The abrupt end to the college hockey season has left plenty of questions about the sport and its players. College prepares players for life outside of the rink, but nothing prepares us for what’s happening in the world today.
We caught up with Mike Snee, executive director at College Hockey Inc., to hear more about how the coronavirus pandemic has impacted the season cut short, plus we look ahead to the future growth of college hockey.
USA Hockey: What is the overall state of college hockey with everything going on? How are people handling the situation?
Mike Snee: In essence, we’re moving on to next year at this point. We all hope that next year we will be back to living our lives and that college hockey starts again in October. It will be nice to get back to watching games on Friday and Saturday, talking about the rivalries and everything that makes college hockey so successful. However, it’s all wrapped in that uncertainty that none of us have answers for right now. We all have far more questions than we have answers.
USA Hockey: How was the season going?
Snee: I thought it was a very exciting season. There was so much to look forward to moving into the playoffs and the Frozen Four, and a lot of appealing potential outcomes that could have played out. I don’t think there was any one or two teams that you just said, ‘That team is automatically going to win or that any particular team is a heavy favorite.” And it wasn’t just in men’s hockey, but women’s college hockey too. Cornell was No. 1 in both women’s and men’s college hockey. That doesn’t happen very often.
I just read a well-written story about the Minnesota State-Mankato men’s team and how they really seemed to have it all coming together this season and how they felt like it was their year. I know they’ve had some very good seasons in the past few years, but this year had a special feel to it for the Mavericks. In addition to Cornell and Minnesota State, Minnesota Duluth was attempting to become the first school in over 60 years to win three straight national championships. Those are just a few examples of so many intriguing stories throughout college hockey that we were waiting to see unfold over the next few weeks. With the sudden early conclusion to the season, we will never know what story played out. It’s like you are reading a really good book and you get near the end and find out the final few chapters are blank.
USA Hockey: What was your initial reaction when you realized the season would be coming to an end just like that?
Snee: It was devastating, relatively speaking. It is so disappointing for so many people including of course the student-athletes. This is what they’ve been working towards, literally, for years. You just empathize so much for them. However, there are literally life-and-death things occurring outside of the world of college hockey. So, you want to acknowledge that college hockey isn’t life or death. But nevertheless, it’s just stunning, it was so sudden. I looked back at some of my emails from the 48 hours prior to the season being scrapped and the really show just how much changed in the days before the season was canceled. We certainly weren’t thinking that everything was going to be halted. I think that suddenness just made the kick in the gut even worse.
USA Hockey: How do you think this will impact early signings or college free agents from joining NHL teams?
Snee: I don’t know if it will really have any impact that will be different than in previous years. You’re seeing right now players have signed, both players that have completed their four years of eligibility as well as some players that are underclassmen that are choosing to turn pro. So, I can’t really say whether it would be any more or any less than it would be in a typical springtime.
USA Hockey: In more positive news, there’s discussion about the University of Illinois adding a team. What impact do you see that making?
Snee: There are so many reasons to be excited about college hockey at Illinois. There are many high-level college players, and just so many hockey players in general, that the state should absolutely have an NCAA Division I hockey team. All indicators also suggest that they would have quite a following amongst students, people in the community and alumni. None of this changes because of the circumstances we’re in now. I would assume it’s going to create short-term and, perhaps, mid-term issues and challenges that weren’t foreseen, just like it will for all of us right now. But I do think all the reasons why it is being considered by the school’s leadership are still there and will still be there when life gets back to normal.
USA Hockey: How good is it to see the game growing with more schools starting programs?
Snee: It’s been very exciting. Penn State has had nothing but success since they started, both on and off the ice. I think Arizona State has become an on-ice success much quicker than anybody thought they would. Those two schools likely would have made the NCAA tournament this year and either could have been the team that ended the year with the best story. Penn State and Arizona State are trailblazers and have really helped us generate interest and excitement at Illinois and other schools. They see what these two schools have done, the impact it’s made on campus with their students, with their alumni and say, ‘Why not us?’ Growing college hockey, both men’s and women’s, is a very long-term project but it does feel like it will happen eventually. It certainly helps having the support of the NHL and the NHLPA as they continue to fund feasibility studies for schools that are interested in adding college hockey.
USA Hockey: How do you feel junior hockey is preparing players for college?
Snee: When you look at the numbers of college players that play junior hockey before they start their college career, it’s evident that junior hockey is having quite an impact. Almost every men’s college hockey player this past season played junior hockey prior to college. Plus, the caliber of play in college hockey today and the number of players going on to the NHL and other professional leagues from college hockey certainly suggest that junior hockey is doing its part to prepare hockey players for success in college hockey and beyond. This says a lot about junior hockey. Junior hockey’s role in the hockey player’s development timeline is very important, as is their youth hockey and high school hockey. I think it’s really a combination of all of that. USA Hockey, the local affiliates, high schools and junior hockey all deserve so much credit for how good college hockey is today. College hockey benefits tremendously from work being done by the USHL, NAHL and all college-eligible junior hockey leagues.