Michigan Tech didn’t play this past weekend, as COVID-19 cases sidelined Northern Michigan. In addition, the Huskies are scheduled to play Minnesota State this coming weekend in Houghton. On Monday’s Joe Shawhan hour, we learned that the games may be moved from Friday-Saturday to Sunday-Monday . The Mavericks are currently in a “pause” in hockey activity as a result of at least one case announced on November 23 (which resulted in the cancellation or postponement of a game against rival Bemidji State).

If you add 14 days of quarantine to November 23, it may mean the Mavericks could have limited practice this week. If anything else arises, that would probably mean no trip to Houghton and no games this weekend. But as of November 30, the games are a likely–but not a certain “go” for December 6-7. A quick check of the WCHA website on December 1 does not address the MTU-MSU game, although it does note three other rescheduled games.

How Tech Hockey Guide is Affected

This is just one small piece of a much larger picture that we are seeing in both professional and college sports. Just trying to keep track of how many COVID cases have arisen, with which team and which players are involved, is nearly a full time job.

And just so everyone realizes, THG is a volunteer effort of about 20 individuals who try to sandwich research, writing articles, editing and recording a podcast every week into their lives. We run very few ads on our website, get a few donations, and receive income from Tim Braun’s Chasing MacNaughton podcast patrons—and that cash is spent for the equipment needed to produce a high-quality audio result each week. We also earn a bit of money from jersey sales. With web hosting and other fees to pay, no one is getting rich doing this work. I personally earn nothing and am a paying podcast patron (Ed. note: none of us make anything for working on the site or podcast, and a good chunk of our excess funds are actually given to support Mitch’s Misfits).

As a result, it’s almost a sure bet that any summary of the current state of the coronavirus pandemic in sports, or college hockey in particular, will likely be out of date by the time it’s written, edited and published. Braun, Dustin Lindstrom, and Rob Gilreath went down that path in last week’s podcast and it was a maze of changing news and maybe-this and maybe-that. It was the best they could do, but unless you are a 24-7 news organization (and THG is not), you can’t follow the story in a timely way.

That brings the Old Dog to a point I wished and hoped I would not have to visit. It’s probably time to ask whether playing amateur sports in the middle of a pandemic is something that should go forward.

When I volunteered to write for THG in 2017, I had to clear the hurdle of proving I could write well enough and be given the privilege of filling this space on a regular basis. Then I faced the reality of writing a column almost every week once the hockey season started. That may seem easy enough but trust me, it’s not.

How might I approach that challenge? I had to consider the kind of content that the fans of the Huskies would like to see, and, more importantly, what boundaries I would try to respect. I never wanted to venture into politics, and I never wanted to use this platform to call for someone to be fired. There are plenty of other people willing to do those things and I didn’t want to use this column for those ends.

Certainly, I can reflect on the most recent series, and that is the mainstay of my weekly columns. But that can’t be all there is. I’ve done a few interview pieces with alumni but those take a great deal of time. All told, that can take the better part of 2-3 weeks and dozens of hours and so I need to plan those well in advance.

I’ve also done travel pieces telling the story of how Mrs. Dog and I have gone to Tech games in locations like Huntsville, Las Vegas and Phoenix. We even managed to watch one series at the JMac which was special for us because we had season tickets as students when Them Dogs moved into the then-new stadium in December 1971.

I don’t think there will be any of those articles this year.

COVID-19 and College Sports

This week, there’s an elephant in the room and it’s hard to ignore. The NFL has stumbled through repeated farces, like the Denver Broncos fielding a team this weekend without a bona fide quarterback, or complex rescheduling to preserve key matchups like Pittsburgh-Baltimore that the virus has caused. The opening week of college basketball met COVID-19 as well and disrupted several early season tournaments.

In college hockey, the Ivy League teams in the ECAC have called off the entire winter sports season, leaving that conference with just four teams. Rochester Tech canceled their season then changed their mind just a couple of days later.

All of that makes me wonder if exposing young adult athletes to the additional risk of playing a contact sport like hockey (or basketball, or wrestling for that matter) in the midst of a serious pandemic that’s spread by respiratory transmission is a good idea. For that matter, I’m not sure about the morality of much older adults (coaches, commissioners, and university administrators) making those kinds of choices, either.

Just bringing this up takes me across one of my boundaries—the political boundary. I’m no epidemiologist and I certainly don’t want to argue the constitutionality of public health measures in this day and age. Here, at least, are key arguments for and against going ahead with this year’s season.

