The past five weeks have been an . . . odd time in the world, to say the least. With peoples across the globe affected by the spread of COVID-19, we find ourselves stuck in a perpetual limbo, unsure of when time will restart or when Monday will be distinguishable from Thursday. The news stations broadcast segments centered on uncertainty but tinged with positivity, hope even, that we are on the mend, that we are all in this together, that we will return stronger and more compassionate than before the world began to look this way.
Being a collegiate women's hockey league begets that we at the WCHA feel that same hopeful uncertainty as we prepare for the future, both short and long-term, of our sport. Despite the abrupt end to collegiate athletics on March 12, all of us in women's hockey have had to turn our focus forward to plan for the 2020-21 season to come.
This week sees coaches and administrators from our seven member institutions congregate on Zoom for the annual WCHA league meetings. Rather than sitting around a table together to share opinions and make decisions, social distancing precautions leave us in a new set of circumstances attempting to achieve the same productivity as years prior. As a group, those gathered around their computers this week work to improve our league, but with the coming months so full of uncertainty the path to improvement is more winding than ever.
When the news about the cancelled NCAA championships and the suspension of sports as we know it first broke, our hearts went out to the student-athletes who saw their season end abruptly. Some had resolution, the knowledge that the next game would take place next year or that the last game was their curtain call. Others who were still on the trail for a national title had no such closure.
We typically seek the student-athlete perspective on current events in our industry because student-athletes are the heart and soul of collegiate athletics, but, as the world is seeing the necessity and sacrifice of our essential workers, medical professionals and the other men and women who have stepped up during the pandemic, we also want to bring to light a perspective not typically called upon in our world. That of the support staff.
The student-athlete experience remains our number one priority, and their disappointment is still heavy in our hearts. However, we at the WCHA want to keep in mind the numerous people who work with and for our student-athletes every day. The coaches and administrators, the athletic trainers, operations and equipment managers, the faculty athletic representatives and the sports information directors. The men and women behind the glass. They spend countless hours with their teams. They buy into the season. They cheer from the sidelines with fervor and clench their fists in silent triumph from press boxes. They too had to suffer the disappointment of a cancelled conclusion to the 2019-20 season with no quantifiable outcome for their months of hard work.
University of Minnesota athletic trainer Erin Moore phrased the emotion of such an abrupt end to the season best when she said, "I think everyone just wished they had known that morning that the practice would be the last one of the year so they could soak it all in."
The stark contrast of being on the road to the national title versus receiving a shelter-in-place order highlights how extreme of a shift in emotions our personnel underwent in such a short time. Records and accolades don't define a student-athlete's career, but, for SIDs like Ohio State's Erin Cummings who have eyes on upcoming milestones and ideas on how to celebrate the achievements, seeing a player lose the chance to put their name in the record books is heart-breaking in an unseen way.
"Personally, as an SID, I got very emotionally invested in the team and the players and the success and well-being of everyone involved in the organization," explained Cummings. "When the season ended, I was completely devastated for the student-athletes who worked so hard this season and who had a chance to make history for their program. I spend almost every day with the girls and would do anything for them. To see them sad was gut-wrenching."
With a lengthy physical separation now in place, much of our personnel has to work to overcome the disconnect this disruption causes in their personal and professional lives. Mental toughness and agility can be just as, if not more, important than physical preparedness, but athletes are grounded in the physical. So while coaches and staff still have digital access to their players, the interruption of normal routines prevents the typical ways a coach is able to bond with their student-athletes away from the ice.
First year St. Cloud State head coach Steve Macdonald is dealing with this obstacle during his first offseason, a period during which he had planned to further cement his relationship with the student-athletes he inherited. Despite this setback, the Huskies have worked to use the resources still available to continue to grow the bonds of their program.
"The spring is a time where coaches and student-athletes are able to interact in a different way and it is often the time where the coach-athlete relationship can be reinforced away from the hustle and bustle of the regular season," said Macdonald. "The opportunity to expand people's comfort zones and remind us of what is important in our lives is a positive that has come of this situation. This is teaching us to slow down and begin to further appreciate some of the things some of us may have taken for granted in our lives."
