This (last) Week in ECAC Hockey: Conference coaches dealing with season shutdown, ‘never seen anything like it’

 (Jim Meagher)
Clarkson and Quinnipiac do battle in an ECAC Hockey conference matchup prior to the 2019-20 season being cancelled earlier this month (photo: Jim Meagher).

It started out slowly, but then the hits kept on coming.

On March 8, Rensselaer announced that its quarterfinal series against Harvard would be played without spectators due to the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19).

Two days later, Cornell announced revised attendance rules designed to limit the number of people at Lynah Rink.

While it was a disappointment for an Engineers team that hadn’t hosted a quarterfinal series since 2013 and for a Big Red team that has one of the best crowds in the league, if not college hockey, there was little indication of what would happen over the next several days.

First, Harvard and Yale withdrew from the league tournament, resulting in ECAC Hockey reseeding the matchups. It was at that point that it began to feel like things could really change before the league quarterfinals that weekend.

The news Wednesday night that the NBA was suspending its season added to that feeling that the inevitable was coming.

By Thursday, that feeling was confirmed, as ECAC Hockey announced it was canceling the league tournament. Shortly after, the NCAA announced that the national tournament was canceled as well.

“In the end, it was the right decision,” Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold said. “It’s about more than sporting events.”

While that’s the case, it’s still an unusual situation that was hard to imagine unfolding just a few weeks ago.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Clarkson coach Casey Jones said. “I understand the severity of it. It certainly went quick.”

It’s the time of year where teams’ seasons come to an end. Four ECAC Hockey teams had that happen in the opening round of the playoffs two weeks ago. But it was the abruptness and unanswered questions that stung especially hard.

“When someone else ends your season, it’s a little different,” Jones said. “When it’s something like this that you don’t see coming, it’s really tough.”

That sudden end meant a lot of tough meetings last week, as coaching staffs across the league had to tell their team that the season was over.

“It was difficult to speak to our team and watch young men cry as their chance of achieving their dreams had disappeared,” Cornell coach Mike Schafer said in an open letter to the Big Red hockey community. “In my 34 years of coaching, nothing has been more painful than [Friday’s] meeting.”

Putting those days back together seems like something out of a different world. Sports, along with many other aspects of life, take a backseat to the world’s health. But it still seems surreal to try and reconstruct the moments from the last week and half.

“It just seemed like every hour on the hour, there was something else coming,” Jones said. “We were getting updates from the administrators, the league, and there was some discussion among the coaches. Half the time it was our players; our guys were getting information from different schools.”

The abrupt ending of the season shouldn’t diminish the accomplishments of several of the league’s teams.

Cornell was in the midst of the program’s best year since going undefeated during the 1969-70 season. The Big Red were healthy and not only ready to compete for the league championship, but possibly advance to the school’s first Frozen Four since 2003.

“This team is a very close group who were selfless, and played with pride for each other…Working for many years with many different teams, you start to get a sense of which teams are destined to accomplish great things. This is one of those teams,” Schafer said.

There were plenty of other storylines as well. Clarkson had a strong season and was set to defend its tournament title. Graduate transfer Frank Marotte had a strong season in net, while the Golden Knights’ special teams were among the best in the country. Marotte was one of many players who saw their collegiate career come to an end without getting a chance to compete for a championship.

“I couldn’t even look them in the eye,” Jones said of his seniors. “They were so invested in the program and worked so hard and pushed and brought this group along collectively. Everyone says never take anything for granted, but this puts that into perspective. It tells you how special college athletics is, that bond that they forged is that strong.”

Quinnipiac started slow in the first half, but finished the season on a 14-4-1- run that put the Bobcats on the cusp of the NCAA tournament. That hot stretch was in large part due to junior goalie Keith Petruzzelli, who had a strong second half for a team that had the most underclassmen in Division I.

“In the end, I feel bad for my players. There was no closure,” Peckknold said. “There was no end of the year speech in the locker room. Now, it’s being done over group text.”

Pecknold and Jones both said they wanted a chance to honor their seniors when the time is right, even it’s in an informal setting.

Other intriguing storylines in the playoffs included RPI. The Engineers came on strong in the second half and earned a first-round bye for the first time since 2013. Led by defenseman Will Reilly and goalie Owen Savory, the Engineers beat Harvard and Dartmouth on the final weekend of the regular season to beat out the Crimson for fourth place and the accompanying bye.

Even though Harvard lost a chance for a first-round bye, the Crimson were a team that could have made a run through the tournament. Like Quinnipiac, Harvard has a number of talented underclassmen and should be in competition for a top-four spot in the league next year.

Colgate sweep of Brown in the opening round was the first time the Raiders had swept a playoff series since 2014-15.

“Our guys played their hearts out this season and we made a huge step forward,” Colgate coach Don Vaughan said in a statement. “In time, I hope our seniors will forget this day and among other great moments over four years, that the lasting memory will be the fact that their last game as a Raider ended with overtime win in the Class of 1965 Arena.”

The same is true for Yale’s seniors, as the Bulldogs won a double-overtime Game 3 against Union in the opening round of the playoffs to advance to the quarterfinals against Quinnipiac. And Princeton, which struggled for much of the season, matched its conference win total in two days, sweeping Dartmouth to advance to the quarterfinals against top-seeded Cornell.

All of that is secondary though now, as each program is focused on doing what’s best for its athletes.

“We want to make sure we are checking in with our guys,” Jones said. “We’ve all got families”

Pro signings

Several league players signed professional contracts prior to the season being cancelled. Dartmouth sophomore Drew O’Connor, who led the conference with 17 goals in league play, signed an entry level contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins on March 10.

O’Connor was joined by a pair of Brown seniors in defenseman Zach Giuttari and forward Brent Beaudoin. Giutarri signed with Hartford in the AHL, while Beaudoin signed with Worcester in the ECHL. The AHL season is currently postponed, while the ECHL announced that it was cancelling the rest of the season.

The early end to the season not only denied teams a chance at the playoffs, but for seniors looking to sign a professional contract after their collegiate careers ended.

“A lot of seniors were playing for contracts,” Pecknold said. “If they had a good playoffs, they might have gotten an NHL contract. Now, they might have to settle for an AHL one”