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Pandemic keeps WCHA hopping, rules changes made for 2020-21

Northern Michigan University’s Ty Readman, center, looks intense as he waits for a faceoff against Alaska-Anchorage’s Marcus Mitchell in the second period of their WCHA game played Jan. 11 at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. (Photo courtesy Daryl T. Jarvinen)

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — Before it even starts, this upcoming hockey season can already be called unique, and arguably the most difficult ever

to deal with.

WCHA commissioner Bill Robertson agreed with that idea during Wednesday’s league media day Zoom meeting and said the WCHA is doing everything it can to ensure the safety of its student-athletes, including doing COVID-19 testing of each student-athlete a minimum of three times every week.

When asked what has been the most difficult part of this offseason, Robertson said it was simply not knowing what would happen.

“I think it’s just the fact there’s so many unknowns coming into this year for us,” he said. “As I stated back on March 8 when our season ended — and ended abruptly — I’d never been through anything like that in my life.

“I’ve been through some strikes in the professional ranks and I’ve been through 9-11 (terrorist strikes), and now I’ve been through a pandemic. And I just … think that every day, it’s something different and something new. And you have to be ready to meet those challenges.

Northern Michigan University's Grant Loven, center, watches a puck drop during a faceoff against Ferris State's Dallas Tulik in the third period of their WCHA game played at the Berry Events Center in Marquette on Feb. 1. (Photo courtesy Daryl T. Jarvinen)

“I think that has been the most unique part of working through the last several months, but I do believe this, that the collaboration level we’ve had from our board of directors, our administrators and our coaches have been first-rate and that is a reason why we have a return-to-competition document and that’s the other reason we have a robust schedule that we’re excited to get going here in the coming days.”

One of the big question marks this season is traveling long distances to Alaska-Fairbanks and Alaska-Anchorage. Robertson says the league is still trying to figure that all out and that it has to keep any eye on what all the states involved are doing.

“That’s still a work in progress,” he said. “We’re still working with both Anchorage and Fairbanks on that scenario, but we made a commitment that in this shortened season that our teams are going to make the trips to Alaska and we hope that’s successful. We’re looking at all the readings that we can in the state and what’s going on in each of the states that our teams compete in, and it’s not just Alaska — all our states — Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio and Alabama — besides Alaska.

“This pandemic has changed some of their restrictions and we may have to again pivot, adapt and be flexible going forward. So I believe right now that the challenges are still there as far as travel are concerned, but we’re taking every safety precaution with our schools to make sure we can play safely for the betterment of our student-athletes and the people surrounding the game.”

Robertson wasn’t the only one announcing new information for the upcoming season. WCHA supervisor of officials Greg Shepherd said that the league has tweaked its overtime and faceoff procedures as well as video review process to help speed up games.

Northern Michigan University’s Vincent de Mey, left, reaches for the puck as Minnesota State’s Andy Carroll defends on Dec. 14 at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. (Journal file photo)

First, Shepherd said that the league is going to continue to crack down on contact-to-the-head and checking-from-behind penalties. He also said he wants officials to use video review if they need to, but not to use it as a “crutch” and just stick with the original call on the ice when possible to keep games moving.

For faceoffs, Shepherd said that if there is an icing call or a penalty, the attacking team will get to choose the faceoff circle, either on the left or right side. Also, in previous years, if a center was to move inside the circle, he would be tossed out of the faceoff. Now, the linesman will simply point at the offending player and drop the puck. That will keep the game moving. However, if the same player moves again and there’s a second infraction, it’s an automatic penalty to that team, no matter if they are on offense or defense.

Overtime is another change. Last year, if a game went to OT, there was a 5-on-5 session followed by a 3-on-3 session and then a sudden-death shootout. This year, and only in regular-season play in league games, there will be no 5-on-5 overtime.

Teams will change ends of the rink and the game will go straight to 3-on-3. If the game is still tied, the teams will change ends again, the middle of the ice will be resurfaced and it’ll go to a three-person shootout.

If it’s still tied, it’ll proceed to a sudden-death shootout. One team will pick a player and if he scores and the other team does not, the game is over.

Shepherd added that during the shootout, a player cannot perform a 360-degree turn during his attempt, but he can pick up the puck and throw it as long as it doesn’t go more than four feet. Finally, he said that if a goaltender gets hurt during 3-on-3 OT and has to be pulled, he can be put back into the game for the shootout, which was not allowed last year.

Overall, Robertson said that this year will probably have some issues due to the pandemic and the league and its participants will just have to deal with any problems as they arise.

“While everyone in the WCHA is excited that meaningful games are on the horizon, we know we’ll need to navigate an ever-changing path as we move through the schedule with the hope of completing our regular season and postseason in March,” he said. “I don’t think any of us expected our schedule to come off without a hitch. Cancellations and postponements are likely and our staff will have to continue to be nimble and efficient as we deal with unexpected change that has unfortunately become the norm in 2020.”

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal.net.

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