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Hockey to be delayed: WCHA, rest of college leagues push back start of seasons without any firm date determined

Northern Michigan University’s Michael Van Unen, bottom center, holds onto the stick of Bemidji State’s Brendan Harris, left, in the third period of their WCHA game on Feb. 15 at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. Looking on is the Beavers’ Tyler Jubenvill. (Photo courtesy Daryl T. Jarvinen)

MARQUETTE — The WCHA made separate announcements about its men’s and women’s ice hockey leagues on Thursday, but both state that the start of their seasons will be delayed this fall.

This was in conjunction with a statement also made Thursday by the Hockey Commissioners Association, which is made up of the 11 NCAA Division I men’s and women’s leagues. The HCA statement also noted that the start of seasons will be delayed, but that each conference will announce its own plans.

These announcements affect the Northern Michigan University, Michigan Tech and Lake Superior State programs. NMU plays men’s hockey in the WCHA and has considered forming a team to play in the WCHA women’s league as well.

The WCHA was only specific in saying that its men’s season won’t commence on Oct. 3 as originally planned, leaving a new starting date for both men and women to be determined “later this fall.” That would include nonleague play and the leagues’ postseason tournaments.

The delay does affect the Wildcats’ early nonleague slate of games against Wisconsin and Minnesota-Duluth, NMU said in its own news release.

“Members of the NMU hockey team will continue to follow the WCHA Return to Play Plan and will monitor developments surrounding the ongoing pandemic through state and local health officials, the (World Health Organization) the (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and other government entities,” Northern’s release said. “NMU testing procedures remain in place.”

NMU officials also made statements.

“The health and safety of student-athletes is our top priority,” NMU President Fritz Erickson said. “We continue to track medical recommendations and rely on health care experts to assist us.”

The release also stated that modified fall practices and workouts continue as allowed by NCAA and WCHA rules, as well as state, local and university safety protocols, during the suspension of play.

“We are focused on working closely with peer institutions to develop safe return-to-competition guidelines,” said Forrest Karr, NMU director of Athletics and Recreation Sports. “Our hockey team is in the process of resocialization and acclimatization, including limited small-group skill development activities.”

The NMU release also stated that student-athletes will be allowed to opt out of playing this year and be allowed to keep financial aid they receive.

Other statements were made by WCHA men’s commissioner Bill Robertson and women’s commissioner Jennifer Flowers.

“We continue to engage in thorough evaluation and discussion of various options for safely opening the 2020-21 season, both nationally and within the WCHA, as the health and safety of everyone associated with our league is our top priority,” Robertson said about the men’s league. “There was a strong desire to open the season as scheduled on Oct. 3, but that is not possible given the realities we are facing.

“While we are still finalizing plans for our season at this point, we owe it to our student-athletes, coaches, officials and great fans to acknowledge the fact we will not begin play on time.”

The men’s statement went on to say that with 10 teams in five states, WCHA member institutions are operating under multiple state, local, university system, institutional and NCAA COVID-19 mandates. Delaying the start of the season will provide league and member administrators the opportunity to continue detailed discussions regarding a return-to-play plan that addresses the diverse issues that WCHA institutions face.

Flowers’ statement was similar after its move was approved by its Women’s League Board of Directors.

“From day one, our discussions have centered around providing our student-athletes safe, meaningful competition opportunities,” she said. “While our desire was to begin the season as scheduled, our board and the leadership at our member institutions recognize that is not an option given the current climate.

“We are actively engaged in the crafting and implementation of a return-to-play model that includes a new start date, addresses the diverse guidelines our member institutions are operating under and recognizes today’s ever-evolving medical and safety environments.

“This decision comes as our member institutions, which have only recently seen students return to campus, are concentrating on fulfilling their educational mission in the current landscape.

“The league office and membership are working tirelessly to develop protocols allowing us to safely drop the puck on our season. We look forward to announcing a start date as soon as it is reasonable to do so.”

Information compiled by Journal Sports Editor Steve Brownlee. His email address is sbrownlee@miningjournal.net.

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