The North American Hockey League has cleared the many hurdles necessary just to get the 2020-21 season underway, which is scheduled to start today, October 9, 2020.
In addition to the obvious outside forces faced by teams and leagues during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the NAHL has an internal goal it is trying to reach— finding a way to extend a series of record-breaking performances on the developmental front.
The NAHL has set a league record for most college hockey commitments for each of the past seven seasons, pushing the bar even higher with each subsequent season.
“Every year, we’ve had more than the prior year,” NAHL Commissioner Mark Frankenfeld said. “Any time you do that, you start worrying about what are you going to do the next year, even though your numbers are fantastic, if you’re not breaking last year’s record.
“There’s only so many spots in NCAA hockey. We’re excited that we did meet last year’s number and that through the years we’ve seen not only the total numbers increase, but what’s really neat is that the Division I numbers have increased.”
A year ago, 34 percent of all Division I freshmen had spent time in the NAHL. The league is part of a development agreement, along with the United States Hockey League and North American 3 Hockey League, under USA Hockey that has formalized a spirit of cooperation that Frankenfeld said already existed.
That agreement continues to prove useful for the landscape of junior hockey, especially during a season of uncertainty.
This year’s tasks for the NAHL, whether or not the season results in more record numbers, includes adjusting to a moving target with uncertainty of exactly what college seasons and college recruiting will look like in the ongoing adjustments for COVID-19. Currently, NCAA coaches are unable to travel and interact with players, making the commitment process very difficult.
“Everybody has unknowns ahead of them,” Frankenfeld said. “… Our goal is to make sure that we get back on the ice and continue to do our job of developing these players and make sure that when it’s time for them to be seen or time for them to move on to the NCAA, they’re ready.”
The NAHL has built a reputation for doing just that.
“They’ve retained some really good coaches in the league that are respected, and their word carries weight,” said Michigan Tech head coach Joe Shawhan, who graduated from the league after a successful run with the Soo Indians, which left him as the then NAHL career wins leader for head coaches. “They’ve really found their niche in a couple of areas.”
Shawhan had 10 former NAHL players on the roster of his 2019-20 team that won 21 games, seventh best in the country.
He said the presence of some experienced players that don’t fit into the United States Hockey League over-age parameters have helped raise the overall level of play, allowing coaches a better opportunity to assess the abilities of all the league’s players.
“It gives you a really good way of comparison,” Shawhan said, “and it gives late bloomers another means of further development.
“They can really show the players they are.”
The league’s expansion through the years has taken it into more parts of the country, which is another potential reason NAHL players are committing to more college programs.
“They’ve done a good job from an exposure standpoint,” said St. Lawrence University head coach Brent Brekke, who began his coaching career in the NAHL with the Chicago Freeze. “They run the big showcase in Blaine [Minnesota] with all the different levels of hockey and teams from all regions of the country.
“They’ve expanded the footprint of the league, which I think is important. It gives an opportunity for colleges located all over the country to see their players. And, they do a real good job with their archived video.”
The NAHL Showcase in Blaine, which provides for interdivisional play with all the league’s teams in one place and also has divisions for younger leagues, is a staple of the opening-month schedule for the league and a highlight of the recruiting season for colleges. That is, in most seasons.
This season, however, the NAHL is altering its schedule, saving the showcase with the hope that colleges will be allowed to resume on-site recruiting in the new year.
Frankenfeld said the league is currently targeting Feb. 8-10 as the possible dates for the showcase. The Top Prospects Tournament, an annual event for the league’s top uncommitted players, will also be held after the hopeful loosening of scouting restrictions. Those two events and the Robertson Cup Playoffs, which had to be canceled last spring because of the pandemic, are the best chance for in-person exposure of the league’s top players.
The league gets underway Friday with teams playing closer to home, with schedules built around divisional play, which is a big part of the league and its four divisions.
Getting the season up and running will represent the first goal of the season being achieved.
“I think incredible patience is important in working through the ever-changing landscape,” Frankenfeld said. “… We don’t own the teams, we facilitate their operations and serve as a huge resource to the teams. We had to come up with a good, baseline, return-to-play guidance that they can start from and build off of based on their individual state, facility, locality in order to move forward.
“We built it with a whole team of folks. The goal was to start off with players arriving with negative tests, then really taking that step to monitor for symptoms daily and reporting, pre-travel, post-travel, so that they can maintain a record.”
Each team has a protocol manager responsible for monitoring adherence to the various guidelines it faces.
Once underway, Frankenfeld said it will be important for all involved to remain diligent to keep the league operations as safe as possible.
“Basically, be responsible, the three Ws — wash your hands, wear a mask, watch your distance,” he said.
Frankenfeld said a “pure bubble,” like used in the NHL and NBA is not realistic, but he is hopeful players will show a togetherness within their teams and billet families while living their lives to minimize exposure to outside groups.
“I think some credit has to be given to our owners,” Frankenfeld said. “Junior hockey is a huge financial risk anyway, without the risk of COVID. All but four teams come back, because the four teams were in some restrictive environments that made it difficult and some could not play.
“I want to give our owners who have fought to the very end to be here and get this game back on the ice a lot of credit because they’re taking a huge risk to be here. They’re a special group of guys in both the USHL and the NAHL for the level of hockey they provide.
“I’m proud to be part of it and we’re going to get this thing back on the ice.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.