A way-too-early look at possible scenarios for the 2020-21 NCAA women’s hockey season

Maine forward Ida Kuoppala battles for the puck in the slot against a Boston College defender.

With the scheduled start of the 2020-21 college hockey season just a few months away, uncertainty still reigns over how and if it will be played. (Mark Tutuny)

It’s been nearly three months since the COVID-19 pandemic brought a devastating ending to the 2019-20 NCAA women’s hockey season—and plenty of other winter and spring sports, too. We are well into the the offseason now, but still, much remains up in the air about how and if next season will actually be played.

While it’s way too early to have any certainty about what next season will look like, I wanted to get some insight into how decisions are being made, and the factors that leagues are weighing as they navigate those decisions. To put all this together, I spoke to league officials at all five NCAA Division I women’s hockey conferences: Robert DeGregorio, Commissioner of College Hockey America and the New England Women’s Hockey Alliance; Jennifer Flowers, WCHA Vice President and Women’s League Commissioner; Stephen Hagwell, ECAC Hockey Commissioner; and Brian Smith, Hockey East Associate Commissioner.

As a small editor’s note: the details discussed with each commissioner about the upcoming season were specific to women’s hockey, and so is basically all of the information reported here. It does not necessarily pertain to the men’s side of things, for conferences that have both men’s and women’s hockey.

Main factors at play

Based on the conversations I had with each league official, there are a few different factors that are going to affect the upcoming season and how it’s played.

The first is obvious. Sports do not happen in a vacuum, and we are living through a pandemic. The health and safety of students, staff, fans, and everyone else on campus is the main concern. If it isn’t safe to have students back on campus, or it isn’t safe to play hockey games, then those things aren’t going to be happening.

“Can we play these games, and can we play them safely? If we can, and the answer is yes, we’re going to do that because we’re here to serve the student-athletes,” Smith said. “If playing the games puts them at risk, then it’s obviously not in the best interest of the student-athletes to play the games. So we won’t do that.”

The second major factor for teams (and their conferences) to think about is the financial component. Budgetary adjustments are already causing some changes to scheduling, with programs eliminating flights and scheduling regional opponents in place of cross-country games that were originally planned. If schools maintain a remote learning environment and enrollment drops in the fall, circumstances could become even more dire.

State guidelines or executive orders could also limit what schools are able to do as far as playing games. A hypothetical scenario could be a state government banning travel for all state employees. In that case, team staff at public schools in that state would not be able to travel to away games across state lines.

One of the other question marks that could cause some major complications on a conference-wide basis: what happens if some schools return to campus in the fall and are able to play, and others don’t?

“Everyone across the board has been working with the NCAA on scenarios like that,” said Flowers. “We’ve only got seven institutions and if, for some reason, two of them couldn’t play, we’d be sitting at maybe five who could play…What does that do for us? Can we still compete? Can we still compete as a league that earns an [automatic qualifier] because we’re below six now? Is that the right thing to do, to compete with five and let the other two not play?”

Right now, many of the decisions that will affect if and how next season happens are sitting with individual institutions, as they determine when they can safely bring students back to campus. Based on the conversations I had, it seems like there will be more clarity in that regard within the next few weeks. There is no hard deadline for schools to make those decisions but July 1 is a reasonable ballpark date.

A couple of schools have already announced that they do plan on having students back on campus, including Robert Morris and Boston College. However, having students back for classes doesn’t automatically mean that it will be safe to have sports by then. And things could still change quite drastically between now and August, or now and January.

With all that being said, here’s a look at how each conference is approaching the decisions that will need to be made about this upcoming women’s hockey season.

WCHA

As the western-most conference in Division I women’s hockey, the WCHA is in a unique position. Teams are already switching their flights to bus trips and leaning towards regional scheduling, so it seems likely that the WCHA won’t be able to play many non-conference opponents this season as is, even if it actually starts on time.

“Regionally, we’ve got one other institution that could be in the mix for us, which is Lindenwood, and five of our schools already have them on the schedule for next year,” Flowers said. “So there’s just not a lot of flexibility in what we can accomplish from a regional scheduling perspective.”

Flowers did note that WCHA schools haven’t seen a “mass exodus” of non-conference opponents yet for the 2020-21 slate.