Over in Bemidji, Beavers head coach Jim Scanlan sees similar advantages in the offseason. Having completed his sixth season behind the bench for Bemidji State, Scanlan's offseason deviates from the standard he has set during his tenure at the helm of the program "This time in the spring is usually a great time for the team to adjust to new leadership roles and spend quality time together away from the arena plus gain time with our strength and conditioning staffs," noted Scanlan. "Obviously not having the team here in Bemidji hurts professionally because they are missing out on quality time with our strength staff plus I just miss them every day."
On a more individual level, coaches have also had to sacrifice the opportunity to grow their personal relationships with their sports staff and other coworkers in their athletic departments. "I miss the day-to-day banter with my staff and the men's hockey staff," Scanlan admitted. "We share an office area so I'm missing them, our equipment staff and others who work in the building."
Working relationships flourish through proximity. With mandated distance and a screen between coworkers, bridging the gap between routine and intentional interaction can feel stilted. However, great change produces greater opportunity. Our personnel has adapted by doing what they train their student-athletes to do: take advantage of the challenges they face.
Each of the seven WCHA programs has devised alternate solutions that allow the teams to continue their off-the-ice growth. These programs as a whole, much like each of us as individuals, seek a way to maintain both personal and professional friendships without physical expressions of empathy and shared experience.
"The Gopher women's hockey program implemented a team-wide email thread with one student-athlete or staff member assigned to each day of the month," Mandy Hansen, the Minnesota women's hockey SID, shared. "We have been able to express gratitude, challenges, joy, and reflections each day, and it has been a heartwarming way to remain connected."
"I think staying close with the rest of the staff during this time has been super important to stay positive," Moore agreed. "We still have our weekly staff meetings and get to discuss work and personal things all together. Having the people I have as coworkers has been a great thing to stay positive."
Time away from the office, rink and classroom also offers the opportunity to make attempts at the 'work-life balance' everyone hopes to achieve. Unfortunately, a perfect balance remains elusive, and reality doesn't match the ideal model of powering through tasks while cozied up in our homes.
Shannon Norman, the Bemidji State faculty athletic representative has seen her extra time eaten up in front of her computer screen as she and her peers attempt to create strategies in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. She has pushed herself to be helpful to her students and accessible to her coaches, student-athletes and fellow faculty members. So much so to the point where she feels consumed by this new emphasis on technology.
"Some days I'm better about this than others," she admits. "The hardest part is lack of down time to reflect and re-focus. Personally, I have dreamt about working from home, but it isn't all it's cracked up to be."
'Work from home' has lost its rosy shine now that home is the only place we can work. An entire sector of people who are used to shuffling in and out of venues, training rooms, practice facilities, and hotels are already itching to get back on the ice and hit the road. In. April.
Some, like Minnesota Duluth's Nick Bryant, were slated to attend specific event that have them yearning for competition. The Bulldogs Directors of Ops was set to travel to Halifax, Nova Scotia as the hockey operations and team leader for the 2020 USA Hockey Women's National Team. Despite the sting of missing the anticipated event, Bryant has tempered his disappointment with a determination to take more time for himself during this extended break.
"From getting outside more, to running every day, to grilling and just spending time at home with my girlfriend (who also coaches hockey and is typically at the rink as much as myself), I have done my best to find the silver linings," he describes.
The recurring theme for our WCHA personnel has been taking ahold of opportunities among the challenges now that we are restricted. Minnesota State FAR Jeff Pribyl has seen his university make the switch to online courses and is now fulfilling his teaching duties at home while also helping his two sons —a seventh- and a 10th-grader — with their online learning. It's a balancing act made even tougher by the difficulties his subject presents. "It has been challenging to adjust," Pribyl agrees. "Especially since I teach chemistry — a laboratory-based discipline."
Furthering the opportunities in his professional life, Bryant has been able to deepen his interactions with his student-athletes as a result of COVID-19. Without the spring push of a full postseason, finals and the dispersion of the team for the summer, he and the Bulldogs have benefited from the chance to take their time during meetings.
"Connecting with student-athletes has been different, in a good way," said Bryant. "I was able to conduct our annual 'equipment fitting' meetings over Zoom, and I felt like my athletes and I had better conversations doing it this way and I didn't feel as rushed to complete the process."
Some interactions like Bryant's yield better results with the additional time we all have on our hands, but the league's athletic trainers have faced difficult-to-overcome trials. Wisconsin's Stefanie Arndt sees her team battling uncertainty now that plans have been waylaid by the shutdown.
