December 28, 2021

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But It’s Not (Only) What You Think

by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor (@CHN_AdamWodon)

While COVID’s Omicron variant blazes through the world, college hockey has certainly not escaped its path. After thinking we’d be more or less back to normal this year, there have suddenly been another round of postponements and cancelations in recent weeks. A few teams have stopped allowing fans at games. Schools like Harvard and Cornell are going to remote learning again, at least temporarily, and that wasn’t a good sign last time around.

Really, the only thing preventing more postponements and cancelations is that most college hockey teams take a few weeks off around the holidays. With teams scheduled to start playing again soon, we could see a deluge.

It all stinks. Not just college hockey, but society, where we thought we were through it, and now have to deal with not seeing family at the holidays again, and so on.

That we can’t control. But college hockey has another issue that it can control, and needs to:

Teams that are exploiting the situation to their own advantage, postponing games to avoid risking a loss.

As horrible as that sounds, a large majority of people in college hockey believe this is exactly what’s happening. And that someone needs to stop it.

Yes there were certain testing protocols in place this season, how to handle players that test positive, and so on. But wide-scale procedures for exactly how to handle postponements, and under what circumstances, don’t really exist. Or it’s loosely defined, and being left up to the schools to decide, with no oversight.

This week’s example — where Michigan canceled its second of two Great Lakes Invitational games — is only the most obvious, but there have been others.

Whether Michigan’s decision really is an egregious flouting of circumstances and/or poor sportsmanship, is up to debate. But the decision undoubtedly looks horrible.

In case you missed it, Michigan announced it could not play its Dec. 30 game against Western Michigan. Its reason? “(D)ue to health and welfare protocols.” A phrase so vague as to be meaningless. Michigan has denied repeated attempts to elaborate.

Mean time, Michigan is still scheduled to play Michigan Tech on Dec. 29 — the day before — in the other GLI showcase game.

It begged — and still begs — the immediate question: If Michigan is in such bad shape, how is it able to play Dec. 29 and not Dec. 30?

The easy conclusion is that Michigan is ducking Western Michigan, a top-end Pairwise team that nearly swept the Wolverines earlier in the season. Michigan has five prominent players out at the World Juniors — major star players. WMU is intact. Taking a loss here could hurt its Pairwise, and Michigan doesn’t want to take the chance.

When I suggested on Twitter yesterday that this is how it appears, I got a massive amount of positive feedback, including from WMU players. Clearly they think this is true. No one really disputed it.

And since Michigan and coach Mel Pearson won’t discuss it further, this is the impression we’re left with.

I really want to give the benefit of the doubt and say this isn’t an obvious dodge. I’ve been trying to find something else that would explain this decision. Maybe it makes sense if you consider that, between missing players from injury and the WJC, then throw in a couple with COVID issues, Michigan would barely get through the first game, and then possibly be even more banged up the second night, and not capable of playing.

I dunno, that’s all I have.

Note how, above, Michigan carefully sidestepped using the word “COVID” in its release announcing the decision. It cites a vague “health and welfare protocol.” Is this to give plausible deniability to the real reason? Like, players aren’t affected by COVID, but Michigan is just missing too many of them and is worried the remaining players will be too tired for the second game? Of course, these days, what else does “health protocols” mean? There is no other health protocol, besides COVID, that is even a valid reason to cancel going to a tournament, let alone one that’s been on your schedule for 60 years.

But even if true, Michigan is a school that prides itself on being loaded up with star blue-chip NHL prospects. As a result, that means many of its players will be missing for the World Junior Championships every year. That’s what it signed up for.

This is why — even without COVID — most of the top-end teams have stopped playing holiday tournaments. It’s one of a handful of reasons why holiday tournaments have been dying a slow death.

But Michigan is “stuck” in the Great Lakes Invitational, a tournament that was once the highlight of its regular season each year.

Among other things, this might signal the death knell for the GLI. What does it say for how Michigan regards this tournament nowadays?

But in the past, Red Berenson played GLIs with depleted rosters. On more than one occasion, he had fowards playing defense in order to fill gaps in the lineup. But he played on.

Playing on Wednesday and then not on Thursday makes no logical sense.

The bigger issue here — getting back to the start of this conversation — is that there is no oversight. No one that can step in and make a decision on what is appropriate. Who would do that? The Committee? The NCAA?

Like I said, I want to give the benefit of the doubt, but there’s a lot of ticked off people in college hockey right now. They are calling shenanigans.

By the way, I’ve had it suggested to me many times in the last couple days that Michigan should be forced to forfeit. Notwithstanding the fact that I don’t know who would make that decision, it’s also somewhat meaningless. Forfeits don’t count towards the Pairwise. At least they haven’t in the past, when it comes to things like using illegal players. Not sure if the Committee has leeway to adjust in this case. It’s doubtful the Committee would make an ad hoc ruling on this.

Another thing to keep an eye on … what happens if college players wind up being invited to the Olympics? The NHL isn’t going, now that it’s been dealing with its own COVID mess. Four college players wound up being invited in 2018 after the NHL backed out then. But those players were gone just two weeks in Feburary. Now, because of COVID protocols, players might be gone up to a month, right in the stretch run. And Michigan would be impacted the most again. Will teams be trying to cancel games in Feburary because of “COVID” then too?

That’s another angle for another day, but the overall point remains.

COVID is going to continue to impact college hockey, in terms of testing and positive cases, and teams’ rosters being depleted. There will be legitimate concerns for safety. (Although it appears that with everyone fully vaccinated, Omicron’s damage is seriously limited, and we should be able to proceed. But who knows what schools will decide.) That’s bad enough.

But where it can’t impact college hockey, is in allowing coaches to manipulate the situation to their advantage.


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