She discussed three contingency plans that the WCHA is working with right now. One is a conference-only, 24-game schedule that starts significantly later than the season’s currently-scheduled start date. The second is a conference-only schedule with a couple of extra “crossover” weekends, where teams play extra games against WCHA opponents or possibly Lindenwood, to give schools a legitimate non-conference option.

The third option is a January 2021 start to the season. The WCHA is not alone in planning for such a late start, but that scenario is one that could require some extra finagling. The NCAA, for right now at least, has not changed the dates for the tournament and Frozen Four, and it also has not yet changed the minimum number of games required to be eligible for the tournament. That minimum is 20 games.

“Those are really the three [options] that we’re spending our energies on right now and I would say that lightly, because we have not fully drafted any of those three options. Those are just the three that seem the most relevant at the moment,” Flowers said. “Everyone is acting in similar ways, just a cautionary approach for probably the next month. And then my gut tells me that there’ll be more information and more realistic contingencies as we get a bit closer to mid-June, July 1.”

CHA and NEWHA

College Hockey America and the New England Women’s Hockey Alliance are the only two women’s-only leagues at the Division I level, and DeGregorio is commissioner of both. Decisions for each league may have to be made separately, depending on what happens at the institutional level, but at this point, the thought process is similar.

For now, DeGregorio said each league has a 34-game schedule in place for every team. They anticipate having students back on campus in the fall, but DeGregorio has developed contingency plans for reduced schedules.

A couple of scenarios that could activate those contingency plans: if students are not back on campus until January at most schools, or if the state of New York does not allow students back on campus for the fall. The latter would affect RIT and Syracuse in the CHA and Long Island University in the NEWHA. It’s a plausible scenario, with New York having the largest volume of COVID-19 cases to this point. Of course, that could change in the coming months and the hypothetical could apply to other states, depending on how the pandemic is managed and if there are other outbreaks.

“If they’re not allowed to start back when everybody else is, we are prepared to play a reduced schedule,” DeGregorio said. “Even if school doesn’t start until January, [we have a model] in which we’d be working back from the NCAA Tournament to the beginning of January given just strictly a 20-game league schedule.”

If certain schools offer on-campus instruction in the fall and others don’t, DeGregorio said one possibility is to allow teams to play their non-conference schedules, and possibly some league games, before the reduced, conference-only schedule starts later on. But at this juncture, these are still hypotheticals; no decisions have been made yet on how and when to start the season in that situation.

“We’ve been talking about so many different scenarios, nothing is really set in stone,” DeGregorio said.

For the CHA, this is a particularly special season, with Mercyhurst and the city of Erie playing host to the 2021 Women’s Frozen Four. That’s currently scheduled for March 19 and 21. The logo for the tournament was actually just unveiled last week.

Hockey East

For Hockey East, Smith noted right off the bat that the first “hurdle” is knowing whether or not students will be back on campus before contingency plans can be made.

“Once we get past that July 1 date, and things start to look a little bit more bleak or a little bit more optimistic, we’re prepared to model what those schedules might look like,” Smith said. “If we’re playing only conference games, if we’re playing a shortened schedule, if we’re starting after Thanksgiving, if we’re starting after January, all of those have been discussed, not necessarily modeled out, but we are planning to start to work on a firm plan for those contingencies.”

As has been the case basically across the board, Smith noted that schedules already do look a little different than originally planned, with schools canceling trips out west and visiting opponents also canceling flights. So far those games have all been filled in with non-conference opponents based in the east.

“We’re lucky that we don’t necessarily have a lot of excessive travel, and that if we do need to alter our schedule significantly, it’s probably only going to impact those non-conference games, which would allow us to retain the integrity of our conference schedule,” Smith said.

If the schedule ends up being reduced, Smith said they would still want to keep non-conference games on the docket, as long as there are openings to do that. Hockey East teams have a fair amount of games scheduled on Sundays and Tuesdays, which leaves more windows for non-conference games even if the season does end up being shortened.

ECAC

Like the other four conferences, the ECAC is waiting on institutional decisions before making changes for the upcoming season. Scheduling changes will be based on the same contingencies as the other leagues, namely whether or not schools will have students on campus for the fall and if the start of the season needs to be pushed back.

Hagwell noted it’s difficult to get very far with implementing any new plans right now while so much is still unknown. But he has modeled out a few different scenarios for a shortened season, the most dramatic of which, like the rest of the leagues, would be a January 2021 start.

