In an extraordinary year, the Michigan hockey team looked like it might make it to the end.
Everything the world could have thrown at the Wolverines, it did. An insanely long offseason. An athletic department-wide shutdown. A season-ending injury. At each turn, they’ve proven time and again that they’re capable of playing through unprecedented circumstances. Sitting as a two seed and the No. 8 team in the country, they had a real shot to make some noise in the NCAA Tournament.
But on Friday, just hours before the puck dropped on its first game, Michigan was forced to withdraw from the NCAA Tournament due to COVID-19 protocols.
Before anything else, let’s put this into perspective.
The Wolverines have been practicing since July. According to coach Mel Pearson, the team hadn’t had a single case of COVID-19 between then and the Big Ten Tournament. In that span, Michigan went through some rough patches performance-wise, but ultimately entered the postseason with a respectable 15-10-1 record and playing some of its best hockey.
Then, in an instant, it was over.
For the senior class especially, it’s downright tragic. For the second straight season, they’ve had a promising postseason campaign suddenly and unceremoniously wiped out by the pandemic.
“The first time was really tough last year, because it was so sudden, and everybody’s healthy, and there’s no issues,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “Once we found out there was an issue within our program (this week), you know, all bets are off. I think there was some real concern amongst our team.”
Last season, nothing could’ve kept the season from ending the way it did. It was the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. A shutdown of college sports was, at the time, inevitable.
But this year? It was entirely avoidable.
As with virtually everything else the NCAA has done in 2020 and 2021, the plan for how to approach the college hockey postseason fell woefully short. According to the NCAA’s Return to Championship Guidelines, players were expected to test negative prior to departing for the tournament, then test negative again upon arrival. Any player who tested positive would be sent to a designated quarantine location for 14 days, along with any close contacts.
But disease detection is not disease prevention. The expectation, apparently, was that the 16 teams would all arrive at their respective regional sites and simply have no positive tests. Or, if there were positive tests, they would just be limited to a few players and not cause problems with contact tracing. That worked for 14 teams, but for three others, there was no backup plan.
Sure, there’s no way to completely eliminate the risks involved with playing a tournament during a pandemic, but there are definitely ways to mitigate them.
One such way is a mandatory quarantine period, a protocol that the NCAA has bafflingly refused to implement for any of its tournaments. It’s really not that complicated: Have everyone arrive one to two weeks before games are scheduled to start to prevent outside contact, test everyone each day and isolate anyone who tests positive.
Sure, there would be logistical hurdles, and there’s no guarantee a quarantine period would have prevented Michigan’s removal from the tournament. But it’s hard to argue that it wouldn’t have helped at this stage. It should have happened for the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, and it should have happened for hockey.
“Absolutely. (A quarantine period) would have absolutely helped,” Pearson said. “Now, do I think we should do that across all sports? That’s above my paygrade, but it absolutely would have helped. Or similar to basketball, they go into a bubble. But I know with expenses, and everything else that’s going on — again, that’s way above my paygrade.”
In response to a request for comment, NCAA associate director of communications Greg Johnson referred to the Return to Championship Guidelines, the NCAA COVID-19 Advisory Group and the Resocialization to College Sports page.
Pearson may have also inadvertently hit on a major issue at play: money. Namely, men’s basketball draws national attention and, thus, brings in more money. Of course, the March Madness bubble in Indianapolis has its own problems, but at least they have a bubble.
For more context, the men’s basketball tournament had one team out of 68 drop out because of COVID-19. For the men’s hockey tournament? Three of 17 involved teams have withdrawn. If the approach for basketball was imperfect, the plan for hockey was unacceptable.
Part of that comes from a lack of central guidance. For most of the college hockey season, each conference has had its own health and safety guidelines and protocols, and that didn’t change leading up to the tournament. Lacking consistent standards across conferences for testing and dealing with positives can cause confusion for coaches and players trying to navigate playing hockey during a pandemic.
“I sure wish we could’ve used the Big Ten protocols,” Pearson said. “… I can’t even tell you what they are in the NCAA.”
But at the end of the day, there’s no incentive for the NCAA to fix its problems. It’s college hockey — there’s no massive TV audience missing the games, no national media calling the league out for its failure. If the players spoke out about the protocols, they might make a few rounds on Twitter, or have some student papers or college hockey blogs write on it, but that’s about it.
And that’s a damn shame, because the players are affected all the same, regardless of the popularity of the sport.
Just ask Michigan’s seniors.
Roose can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BrendanRoose.