It would be hard to call any team’s experiences this college hockey season “normal.”
But if one were to look at Bowling Green’s schedule in a typical year, it would perhaps be the one more than any other in the country that wouldn’t look too out of place.
The Falcons, unlike virtually every other team in the country, have actually been able to play games against non-conference opponents. They haven’t been in a bubble. And they haven’t had very many disruptions to their schedule due to COVID-19 outbreaks.
The result is that Bowling Green is 8-1-0 through nine games in the first two months of the season — not too bad considering some teams have barely played this year.
“I think we feel good about ourselves. We understand that we’re pretty lucky in terms of being able to play nine times at this point and not being a team that’s been in a bubble or had a conference-only schedule,” BGSU coach Ty Eigner said Tuesday, following a road sweep of No. 16 Quinnipiac. “The fact that we’ve been able to piece together a non-conference and get nine games in up to this point, we’re pretty fortunate.
“We’ve tried to press upon our guys to take advantage of these opportunities as much as you can.”
The Falcons had to start the season in mid-November against Division III Adrian College, playing an atypical home-and-home series that saw them host the Bulldogs one weekend before traveling to Michigan six days later. Then they played the first leg of a home-and-home at Robert Morris (the return leg in Ohio is scheduled for Dec. 29). They’ve also done more conventional home-and-homes with Mercyhurst of and Ferris State, although playing a nonconference series against a longtime conference foe like Ferris is hardly conventional.
“When you talk to other coaches around the country, in our league and outside our league, everybody wants to get back to normal,” Eigner said. “I think the fact that we’ve been able to piece together a nonconference schedule — albeit not necessarily a normal one — that’s been good for our team.”
Last weekend’s trip to Quinnipiac was the first typical road trip the Falcons have had this season.
“This last weekend was great, because it felt like a real road trip,” Eigner said. The team got to participate in most of its normal road trip routines, including leaving for New Haven, Conn., on a Thursday, staying in a hotel and having a morning skate. They even got to have a pregame meal like normal — although Eigner stressed that it was a little different because it wasn’t buffet-style like normal, and they were socially distant.
“That was good for us,” he said. “ Any time you can take your team on the road, get off the bus and prepare for a game and play and go through all those things, is good.
“Nobody really knew what this year was going to look like in terms of, what does it look like to wear your mask on the bus the whole time? What does it look like when you have a test leading up to games? What is the locker room set up going to look like? How is it going to be when you can only go into the opposing rink two hours prior to the game? What does it look like when you play a game when there’s nobody there? The more chances you have to do that, the better it is.”
Against Quinnipiac, the Falcons faced their toughest foe yet and stepped up to the challenge. On Friday night four different players (Alex Barber, Taylor Schneider, Even Dougherty and Brandon Kruse) scored as Bowling Green cruised to a 4-1 win. On Saturday, the Falcons went down 2-0 early in the second only to storm back with four unanswered goals and win 4-2. Once again, four different players scored (Kruse, Gavin Gould, Connor Ford and Tim Theocharidis).
It’s the kind of consistency the Falcons have been aiming for, and it’s one they expect to have with so many returning players and a deep lineup that features 10 seniors.
“That certainly helps because they know they deal,” Eigner said. “They understand the standard around here. They know what we’re all about and what we’re trying to do. They can lead the way. We didn’t have to replace eight seniors and both our goalies and throw people into a crazy scenario.”
After the holiday break, the Falcons have the single game against Robert Morris remaining before they begin a something-resembling-normal schedule against more familiar WCHA foes.
“Some of our series, because of location and because of COVID and because of arena schedules, we’ve had to alternate and not necessarily have back-to-back (games),” Eigner said. “I hope it prepared us for the second half. I can’t guarantee that, but our guys feel good. They want to practice, practice, practice, play on the weekend. We’re lucky we’ve been able to do that.
“Everybody feels good about where we’re at now.”
Alaska opts out
One piece of news that made headlines in the two weeks since we last wrote a column is that Alaska decided to join Alaska Anchorage and opt out of the 2020-21 season.
The announcement came fairly late on Dec. 11. The WCHA had previously said that the deadline for schools to opt-out was Nov. 17.
“The health and safety of our student-athletes is paramount,” University of Alaska Fairbanks chancellor Dan White said in a statement. “Participation in indoor contact sports like basketball and hockey creates elevated risk to the athletes and those who train and travel with them.”
That didn’t stop Nanooks head coach Erik Largen from trying to salvage his team’s season, though. Largen told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner that he had tried to find some places to set up camp and play in the lower 48 states, including Northern Michigan. Some Nanooks players also started a change.org petition, which was signed by more than 2,500 people.
Still, it seems like the Alaska administration has no plans on reversing their position and the Nanooks will be sitting this season out.
The Nanooks were, however, able to keep one tradition intact. On Dec. 19 they were able to continue their annual Teddy Bear Toss event, moving it outside the Patty Ice Arena instead of during a game. The Nanooks collected 129 teddy bears, which were then donated to Santa’s Helpers of Fairbanks.
NMU finally gets on the ice
After the first few weeks of the season were cancelled due to COVID-19 complications, the Northern Michigan Wildcats finally hit the ice last week — the final WCHA team to start its season (aside from Alaska and Alaska Anchorage, who are opting out).
The results were something of a mixed bag. The Wildcats managed to win their season opener Wednesday against Ferris State, a high-scoring 5-4 affair that featured a pair of goals from AJ Vanderbeck. Then, on Friday night, NMU played archrivals Michigan Tech in an overtime thriller that was perhaps more notable for what was said after the game than what actually happened in the game itself — a 4-3 win for Tech after NMU scored twice in the third to send it to overtime. The Huskies won 3-1 on Saturday to finish off the sweep.
Currently, both NMU (1-2-0) and Ferris (0-3-0) have played the fewest games of anyone in the WCHA — they each have just three games under their belt. Bowling Green has played the most times with nine while Tech (4-3-1) have played eight.