MINNEAPOLIS — Many colleges this week are announcing the cancellation of their 2021 spring break, as they juggle schedules in an effort to have a school year that is as full as possible amid all of the pandemic spikes and lulls in various regions of the country.
For the Minnesota Gophers men's hockey team, Monday provided that odd feeling of returning to class after the mother of all spring breaks. The team’s Sept. 14 skate was its first in 186 days, since the 2019-20 college hockey season was abruptly cancelled on March 12, in an effort to stem the spread of coronavirus.
With four players gone from last season's team, and four newcomers on the ice, there is not the massive “getting to know you” period of a year ago, when a dozen new faces filled the locker room under the south stands at 3M Arena at Mariucci. Instead, there is a confidence that for the first time in Bob Motzko’s three seasons as the team’s head coach, they are starting on solid ground. No new system to learn. Not many new teammates to figure out. Just a familiarity and a feeling of reuniting, ready to go whenever the Big Ten and the NCAA allow them to drop the puck.
“We had a little skate without coaches last week, but the coaches were allowed to come watch and we played pick-up. The first 10 minutes, I think, were the fastest hockey I’ve ever seen our team play,” said forward Brannon McManus, one of five seniors on the team. “It was funny because none of us had skated together for the past five months, and we came out absolutely hot. You could see that the coaches were fired up to see that. We’re a veteran group now, and that’s what we want.”
While the other six members of the Big Ten’s hockey conference were on the ice weeks ago and in the case of Notre Dame, a month ago, the Gophers waited until a week after school started, on Sept. 8, to hit the ice.
“We started at a perfect time,” Motzko said, noting that the attitude has been tremendous despite not knowing what the coming season might look like. “Last March, we get shut down and here we sit today. We have absolutely no idea of how this is going to look or play out, and yet their enthusiasm and their spirit right now is off the charts.”
There are some needed modifications that have happened due to the pandemic, most notably social distancing off the ice. If Motzko wants to meet with his entire roster, it cannot happen in the locker room. He has to do so outdoors, or in the arena’s stands, where all 30 or so players and coaches can gather with some space in between each other. On the ice, he and the other coaches wear masks, which presents a challenge for glasses-wearers like Motzko, who deal with fogged lenses regularly. Still, those are just inconveniences.
“They’re excited to be back with each other, even though we’re in three different locker rooms and we’ve got our faces covered, and it’s a new world, I don’t think it’s even phasing them,” Motzko said. “Their attitude is incredible. Their spirit has been great, and we’re just waiting for good word to come.”
The recent renewed talk that Big Ten football teams will start a fall season (after originally delaying until the spring of 2021 at best) has created a new hope that a hockey season starting in November, complete with non-conference games, is a better possibility.
“All eyes right now are on getting Big Ten football started,” Motzko said, adding a note of some optimism about potential new testing procedures that could benefit student-athletes yet this season. “Yes, there seems to be a lot of positive rumors floating around right now, but let’s wait until it’s official and things really move forward. That will I think give a lot of clarity to athletic departments.”
The clarity about when and who the Gophers will face in their season opener is yet to come. But with players back on the ice and a roster filled with depth, optimism reigns amid all the uncertainty.