College football has returned, sort of. Three of the Power Five conferences are playing, and the other two will start later in October. Even a D3 game was played this past weekend, as Trine beat Adrian in a Michigan Intercollegiate Athletics Association game.
Where is College Hockey At?
The powers that be in college hockey—the Hockey Commissioners Association, which represents the six D1 conferences—issued a statement three weeks ago that hockey was indefinitely delayed, with no games to start earlier than November 20th. Subsequently, all of the conferences have been busy trying to put together a schedule of conference games starting after January 1st. This leaves some time for non-conference games between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, if any teams want to try and schedule something.
There are a couple of loose ends in this plan. What will Arizona State and Long Island U. do as independents? Perhaps they will temporarily join a conference for this year. However, there won’t be a true Pairwise Ranking for the NCAA tournament with (at best) a truncated non-conference schedule, so slots in the tourney will probably be earned by performance in either conference standings or playoffs.
How six conferences will divvy up 16 tournament spots is another question that’s not yet answered. And it also begs a question: why would any conference let ASU or LIU join them and possibly take away an NCAA bid from one of their regular members? Maybe one of the three eastern conferences will take in LIU so they can have someone to beat on as the Sharks are starting from scratch this year.
Tuesday afternoon, the B1G answered Arizona State’s likely prayers by agreeing to include the Sun Devils in conference play for the coming season. However, it’s a pretty one-sided deal. ASU will play all B1G games on the road, and they won’t be included in the conference tournament. Whether that allows ASU any path into the NCAA tournament remains unclear at this time. The conference may also start play as early as November 13, which is in conflict with the earlier HCA announcement. As usual, it looks like the B1G is trying to split hairs to get things their way and not yield much to the overall health of college hockey.
In an interview on MIX93 in Houghton on September 22, MTU Athletic Director Suzanne Sanregret told listeners that the WCHA and the other conferences are developing many alternative scheduling schemes, and that the WCHA is discussing non-conference games with both the NCHC and B1G. Also, she noted that the Great Lakes Invitational tourney in Detroit is very unlikely this year, although Tech, Michigan State, and Michigan may try something else to substitute for the oldest holiday tournament in college hockey.
The Pandemic is Still With Us
At the same time, the situation that’s arisen in football still has a lot of holes in it. Notre Dame has had to cancel a game due to COVID-19, and teams like Texas Tech and Louisiana State (and others) have had plenty of players test positive and end up in quarantine for a couple of weeks.
The SEC, the big bad SEC, has allowed limited fan seating at games, too. But when the Old Dog watched the Georgia-Alabama game on ESPN Saturday, there were students sitting side by side in large groups, not wearing masks, jumping around and screaming together in a fairly limited (albeit outdoors) area. Will a super-spreader event come from this? For the record, the Florida Gators seemed to have a better handle on attendees, with seating areas designated for small groups marked with clearly visible seat colors, and there seemed to be good spectator discipline in “The Swamp.” All of this shows, though, that the potential for something less than desirable to occur is very real.
Michigan Tech has also just bumped up their “MTU Flex Plan” to Level 4, stopping in-person classes for two weeks, as case loads in Houghton County have soared.
What Can The Huskies Do?
So, what can Joe Shawhan, his staff and the Huskies do between now and the end of November? Well, the first thing that they need is to have a very high level of discipline and, to the greatest extent possible, try to avoid any coronavirus infections among players, coaches, equipment personnel, and basically everyone who interacts with the team in terms of hockey.
It’s then important that these same people avoid any risky behavior that could lead to an infection. The coaches can urge, explain, and do many things, but the young adults associated with the team will have to take individual responsibility to maintain the kind of public health discipline that most epidemiologists have said will minimize infection risks.
That won’t be easy.
At the same time, the team can practice, but it’s difficult to develop the kind of mid-level sharpness that the Huskies would like to have once whatever-schedule-arises starts. Sure, they can drill, try to maintain a high level of fitness, and have game-condition scrimmages. But nothing can match the mental and physical intensity of competing against another team.
The Old Dog can propose a couple of things for Shawhan and Company to consider.
The first is to read an outstanding article in Sports Illustrated that explained New York Islanders coach Barry Trotz’s approach to defense. As the Islanders showed in the Stanley Cup bubble this year, Trotz is a master tactician, and this article is a 15 paragraph virtual outline for a PhD in defensive play. (As the Old Dog read this several times, I kept thinking “Nicklas Lidström highlight film.”)
Any serious fans of the game will likely love the principles that Trotz explains.
The Huskies have a strong defensive core returning this year, and with the addition of Mark Sinclair in goal, if they can apply Trotz’s ideas, they could play with any team in the country every night.
The second suggestion I have is that they should explore the next level of technology in coaching and training feedback. A company called Helios Hockey is on the cutting edge in this area. A former Massachusetts Institute of Technology captain (MIT had a DIII team for several years before dropping back to club play), Bill Near founded Helios to apply modern sensor technology to measuring, tracking and analyzing individual player skills. Using smart devices, AI software, smart video and cloud-based apps, Helios can scrutinize the biomechanics of any player’s skating, shooting and passing techniques.
You can read about Helios and Near here.
For Michigan Tech, this seems like a natural. It also seems like an opportunity for the College of Engineering to look at how they can expand on Near’s technology—although that’s not something that could happen in the next two months.
It could also inject some high-tech interest for the players in what might become a boring routine of practice, practice, practice.
The Semi-Last Word
In short, while I’m sure every Husky is just straining at the leash, like a sled dog anxious to race right now, I think this temporary hiatus is a great opportunity to get out in front of the curve in many ways. When the Old Dog was a student, it was evident that John MacInnes became one of the all-time great college coaches by extending his knowledge of the game, the training techniques the Huskies used, and the new ideas that were bubbling up all over the world in hockey. MacInnes was an incredibly early adopter of European-style training, particularly with goalies, and I clearly remember how players’ skating seemed to improve dramatically during their Tech careers.
Systematic defense a la Trotz and applying bleeding edge technology to training could go a long way to driving the Huskies into the very top tier of college hockey powers. Becoming known as a perennial national contender and gaining a reputation as a first-rank developmental program could also impact recruiting for the future, too. It has the potential to become a self-catalyzing reaction.