Women’s DI: Proximity smooths the way for Hockey East to return to play

Hockey East released men’s and women’s schedules on Wednesday, setting the conference up for a return to play on November 20. 

The women’s season will open up that day with New Hampshire hosting Boston College at 4:30 pm eastern. The game will air on NESN. 

The schedule is set up for each team to play 18 conference games in a double round robin style. But the schedule also contains four to six games per team that the league is considering flex games. They are designated as non-conference matchups.

“I think it’s unrealistic to think everyone will play their full slate of games,” said Commissioner Steve Metcalfe. “We’ve built in what we’re calling flex weekends, but I guess you might call them makeup weekends – it gives us an opportunity to do make up games without conflict with conference games.” 

The minimum goal is to have each team play ten games – that’s the minimum required by the NCAA to be able to make the postseason, said Metcalfe, so that’s the threshold Hockey East will be using, as well. 

Should teams end up with a different or uneven number of games, the plan is to use percentage of possible points to figure out league standings. Though Metcalfe said he can’t see the NCAA not holding a postseason tournament, he also said March is a long way away. 

Metcalfe was careful about using the word easy, since this was a month’s long process with a number of different layers, but he also acknowledges that Hockey East’s path to return to play was smoother than other leagues on both the men’s and women’s side. 

“Two main subject items over the last couple of months was how do we play safely and how do we build a schedule that fits within those guidelines?” he said. “We’ve worked through that with all of our institutions and our ADs and we’re delighted that we’ve been able to get to this point.”

All of Hockey East’s member institutions are Division I programs and for many, hockey is their premiere sport or a priority, said Metcalfe. That made them more amenable and easier to work with and helped pave the way for this schedule. 

Hockey East’s biggest advantage is proximity. Six of the 10 women’s programs are in or within 50 miles of Boston (BC, BU, Holy Cross, Merrimack, Northeastern and Providence). New Hampshire and UConn are within another 25 miles. 

A number of Hockey East schools have Covid labs right on their campus, said Metcalfe. Additionally, having so many programs situated in and around Boston means access to some of the best resources possible. If there isn’t an on-campus lab, there’s likely one nearby. He also pointed out that the league’s requirements for testing are not much different than the ones the universities already have in place for students to be on campus, so there will be little noticeable difference for the student-athletes.  

The conference will be releasing further details about their protocols, but according to Metcalfe, each member of a team – student-athletes and staff – will either have to have a daily antigen test or take a PCR test three times per week. 

In order to reduce travel and contact, all teams will do same-day travel with the exception of trips to or involving Maine and Vermont. Most of the scheduled weekends feature a home and home series. 

Where in the past the men’s and women’s sides of Hockey East have been kept relatively separate, one thing Covid plans did was break down that separation. There were no separate meetings – every member institution was at the table together, regardless if they had a men’s program, women’s program or both. A return to play could not happen without everybody working collectively together, said Metcalfe. The result is that the same protocols exist across the board.

Institutions that have both men’s and women’s programs will be playing at the same schools each weekend to try to eliminate any cross-contact. This will also allow the league to keep any possible infections somewhat contained to just two schools. It made scheduling more difficult, but is ultimately one of the things that the conference is able to do others may not and could really keep anything from becoming a super-spreader event. 

“We’ve prioritized finding a way to do this as safe(ly) as possible, and then giving everyone as full a schedule as we possibly can, living within those protocols that we’ve established. We think we’ve given ourselves the best chance for a safe and successful season.”

The conference is allowing some institutional discretion on how to handle a positive test, but at a minimum, a player that tests positive will be excluded from playing for at least 10 days. 

Five women’s games are slated to air on NESN or NESN + before the new year. Hockey East Metcalfe said the plan is to have many more women’s games televised in the second half of the season.

All men’s and women’s Hockey East games will be available to watch on free stream this season.