Women’s DI: WCHA hopes partial schedule is the starting point for a 24-game season

The women’s WCHA announced a partial schedule on Friday, paving the way to return to play starting November 20. For now, teams will play eight games each – four weekend series and a bye week – over the course of five weeks from November 20 – December 19. 

There simply is no “one size fits all” solution for preparing to play collegiate athletics during this pandemic. Some sports and conferences have been able to take cues from each other and follow similar blueprints, but for a number of reasons, that hasn’t been possible for the women’s WCHA. 

Three WCHA teams’ institutions – Minnesota, Ohio State and Wisconsin – call the Big Ten home. Four – Bemidji State, Minnesota Duluth, Minnesota State and St. Cloud State – are members of the Division II Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference (NSIC).

Although there’s no such thing as Big Ten women’s hockey, the Gophers, Buckeyes and Badgers are bound by that conference’s protocols. Using football as the measuring tool, the Big Ten has the most stringent Return to Play rules when it comes to Covid-19. (Read more about their process here.) 

To be clear on this, NSIC schools are meeting national, state, local and NCAA protocols surrounding Covid-19. The Big Ten has implemented their own protocols and thresholds that exceed those put forth by any other conference and they’ve mandated that none of their member institutions can face opponents that don’t adhere to their set of standards. 

Thus, in this first part of the schedule, the Big Ten schools play each other and the NSIC schools play each other. The exception is Minnesota Duluth. 

“Duluth found themselves in a bit of a unique position. Because they are University of Minnesota system (school), they’re closer to the Big Ten protocols as a university than not,” said WCHA Commissioner Jennifer Flowers. The Bulldogs were able to meet the Big Ten’s thresholds and will be playing games against teams in each of the two groups. 

The conference – and Flowers – very much want to avoid any “us vs. them” or separation rhetoric among the programs in the WCHA. None of this situation is anyone’s fault, it’s simply the parameters that the conference has to work within. 

One major reason the WCHA was ready to announce their schedule and look ahead to a season is that they were finally able to understand what could be done to bridge the gap and ensure all seven teams were meeting these elevated standards. Flowers expects the WCHA Return to Competition plans to be finalized and made available this week.

“(What) happened very recently was understanding the path that we have for our Big Ten institutions to be able to compete against our non-Big Ten institutions. We have a lot to still work out there and unpack there,” said Flowers. 

“Once we knew what it’s going to take in order to play these games, we could start to make some decisions based on who’s capable of that right now … I think if we tried to figure out the entire schedule and tried to get everything perfect from the get go, we wouldn’t be playing yet… This is what we know we can do right now. This isn’t a forever solution to our schedule… That is what needed to happen to get started on November 20.”

There is no way to prepare for every eventuality. There are a number of questions that Flowers has no answer for, not because they haven’t been talked about or considered, but because a number of things are simply unknowable. If the conference waited until they could confirm, validate and plan for everything, the season would never begin. But that wasn’t a reason not to try to plan and start the season, said Flowers. If they waited for certainty, the season wouldn’t happen. So instead the conference on what they could do – create a plan to get the teams on the ice. 

“(We decided) we cannot control this whole season, so let’s control the little pieces that we can. Let’s figure out how to get started, because we don’t know what January and February are going to bring, regardless,” Flowers said. “We stayed the course. We kept the focus on what we could control. We played the cards we were dealt. This is our path. So this is the path we’re going to take and it might not be the same path as we come into January, but this is a path that gets us games before the break and that was the goal the whole time … we wanted to get back to competition as safely as we could. We’re very optimistic that everything we have in place is going to allow us to play into December, and then into January, etc. If something happens and it only goes away, at least we can say we did our very best to do it the best we could.” 

As the WCHA was meeting and trying to finalize their first half plans, the Wisconsin football team was forced to cancel two football games due to the number of Covid-19 cases among their players and coaches. In mid-October, the Center for Disease Control released a report that explained how a hockey game in Florida resulted in 13 positive cases among players and rink staff. Around the same time, the Yale men’s hockey team reported 18 positive cases in about three days.

Those events really helped put into stark relief what they’re working with and what’s at stake, said Flowers. It helped them tighten up their protocols and double back to make sure they are not making any of the mistakes laid out by the CDC. 

They have not yet discussed what the postseason might look like, Flowers said, though they have agreed any game between two members of the league will count towards conference standings. With four WCHA teams ranked in the preseason top 10 and all of them playing each other in this first part of the schedule, Flowers said everyone is conscious of trying to find variance and balance in the schedule.

The goal is still to get every team 22 or 24 games this season and Flowers is hopeful to have the second half of the schedule released by the end of November or early December. 

“I’m not sure that we’ll be balanced. I’m not sure that everybody will play everybody twice, the way that we’re used to, but I do think everybody will play everybody.”