The United States Hockey League arrives at the starting point of the coronavirus-delayed season well aware of the need to be prepared to make adjustments in order to maintain a safe season for its players.
That point was driven home Wednesday, one day before the scheduled league opener, when the USHL announced the postponement of four opening weekend games, including the Sioux Falls Stampede and Des Moines Buccaneers game that would have stood alone as the league opener Thursday.
The USHL, which was among the many leagues unable to finish the 2019-20 season because of the pandemic, now plans to open the 2020-21 season with two games Friday, followed by four more Saturday.
When discussing the postponement of the Lincoln Stars at Fargo Force weekend series Wednesday, USHL Commissioner Tom Garrity said that those decisions were a reminder of the league’s commitment to taking proper steps while trying to conduct a season in the COVID-19 era.
“We’re really following very strict protocols,” Garrity said. “When people have asked me about that, I don’t look at that as a negative at all. I actually look at it as a process where we put these safety protocols together to keep the players, and staff and fans, and everyone involved with the teams safe.
“… We have a lot of people working with the teams on a daily basis. This was a case where because of those protocols, at this point, we’re going to have to move the games and reschedule for a later time so everyone can be safe.”
The USHL set the early November start and April 24 conclusion for a 54-game regular season that will feature 14 of its 16 member clubs. The Cedar Rapids RoughRiders and Madison Capitols, two of the eight Eastern Conference members, are sitting out the season with the intention of resuming operations for the 2021-22 season. The RoughRiders home arena was unfortunately damaged in August from a derecho storm.
“Working collectively as a league, working with USA Hockey, the National Hockey League and our board of directors, we really have spent a lot of time on putting together return to play protocols that working with the local teams and their governance and their arenas, we were able to start the season,” Garrity said, reiterating that safety has to be the number-one concern. “… We’re excited and we’re looking forward to it, but we’re going to have to go day-by-day and our hope is to get through an entire season and playoffs, have everyone safe and look back at this as a nice part of getting everybody back to normalcy.”
Based on what has been seen in sports leagues on all levels, the opening weekend adjustments may not be the last needed to make that happen.
Garrity praised the National Hockey League for being proactive in providing resources and input about best practices to many hockey leagues on various levels.
“As far as other leagues, it’s so interesting to see how Major League Baseball had situations that it had to address and the National Football League and college football,” Garrity said. “From all these leagues that are playing, I think the one thing that became certain to us is that we are going to have cases, exposures or situations where we’re going to have to press the pause button. We are going to have situations like this weekend where we have to reschedule some games.
“It’s just, how do you manage that? How do you manage exposure? How do you keep things safe and how do you continue to play?”
The play on the ice for the only USA Hockey Tier I junior league should remain at its high level and could even include some additional high-level talent because of players who have delayed reporting to schools to begin their college careers.
The Chicago Steel finished 15 points ahead of the rest of the league with a 41-7-1-0 record when last season was halted.
Sean Farrell is back for his second season with the team and fourth in the league after producing 15 goals and a league-high 41 assists last season. The Montreal Canadiens fourth-round draft pick is a former USA Hockey National Team Development Program player who is committed to Harvard.
“We couldn’t be more excited for the start of the season and we are grateful to be able to come to the rink every day and do what we love,” Steel head coach Brock Sheahan said in a preview story on the league website.
The Waterloo Black Hawks led the Western Conference at 33-14-2-0.
Coach P.K. O’Handley said his players “are realizing this season will be unlike any other that they have been a part of.”
Wyatt Schingoethe, a University of Denver commit and Toronto Maple Leafs draft pick is back after finishing tied for third in scoring for the conference champions.
Players began arriving in their cities between mid-September and mid-October in preparation for the start of league play.
The USHL is using a regionally based format for its 54-game schedule for each team. The schedule will include the second annual Frosty Cup, games Jan. 29 and 30 at Comerica Center in Frisco, Texas, with the Dallas Stars hosting two games between the Tri-City Storm and Omaha Lancers.
The league played 62 games in the last fully completed season (2018-19) and was scheduled for 60 games last season.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
Photo via Dubuque Fighting Saints