Let’s face it, the No. 3 Michigan hockey team wasn’t thinking about hockey Thursday night. Nor should it have been.
With one teammate in the hospital and six others out with severe illness, there were far more pressing concerns on the Wolverines’ minds than taking on No. 2 Minnesota. Medical professionals ultimately cleared 18 healthy skaters for the game, though five regular dressers didn’t take the ice.
But someone — whether from Michigan, the Big Ten or the NCAA — should’ve stepped in to tell them no.
Because while the Wolverines certainly had enough bodies to play the game, they had to overcome severe physical and mental barriers to even take the ice. While those players’ gumption to do so can be lauded, parading a team where the third-string goaltender plays left wing doesn’t make that a worthwhile sacrifice. Sure, the Wolverines wanted to play, but underlying issues clouded any attempt to make this week about hockey.
Because from what the program said in postgame press conferences, the situation was dire.
“Without going into detail, the first phone call I got — I hope I never get again,” Michigan coach Brandon Naurato said, without elaborating further.
Before admonishing the decision to play the game, it’s important to establish who exactly makes that call. In a statement provided to The Daily, Michigan information director Kurt Svoboda outlined the process.
“Our medical experts are the sole decision-makers concerning decisions impacting the health and welfare of our student-athletes,” Svoboda wrote in an email to The Daily. “In times of community spread, such as we’ve seen across the U-M campus this week, we consult closely with University health officials. The goal, as always, is to ensure the most outstanding care for our students and the safest outcomes for their individual situations.”
There is no one else involved in the equation. In this case, medical staff decided they could play. In his postgame press conference, Naurato gave credit to Michigan Medicine, athletic trainer Brian Brewster and Chief Health and Welfare officer Darryl Conway for putting the Wolverines in a position to play. He also noted that the Centers for Disease Control participated in the process.
But while highly qualified medical professionals deemed Michigan fit enough to play, that doesn’t mean it should have. Because as much as that decision is about physical health, it needs to take the mental side into account, too.
“Those guys were always in the back of our minds, our brothers, our teammates,” sophomore forward Dylan Duke said. “We love them. We’re always thinking about them. And it’s more … we’re playing for them.”
Regardless of the way the information came to public knowledge, one player was on a ventilator earlier this week. Five other players caught a virus as well. Allowing their teammates to take the ice — however noble their commitment to playing might seem — fails to address the severity of that crisis.
Any one of the remaining athletes could have caught that illness from a teammate. While the Wolverines didn’t practice Tuesday, they are around each other so often. No matter the present medical status of those who played — which is all medical staff can definitively account for — any one of them could unknowingly carry the virus. Illnesses like RSV and adenovirus take anywhere from two to 14 days for symptoms to show.
While illness has spread through the team all month and might have run its course, risking further spread is not a gamble worth taking. It was utterly irresponsible to let that team play, even if it was a top-three matchup with conference standings implications.
Some things are bigger than sport, and the health of student athletes is one of them. That’s a reality we’ve learned all too well the past two years.
And as much as it’s about protecting the remaining Wolverines, it’s also about protecting the Gophers. If the virus spreads to Minnesota, that means another team faces the risky medical situation Michigan is navigating right now.
While medical professionals gave the Wolverines the care they needed, the very fact they stepped in shows the severity of the situation.
“I can’t imagine if this was a junior or minor pro team without the resources that we have at Michigan; that’s why they’re the leaders and best,” Naurato said. “But everyone’s pulled together and done an unbelievable job to take care of these kids — like that’s not a plug. It’s real. They saved some guys.”
Saving lives suggests a health crisis far more important than playing a game.
That isn’t to blame Naurato or the players; it’s not their decision to play or forfeit in the first place. Medical staff gave them the all-clear to play, and the players reasonably wanted to give it their best shot.
But someone has to step in and tell them when playing the game isn’t the right decision. And Thursday, the need for that oversight became thoroughly apparent.