This (last) Week in NCHC Hockey: With season shuttered, teams devastated, Denver’s Carle says ‘game is fragile,’ ‘can be taken from you at any moment’

Adam Scheel of North Dakota looks at the puck while Denver's Hank Crone sizes up a rebound, North Dakota vs. Denver at Magness Arena, Nov. 15, 2019. (Candace Horgan)

On the morning of March 12, I got a text from Matthew McGreevy, assistant director of athletic communications at Denver.

He simply asked, “Are you planning on coming if we play this weekend?”

At that time, the plan was still for the NCHC tournament to hold its quarterfinal games sans spectators, and then do the same for the Frozen Faceoff in St. Paul, Minn., an announcement the conference made on March 11.

That was the first I’d heard that the games might not be played. The previous evening, the Utah Jazz had announced that Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, and the NBA immediately announced it was canceling its season.

The NBA announcement seemed to be the tipping point, what other sports were looking at. Within 45 minutes of receiving that text from McGreevy, the cascade started, rapidly picking up speed. The NCHC and other college hockey conferences announced they would be canceling their tournaments.

Two hours later, the NHL announced it was suspending its season. By late afternoon, the NCAA had suspended all athletic competitions, including the basketball and hockey tournaments.

College hockey season was abruptly over.

“We were meeting as administrators and talking with the league; I think it was decided the morning of the 12th that we were going to cancel the NCHC tournament,” said Denver coach David Carle. “From there, I met with the team before practice and informed them of that. We decided that we would still get on the ice. I think the mood was pretty somber, and I think we all felt like more could come from it, more cancellations could come. I think the night before the NBA had decided to postpone their season. So, I think we were all cautiously optimistic, but realistic at the same time.”

Carle explained how the day went from there.

“Anyway, we went out on the ice,” said Carle. “We decided to try to have some fun and get their minds off things. We played a three-on-three cross-ice tournament, and then we came back in the room and saw on Twitter that the NCAA canceled spring and winter championships. From that point, we went into the locker room. The guys were all in from practice and we shared the news.

“It was pretty emotional for everybody to think that this is how our season ends. Obviously, we’re not the only ones in this situation, and people are going through a lot harder things then having to deal with the sports season being over. But you feel for our seniors, who came in as national champions, won as freshmen, and certainly had every intention of leaving in the same manner in Detroit.”

In a conference call that afternoon, NCHC commissioner Josh Fenton stated, “Certainly, we’re living in unprecedented times. This is certainly not a light decision in any way, but ultimately the health, safety and security of our student athletes, our officials, our media, our fans, our staff members, anybody involved within games being played on our campuses or a neutral site in Xcel Energy Center was our highest priority. The decisions that were made over the course of the past 24-36 hours were focused on that priority being front and center.”

It’s interesting to consider the impacts on the NCHC Frozen Faceoff as well.

Denver is the only team to make the tournament finals every year of the league’s history and was excited to do so again, hosting Omaha in the first round. Minnesota Duluth was the defending Frozen Faceoff champion and would be a tough out. North Dakota was looking to win its first-ever NCHC Frozen Faceoff by returning to St. Paul after missing it in 2019. Western Michigan would need to keep its NCAA hopes alive by defeating a red-hot St. Cloud State team.

The tournament had many interesting subplots.

“We were expecting, I think, two or three really good hockey games,” said Carle of the Omaha series. “I think they’re a team that was young and was showing a lot of growth and progress throughout the year. I think they had just split with North Dakota the previous weekend. So, they were coming in with some confidence. At the same time, we were excited to play playoff hockey, and I think that’s what everybody works toward throughout the year. You go through the ups and downs to have the opportunity play in the most fun time of the year.

“Our guys were excited, and we felt good about our chances and obviously we’re disappointed that we and many others weren’t able to continue playing.”

Omaha was in Denver preparing for the series when the cancellation was made, and the team faced a long bus ride back.

Said Omaha senior Ryan Jones in an interview with the Omaha World-Herald: “It was kind of surreal. I knew it was my last trip with the team, and it seemed like it took us forever to get home.”

Fenton later tweeted on the cancellation:

For the league, it was the end of the chance to match the WCHA’s run of five consecutive national championships in the early 2000s, a feat the WCHA also had from 1973 to 1977. The NCHC was well-positioned for a fifth straight national championship. North Dakota, which started the run of four championships in 2016, was the top seed in the PairWise. Two-time defending national champion Minnesota Duluth had eliminated its bouts of inconsistency and looked poised for another run. Denver had a solid season and was ranked fifth in the PairWise.

On the outside looking in was Western Michigan, which was 18th in the PairWise. However, the Broncos had been playing excellent hockey in the second half, and a run to the NCHC Frozen Faceoff might have lifted them into the NCAA tournament as well.

In an interview with the Duluth News Tribune right after Fenton’s announcement, Minnesota Duluth coach Scott Sandelin said, “You see what’s transpired. I’m not totally surprised what happened, but certainly frustrated. I feel for our players, certainly our seniors. You can’t control what you can’t control. It’s unfortunate, but that’s the way it is. It’s probably confusing for a lot of guys because there is not a lot of closure.”

Said UMD senior Jade Miller to the Duluth News Tribune: “It was pretty surreal. It happened so abruptly. You’re thinking you have a couple more games back here in Duluth in front of family and friends. It’s tough knowing you played your last game when you didn’t know it was your last game.”

DU’s seniors are already home and taking part in classes remotely. DU will likely finish its academic year with only online classes. Colorado has been aggressive with shutting down public gatherings.

As part of social distancing measures, Colorado Governor Jared Polis suspended the ski season for a week on March 14, later extending it until April 6. He also shut down public schools until April 17, and later shut down all bars and restaurants. Restaurants are still able to offer to-go and delivery but are not allowed to seat customers.

Vail Resorts later announced that all but three of its resorts would shutter operations for the year, and most Colorado ski areas have done the same. Two or three might try to reopen in May, if conditions allow.

DU is not the only university that is shuttered. The University of Colorado and Colorado State University have also moved all classes online.

“My guess is they’ll keep it remote,” said Carle. “It was initially going to be remote until April 10 with a re-evaluation on March 31, and they made the decision sometime earlier this week that it was going to go fully online. I don’t see them coming back from that.”

Before the seniors left campus, Carle and the coaches met with them, and says there are lessons to be learned from the experience.

“Yeah, we met with each of them just real briefly as everyone was leaving town on Friday and booking flights, and your heart goes out to them,” Carle said. “I think the lesson to be learned, or one of the many, is life’s a fragile thing. Our game is fragile, and it can be taken from you at any moment. So, enjoy it, appreciate it, and be grateful that you get to do it.

“Any chance you get to put the skates on and go on the ice, have a sense of gratitude that you get to go out and play a game.”