The Pros

Let’s first look at why-we-should play elements of this complex issue.

  • The players really want to play. They can opt out if they choose, but after an initial wave of some deciding not to risk a potential pro career, the opt-outs have stopped. Some players are even returning to juniors or transferring so that they can get more game experience and exposure to bolster their chances of playing beyond college. Parental oversight is almost completely supportive of players wanting to get on the ice.
  • Fans want the games to go on. There is little question that the social isolation that the pandemic has brought has strained the mental health of a vast number of people, and high-level sports are a most-welcomed diversion from the reality of working from home, staying out of restaurants, and not seeing friends and family on a “normal” basis.
  • Well-conditioned athletes who have become infected, with very few exceptions, have not suffered severe complications or long-term symptoms. There is some evidence that myocarditis, a potentially serious irritation of the heart, has injured a few athletes—but the original reports of this were overblown or exaggerated, and this hasn’t turned out terribly so far.
  • While no one has done a thorough study of the statistics yet (and it would be decidedly difficult to do this well and not contribute to the wide spread misinformation about the pandemic), my back-of-the-envelope guesstimates of infection rates for athletes aren’t all that much different than the infection rates for the general population.

The Cons

The negative side of this issue is more speculative but still important.

  • The impact of the virus on long-term health is still unknown. When the Old Dog was small, polio was rampant every summer and the specter of paralyzed children in wards full of iron lungs was utterly terrifying. Like today, the race for a vaccine was heated and controversial, but mothers rushed their children to get a “polio shot” as soon as the vaccine became available. It’s an indelible memory for me of having stood in line for over an hour just to get jabbed with a needle at my elementary school at age 5. Now, 65 years later, people who “recovered” from polio have developed severe problems that have either greatly diminished their quality of life or even led to early mortality. We really don’t know how this will play out for SARS-CoV-2.
  • The potential for athletes transmitting the virus to more vulnerable individuals is tough to argue with. This includes minor officials, referees, other students and family members. But with the effort that most coaches are taking to educate players about this—and to discourage them from associating with anyone other than their teammates—is helpful. What’s the balance of these factors? I certainly don’t know.
  • Creating additional risk for anyone for recreation is questionable, period.
  • For the NCAA, in football and possibly basketball, television revenue is paying the expenses of competition. Sports like hockey don’t generate much TV cash, and have no paid attendance this year. Universities, already under extreme cost pressure from the pandemic, are cutting costs everywhere. How can hockey be justified in these conditions?

What’s the Balance?

I certainly think everyone involved has a clear opportunity to exercise informed consent to play. Moreover, the risks are apparently no greater for players, staff, and officials than they would be if everything were cancelled until the pandemic had run its course.

Finally, I’ll admit to a selfish reason as well. I really want to escape the harsh reality we all face every day in this pandemic-driven period. College hockey can do that for us. That does NOT mean I’m not keenly aware of the risks that are on the table. As an Old Dog, who faces a longish list of threat factors, I’m even more at risk.

Nor do I want to diminish the incredible courage that medical personnel are showing every day, nor minimize (or add to) the huge emotional and physical burden that these true heroes are displaying fighting this disease.

I never wanted to write about something like this in this column.

But I have to say that I want the season to go forward, with all of the uncertainty and—no doubt—risk that exists. I’m also willing to accept that the whole thing will have a make-it-up-as-we go flavor.

As concerned as I am personally about dying from COVID-19, I also know we can not just dig a hole, jump in, and cower away until the pandemic passes by. We need to take the right precautions and do whatever we can as individuals to reduce the spread of this disease.

That does not mean that the human experience, which includes recreation and entertainment and fun, has to stop.

So let’s drop the puck when and where we can, and patiently wait when we can’t. And enjoy it when hockey can be played.

4 COMMENTS

  1. My thinking boils down to this – if the *other* students aren’t allowed to be on campus, then the student-athletes probably shouldn’t be playing. If I read Tech’s website correctly, the administration basically sent the students home for Thanksgiving and told them not to come back until after New Years. Therefore…

    • All true, Tom. I’m not sure this is a situation that’s based on logic alone, though. Also, I’d think that BSU would have said something 7-8 days after exposure if they had positive tests. But we don’t know. Thanks for the comments!

  2. PS: Tech is scheduled to play Bemidji State the week following the Minnesota State series. Remember that MnSU halted play after playing the first game of a series with BSU. It’s possible that BSU would have some positive tests as a result, putting the series with Tech in question, depending on the severity.

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