A shortened season isn’t ideal for anyone, but it could be especially tough to plan for the ECAC, the largest conference in the country with 12 teams. In a normal season, ECAC teams only play each other twice as it is: once on the road, once at home.

“If we keep our postseason the way it is now, and we start at January 1, and I’m trying to get to a balanced schedule, if you will, that creates a lot of midweek games which creates issues, too,” Hagwell said. “Because if the students return in January, and now I’m saying ‘Hey, I built a schedule and you have to play six Tuesday games, [teams] are going to be going, ‘What? Our kids aren’t leaving for off-campus every week for the next six weeks.'”

Hagwell anticipates that if they can get in a reasonable number of games this season, the ECAC isn’t going to limit teams to just playing a conference-only schedule.

“I would not advocate a position that says, ‘Hey, we’re league-schedule only, you can’t play any non-conference games,'” he said. “That would prohibit schools from competing in non-conference games if they wanted to do so.”

Harvard competing in the Beanpot, a non-conference tournament against three other Boston schools out of Hockey East, is a perfect example of that, and Hagwell would not want to limit that opportunity.

Postseason play

At this point, conferences are still planning on holding their postseason tournaments. Based on the conversations I had with each commissioner, all efforts will be made to play those tournaments and ensure the opportunity to compete for a championship isn’t taken away from their student-athletes.

As Hagwell noted, though, it could become tricky to fit in both regular-season games in a balanced way and still play the conference tournament, especially if leagues push back to a January start.

DeGregorio acknowledged, from the CHA and NEWHA’s perspective, that their conference tournaments could be amended to eliminate the first rounds, just to make sure that teams hit the 20-game minimum (assuming that’s still a requirement).

“That could possibly happen. I wouldn’t want to say definitely that it wouldn’t happen. It could possibly happen in that scenario,” he said.

There is also still the pressing issue of budgetary constraints and shortfalls, and how to best manage their effects, that will have to be taken into account. When asked about the WCHA Final Faceoff tournament in particular, Flowers acknowledged that everything is on the table, although making changes to the WCHA’s postseason is far from a certainty at this point.

“I think [the postseason tournament] is such a magical time of year that to be thinking about not having that really hurts. The reality is, to be thinking about not having the sport hurts way more,” she said. “It’s really going to have to be a balance of what are institutions capable of handling? How do we want to use our resources?

“We’ve talked at length the last month about hard decisions and navigating the things that are going to challenge us and and frustrate us, and I think they’re incredibly real right now. And so it’s hard to hypothesize what they’ll be, but I just really believe that we’ve got to do the right thing, right now to make sure that we’re still talking about collegiate women’s hockey and the sport in years to come.”

Budgetary adjustments and financial hardships

Just as individual institutions are doing, leagues are also making necessary adjustments to their own budgets.

“We’re taking our budget and slashing the expense side to the extent we can,” Hagwell said. “But we want it to look the same. So let’s say we have our championship [for the] men and women. We’re going to slash expenses, but we don’t want the student-athletes and staff to notice any difference in how those things run.”

There’s also the question of whether or not fans will be allowed in the building if games are played. From a league perspective, particularly in regards to postseason tournaments, that greatly affects income. On the men’s side especially, those tournaments bring in a huge percentage of revenue that helps balance the rest of the leagues’ operations. Hagwell pointed out that playing tournaments in front of empty arenas would have a significant impact on the budget.

On an institutional level, cutting teams is not a topic that anyone wants to think about, and certainly not one I want to write about. But there is no ignoring the fact that the financial consequences of the pandemic could force individual schools to eliminate hockey programs down the road, especially if enrollment drops in the fall and athletics departments lose revenue streams if ticketed sports can’t have fans in the building.

Alabama Huntsville was the first to fall on the men’s side; the school announced last week it would be ending that program. It isn’t out of the realm of possibility that women’s programs could follow. But so far, league officials aren’t hearing any institutions say that they would not be able to compete this upcoming season due to strictly financial reasons.

Above all, the biggest question is still whether or not playing hockey is even a possibility for schools this year. Just because students are able to attend their classes in-person (and that hasn’t even been widely decided yet) does not mean that it would be safe to play a contact sport against teams from other schools and states in the middle of a pandemic. So, while institutions may decide in the coming weeks to open up in the fall, the question of where athletics fits into overall health and safety guidelines still remains.

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