For Bowling Green, the 2019-20 college hockey season ended, not with a goal or a buzzer but, of all places, a mall parking lot.
Specifically, the parking lot at Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn.
The Falcons, who were scheduled to play at Bemidji State in their WCHA best-of-three semifinal series starting March 13, had flown back into Minneapolis following their quarterfinal series win over Alaska in Fairbanks.
They were just getting ready to depart the Twin Cities area on Thursday afternoon when they got the news that they wouldn’t be playing in Bemidji that weekend. They wouldn’t be playing more games this season. Both the WCHA tournament and then the rest of the NCAA season were cancelled due to the outbreak of COVID-19.
“It all happened pretty quick,” Bowling Green coach Ty Eigner said. “We were on the bus and saw that Duke and Kansas basketball elected to pull out of the NCAA tournament. Then at that point, we knew. Those two schools in basketball said they were pulling out, something’s going to happen.”
And so the 2019-20 WCHA and NCAA hockey were over, just like that. It left coaches with a lot more time on their hands than they’re used to — and a lot more uncertainty of where exactly to go from here.
“I’ve done more channel surfing in the last 48 hours than I care to admit,” Minnesota State coach Mike Hastings said earlier this week. “And I’m finally learning how to use Netflix.
“At this time of year, we’re always taking off and heading to recruiting, or we’re going to go see who we have coming in, or we’re trying to help the guys who are exiting. All that’s on hold now.”
It’s the new reality for everyone as we try to navigate life without hockey. And it’s unprecedented: Since the NCAA tournament started in 1948, there’s never not been an NCAA hockey champion.
This season, the coronavirus pandemic ended the college hockey season in a matter of hours.
It’s something no hockey coach has ever really seen before.
“Obviously, what’s gone on in the last 48-72 hours, this is way bigger from sports,” said Bowling Green coach Ty Eigner. “Unfortunately for all of us, even for me personally, I’ll never forget how my first year as head coach ended. Our seniors here certainly won’t forget how their senior season ended, and our freshmen will remember where they were when this happened.”
The WCHA was slightly unique compared to the rest of college hockey in that it was the only conference that had reached the semifinal stage of the tournament.
All four teams remaining — Minnesota State, Bemidji State, Bowling Green and Michigan Tech — had the chance to advance to the NCAA tournament. Minnesota State was a lock and a likely No. 1 seed. Bemidji State was on the bubble but two wins would have likely given them their first NCAA berth in 10 years. Bowling Green and Michigan Tech weren’t bubble teams but both knew just three wins would send them to the NCAAs with an automatic berth.
But instead, all of those teams are left wondering “what if?” It’s not the kind of closure coaches usually expect to get. They’d rather have the season end with a loss and be knocked out of a tournament or — ideally — win the last game of the season and take the title.
“As players and coaches, you’re conditioned to have an opportunity to go out on the ice and see if your season continues, or does it end, and we have a hand in that,” Hastings said. “And then you deal with it. And they didn’t have the opportunity to have that process play out.”
Eigner called it strange and “different” feeling to find out that a season is ending not on the ice but on a conference call.
“You don’t know how to react,” he said. “It was emotional. I don’t know if it was any more or any less emotional than it would have been after we just played our tails off in a game, but it was different.”
Hastings said he at least got to tell his team that the season was over in their own locker room on campus in Mankato, but it wasn’t an easy meeting, either.
“That group was special and is special because they came back with very selfless intentions,” Hastings said. “We had a lot of guys that had opportunities to go and play professionally and decided not to because they wanted to chase a championship together.”
The million-dollar question for everyone — fans, players, coaches, you name it — is what comes next?
Nobody knows how long American life will be in self-isolation. Most of that, of course, depends on what happens with the coronavirus in the next two weeks.
Hockey will resume, eventually, though, and then what?
The college hockey community is taking things one step at a time — it can be a common cliche in the hockey world but at least for now that’s the prudent thing to do.
The first step is determining when the players can come back to campus. The consensus seems to be that it won’t happen until the summer at the earliest, but nobody knows for sure. Most universities in the U.S. are moving to online courses for the rest of the school year, so helping players figure those out is a main priority.
“The reality is, our guys might not even come back to this semester, some of them,” Eigner said. “So the main thing we want to do is make sure we keep them informed as to what’s going on academically, since our school is going to online classes for the rest of the semester. We want everyone to make sure everybody has an academic plan and knows what the standard is, make sure they understand that everything they need from us we can help them with.”
As for on-ice training? It’s up in the air. And discussions of an extra year of eligibility for seniors in winter sports that have had their season ended prematurely have taken place, but those are also not resolved yet.
“It’s hard because as a coach, you’re a planner, but you’re also supposed to provide answers for your athletes, and it’s hard to tell them that you don’t know,” Hastings said. “When you’re talking about planning for down the road, I think right now we just have to figure out what’s going to happen next week. It’s been moving so quickly.”
So how do coaches cope with not having the chance to do anything final with their teams in this strange time?
“The main thing is be thankful for what we have,” Hastings said. “I thought this team had a great season, and everything that was in their control, they were able to accomplish. We always tell our guys, deal with what you can control, and don’t worry about everything else. And to me, this team controlled everything they could in a very good manner: The academic, the social and the performance on-ice, the athletic. That makes them special.”
Eigner said he had one last message for his players.
“We’re really proud of how we finished the year, we were playing really good hockey,” he said. “Our attitude and how our team was feeling about itself was great, so I’m really proud of you guys for that. We had the longest unbeaten streak, we’re really proud we won 20 games in a row for the seventh-straight year, and we’re glad we won a playoff series for the 10th year in a row.”
“We’re also really disappointed, and that’s OK. We’re disappointed this group didn’t get to play last weekend, we’re disappointed for the seniors that weren’t able to leave it on the ice for their teammates, but we don’t have the right to be any more disappointed than anyone else. If this is the most difficult situation you have to deal with in your adult life, you’re really lucky.”