Nothing is normal right now. 

As COVID-19 continues to reshape nearly every aspect of daily life, the Michigan hockey team still doesn’t know when — or if — its delayed season will begin. For now, in the face of uncertainty, the Wolverines continue to prepare with the expectation that they will play at some point this winter. 

Of course, those practices are anything but normal. In cooperation with public health guidelines, the team has had to modify the structure of its practices to keep the players and coaches safe. 

Perhaps the biggest change is that the whole team cannot practice together. Because guidelines prohibit more than 10 players from taking the ice at one time, the team splits into three groups that practice separately. 

Obviously, this limits the work Michigan can do while on the ice. Team exercises are replaced by individual drills. Full-team scrimmages are off the table. But that doesn’t mean practice is useless.

“(We’ve been) trying to work on more skills where maybe we’d work on systems in past years,” junior goalie Strauss Mann said. “Just trying to get better at something every day and work on something different every day.”

Even with fewer than 10 of them practicing at once, the players are required to wear masks at all times — including when they’re on the ice. Hockey practices are already tiring during normal times. Trying to breathe with masks on certainly won’t alleviate that exhaustion.

When the Wolverines step off the ice, life doesn’t get any more routine. Instead of gathering in the locker room before and after practice, they split into groups of four and go into separate rooms, where they still have to wear masks and maintain their distance. Although this does keep the team safer, it also results in a loss of the locker room camaraderie that the team would typically build before the season. 

“It’s a little bit different, cause we’re not all in the same locker room together. We kind of gotta split up and we’re only with four guys in a room and socially distanced,” Mann said. “But (we’re) trying to get to know those guys in the room a little bit better and making sure we’re doing our jobs outside of the rink to hang out as a team and build that bond.” 

At the same time, the delayed start date comes with advantages. Although they haven’t been on the ice together as much as they’d like, the players have more time to get to know each other before their first game. Nothing can replace the on-ice chemistry that usually forms during preseason practices, but the extra time building relationships can at least create more confidence for an already-elite class of freshmen. 

“It’s obviously a little different than any other year we’ve been here,” senior forward Jack Becker said. “We’ve got a lot more time, and I think the biggest thing is guys stayed intentional and came to the rink with a purpose every day, even though we don’t know exactly when we’re going to start.”

It’s anybody’s guess when the first puck will drop this year. The world’s a long way from returning to normal, and at the end of the day, Michigan is lucky to be able to practice at all — even if the practices reflect that same abnormality.

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