After months of speculation, the Big Ten announced its plans for the upcoming hockey season in a release Monday afternoon.
The season will begin as soon as Nov. 13, with each team playing a 24-game conference slate.
“When football, Big Ten football in particular, finally committed to a season, that kind of opened the door and everyone else's hopes went up,” former Michigan coach Red Berenson, who is now a special advisor to the commissioner, told The Daily.
All seven Big Ten teams will also play four games against Arizona State which will be counted as non-conference games. The Sun Devils formed their varsity hockey program in 2015 and are one of only two independent teams in Division I hockey.
“I think there was a certain amount of sympathy,” Berenson said. “I'm on a conference call every week with the other commissioners and it came up every week: what can teams or conferences do for these independent schools.”
While the official schedule has yet to be announced, the Wolverines will now prepare for the season knowing their opponents and a tentative start date. The lack of a non-conference schedule means the Wolverines will not face Michigan Tech — Michigan coach Mel Pearson’s alma mater — as previously planned.
“It looks like we'll just play conference games at this point,” Pearson said. “Which is fine, you know, we just want to get going.”
The conference schedule will feel familiar for the Wolverines. Traditionally, each Big Ten team plays four regular season games against each conference opponent — two home and two away. The new wrinkle is the addition of Arizona State for this season. Michigan last played the Sun Devils in the 2017-2018 season, when the Wolverines won both games of the weekend series, 5-3.
The Big Ten also announced it would use a single-elimination format for the conference tournament this year that will play out over one weekend. This is a return to the original format the conference used from 2014-2017, until it switched the first round to being a best of three. Arizona State will not be eligible to compete in the tournament.
While the schedule is conference-only, there are plans to play the NCAA tournament in March of 2021. In past years, the 16 teams chosen to compete in the Frozen Four were determined based on a computer rankings system. The lack of non-conference games means that the NCAA will go back to using a selection committee to choose the teams.
“Each conference will get an automatic qualifier, but after that it'll be a selection committee,” Berenson said. “It worked for years, so I don't anticipate any problems with it.”
Teams will be following the health and safety protocols laid out by the Big Ten, including COVID testing six times a week for players. As practices resume around the league, teams are currently being tested approximately three times a week and there are no known outbreaks so far.
Should players on a team become sick, the Big Ten will use contact tracing to determine how many healthy skaters a team can put out and if the season needs to be paused.
“I don't think we've gotten a number yet,” Berenson said. “I think it's just kind of a moving target.”
As of now, it is unclear whether fans will be allowed to attend games at any capacity. Michigan has already announced that for the time being, home games will be played in an empty stadium.
Whatever the case, the Wolverines are excited for the opportunity to take the ice — even if the usual chants from the Children of Yost may be missing.
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