About four hours before the Michigan hockey team’s scheduled NCAA Tournament game against Minnesota-Duluth, Michigan coach Mel Pearson got a call from assistant sports administrator Josh Richelew.
He knew the news wouldn’t be good.
Richelew informed Pearson that the game would be canceled due to a positive COVID-19 test and contact tracing within the Wolverines’ travelling party. While Pearson was disappointed, it didn’t come as much of a surprise given the events that transpired in the days leading up to Michigan’s departure for Fargo.
The Wolverines hadn’t had a positive COVID-19 test since the beginning of July, but prior to leaving for Fargo on Tuesday, a Michigan player was left behind due to COVID concerns.
“At that point, we knew we could have some issues,” Pearson said.
But when the Wolverines arrived, every member of their travelling party tested negative, and Michigan athletic trainer Brian Brewster took measures to ensure that the team would have no further issues.
Brewster determined which players were cleared to practice in North Dakota and made additional hotel arrangements to limit close contacts between players. But even though everyone with the program attempted to keep the Wolverines safe in order to allow them to play, Pearson clearly had some doubts.
“We’re here,” Pearson said following Michigan’s practice on Thursday. “Between our athletic training department and our sports medicine department, they just tell me … if we’re good to go. … I hope they get to play.”
Later that day, another cloud was cast over the game’s status when another player experienced COVID-19 symptoms, and a subsequent test came back positive, putting the status of Friday’s game in question. But even at that point, Pearson believed that Michigan had enough healthy players to field a team.
“At that point we thought we were still in good shape,” Pearson said. “We had 24-25 healthy guys who were testing regularly and had no issues. But obviously that wasn’t good enough for the NCAA.”
Despite the positive test, the Wolverines went to sleep on Thursday believing that they would take the ice against the bulldogs on Friday. Prior to Pearson’s conversation with Richelew, the players were in their hotel rooms, preparing for the game like they would on any other game day, preparing to leave Scheels Arena at 12:45.
But at 11:30, Pearson called a team meeting to inform his players of the cancellation. According to him, the team already suspected the bad news to come. While the team was disheartened, Pearson said they handled it well — especially the seniors, whose college careers may have just come to an end following two consecutive seasons with abrupt finishes.
“I think initially just shock,” Pearson said. “Then comes the disappointment obviously about the future, what the future holds. The first time was really tough last year, because it was so sudden. I think once we found out there was an issue within our program, our team, then … there was some real concern amongst our team. But I think they’ll move forward quickly. They’re young, and they have to. We can’t change what’s happened, but we have a say in what’s going to happen in the future and how we react to it.”
Put simply, Michigan’s season came to a devastating end on Friday following a hectic week. In a season full of uncertainty due to the ongoing pandemic, the Wolverines largely avoided any COVID-19 related issues. But at the worst possible time, it all came crashing down.
“I just wish we could have completed the journey,” Pearson said. “Or at least had the opportunity to compete on the ice.
“It just is a real shallow feeling to be beaten by COVID.”