not be competing during the 2020-21 campaign.
"This was a very difficult decision and we understand the disappointment this brings to our student-athletes and coaches," said RIT President David Munson. "But given the rise in COVID-19 in our community, as well as across the nation and globe, this is the right thing to do for athletes and community safety. We remain committed to providing RIT Tigers the highest-level academic experience as well as a safe environment where they will be able to continue their growth as individuals and as teams."
At this point, Atlantic Hockey has not released an official statement regarding how RIT’s withdrawal would affect its 2020-21 schedule. College Hockey News reports that the team is fighting the decision and has asked for a meeting with President Munson.
Prior to that announcement, the plan was for each Atlantic Hockey team to play five games against the other members of its pod and to play Air Force and LIU twice each for a total of 24 games. In addition to playing each permanent member team twice, Air Force was slated to play LIU four times. Standings were to be determined by points percentage given the uncertainty of teams being able to complete a full schedule because of the COVID situation and the unbalanced schedule, which had Air Force playing two fewer league contests than the others.
But now it appears as though Atlantic Hockey will have to adapt yet again. AIC, which earned the top spot in the league’s preseason coaches poll
, received the 27th
-most votes in the USCHO national top-20 poll. Sacred Heart and RIT also received votes.
Game On in the WCHA
Shortly after Atlantic Hockey announced its plan to move forward with a 2020-21 hockey season, the WCHA came forth with its plan for the upcoming campaign, presenting its 18-game league schedule on Oct. 28. Each WCHA team will play a single series against the other nine programs in the conference, with all but three of the games to be played in January and February.
WCHA teams will also play a total of 38 “non-league” contests. With limited opportunities to schedule opponents outside of the conference because of the pandemic, most of these games will feature WCHA teams playing against each other with the results not included in calculating the league standings.
Each WCHA team will face at least one other conference opponent in “non-league” competition. Alabama Huntsville and Bowling Green are the only WCHA teams scheduled to face opponents outside of the WCHA. UAH opens its season at Robert Morris Nov. 20-21, while Bowling Green travels to Robert Morris Nov. 24 before facing Mercyhurst in a home-and-home series Nov. 27 and 29.
BGSU, which received the 22nd-most votes in the USCHO national top-20 poll, also travels to No. 13 Quinnipiac and hosts Robert Morris in December to round out the non-league schedule for WCHA teams.
The first “non-league” game featuring two WCHA programs is set for Nov. 20 when fourth-ranked Minnesota State, the winner of our MYHockeyRankings.com NCAA Championship Simulation last April
, travels to No. 16 Bemidji State. Only three actual league games will be played before 2021, with Northern Michigan visiting Lake Superior State Dec. 2 and Minnesota State heading to Alaska Anchorage for a pair of contests Dec. 18-19.
The WCHA regular season concludes the weekend of Feb. 24-27, and the weekend of March 5-6 has been set aside as a bye or makeup weekend to accommodate any games that may have been postponed. As far as the league’s postseason tournament is concerned, it is scheduled for the weekends of March 12-13 and March 19-20, but the format will be determined at a later date.
WCHA return-to-competition protocols will include any state or local guidelines in the location where games are being played as well as stringent COVID-19 testing for student-athletes, coaches, staff and game officials and social-distancing requirements at all WCHA arenas.
No. 4 Minnesota State, which was picked first in both the WCHA coaches
and media polls
, and No. 16 Bemidji State are the only two WCHA teams ranked among the nation’s top 20 in the USCHO preseason poll, but Bowling Green, Northern Michigan and Michigan Tech each received votes.
The women’s WCHA has announced a partial schedule, with teams playing eight games each between Nov. 20 and Dec. 19 before taking a holiday break with the possibility of resuming play as early as Jan. 1, 2021. Bemidji State travels to St. Cloud State and No. 8 Minnesota Duluth is at Minnesota State for two game series to open WCHA women’s regular-season play Nov. 20 and 21. No. 5 Ohio State also travels to No. 4 Minnesota Nov. 21 and 22.
Big Ten Back to Action Friday
Big Ten play gets underway this weekend as part of the conference’s 24-game league schedule. In addition, each Big Ten team will play independent and 15th-ranked Arizona State four times at home. The Big Ten Tournament is scheduled for March 18-20, 2021.
“The 2020-21 hockey season builds on the rich traditions of Big Ten Hockey and brings new competitive opportunities to the conference with the Arizona State University scheduling agreement,” Commissioner Kevin Warren said back in October. “As our teams return to competition, we will continue to keep the health and safety of our student-athletes at the forefront of our decisions."
The Big Ten’s postseason tournament returns to the one-weekend, single-elimination format of the past and will include all seven conference teams – Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Penn State and Notre Dame. Three games will be played Thursday, March 18 with the top seed receiving a bye. The semifinals will take place March 19 followed by the championship game March 20.
Big Ten teams will follow the COVID protocols established by the league’s return-to-competition task force in September, including daily antigen testing, enhanced cardiac screening and utilizing an enhanced data-driven approach for making decisions about if and when to restrict practice and competition. Arizona state will adhere to the same protocols.
The first half of the Big Ten schedule was announced Nov. 5. Play begins this coming weekend the series between Wisconsin and No. 20 Notre Dame and the series featuring No. 15 Arizona State vs. 12th-ranked Michigan. Five Big Ten teams plus Arizona State enter the campaign ranked among the nation’s top 20 in the USCHO preseason poll. In addition to Michigan and Notre Dame, Penn State (9), Ohio State (10) and Minnesota (14) are ranked while Wisconsin received votes.
NBC Sports Network and Big Ten Network also announced their schedules of televised Big Ten games for the first half of the season this week. BTN will broadcast 12 contests, including Sunday’s ASU-Michigan game, between Nov. 15 and Dec. 9. NBC Sports Network will televise and additional eight contests featuring Notre Dame, starting with this weekend’s contests vs. Wisconsin, between Nov. 13 and Dec. 10.
WCHA and Atlantic Hockey contests are streamed via FloHockey.TV
, with monthly packages available starting at $12.95.
In addition, many men’s and women’s Division I college hockey games are available on CBS Sports Network and various regional sports networks throughout the season. A complete current update of which games are scheduled to be aired and where you can find them can be found at CollegeHockeyInc.com
No matter how you slice it, there will be plenty of great college hockey action to watch between now and the holidays, presenting a tremendous opportunity for the sport to showcase itself to new fans with the NBA and NHL seasons most likely on hold until at least late December.
Tune in and enjoy!