"We had some student-athletes that were going to have post-season surgeries that were on the schedule for the week of March 23rd but have been postponed due to the demand of hospital supplies," Arndt explained. "They will now need to wait and see when elective surgeries will begin again and what position that puts them in for next season."
She and Moore have shared the frustration of missing out on their favorite part of being their teams' athletic trainers: not being able to interact with the student-athletes in person or give hands-on treatment to injuries. With most of their work dealing in rehab activities, treatment, prevention and recovery, the trainers have dealt with one of the greater disconnects from their routines.
"[The student-athletes] have had to find things/tools to use on their own," Arndt admitted. "Despite being pretty successful with that, I know that my work could definitely contribute to their overall health and well-being, and I'm sad that I cannot provide that for them during this time."
The Gophers trainer adds that she's had to do plenty of adjusting to continue giving her team the best she has to offer. "Doing an injury evaluation via Zoom has been interesting," said Moore. "But you learn what questions to ask – 'can you point to exactly where it hurts' – and how to guide them through some range of motion and different tests that they can do on their own to try to evaluate as best as we can."
With no clear return date in sight, the question of how COVID-19 will continue to affect our players and our programs over the course of the next few years persists. Student-athletes train to be prepared for any scenario, to hone their instincts, but this situation offers few answers.
"That is the scariest part of this," said Scanlan. "There's a lot we don't know. How long will we be shut down? Will the start of our season be affected? Will we have a season?"
The lack of a set return to the ice has made it difficult to stay focused on the same goals we are usually prepping for at this time of year. Arndt gets through week by week, distracting herself from the uncertainties that can bring us down. "I try to remind myself that this is a great time for self-reflection and growth," she said. "It's in my best interest to take advantage of this time to work in a different way than normal and make it a challenge and be better."
As a director of ops for Ohio State, Andrew Mason is used to dealing with handling shifting variables leading up to and throughout the hockey season. The uncertainty of COVID-19 and what it means for the short-term future of women's hockey necessitates gathering as much information as possible to prepare rather than seeking an immediate solution.
"I am used to different curveballs coming my way, whether it is weather, player/staff illness, injuries, flight changes, etc.," Mason explained. "This has been the biggest curveball that had a lot of unknowns and no sure answers as the situation was changing by the hour/day in March and still is in some ways. So I have been using this to learn and plan better when a situation such as this arises where there is a lot of unknowns and being flexible while also remaining calm.
Still, despite the air of uncertainty surrounding our sport and athletics in general, the WCHA has seen its personnel display a quiet resilience in response to these unknowns. Whether they pushed through dashed championship hopes, lost anticipated offseason events, or the transition to online learning, our staffs and student athletes have shown the strength upon which our league was founded when they are faced with difficult moments.
Minnesota Duluth director of athletics Josh Berlo had to make tough calls in the immediate aftermath of the COVID-19 outbreak, including breaking the news to one of his teams that they would not be competing in their second consecutive NCAA tournament any longer. Regardless of what title they hold or how long they have worked in this industry, none of us have seen a fallout such as this.
"The incredibly abrupt end to sports as we knew them this winter and spring was unlike anything I have experienced in my 20 years in college athletics," Berlo said. "While there was a lot of frustration and confusion for all of us, I was exceptionally impressed with our student-athletes' ability to navigate the adversity and persevere.
Social media has been its own minefield to navigate this past month. Our programs reacted to the end of the season with grace and have managed an approach that balances fan engagement with mindfulness of the situation around us.
Cummings has collaborated with the rest of the Buckeyes athletic department to maintain a social media presence in ways that feel appropriate. "It's a balance between highlighting our successes and promoting social distancing and healthy lifestyles right now," she explains. "Overall this has definitely pushed us as a department to be creative in the ways that we can connect while being distant."
The University of Minnesota has also developed a cohesive approach to social media during this time. Working to remain a source of connection and joy in the Gophers community has been the Maroon and Gold's priority.
"I'm proud of the external engagement initiatives we have implemented as a department," said Hansen. "We have taken advantage of unique opportunities for creativity and collaboration despite facing the challenges and obvious disappointment in the absence of sports."
Our personnel's response in the face of a global crisis exemplifies their constancy. As the people who dedicate their time to giving student-athletes an unforgettable experience as collegiate athletes and forging the connection between our programs and the communities who support them, they are the foundation of our sport. They are the steadiness that keeps us secure through shaky uncertainties, and seeing their disappointment, determination and empathy for each other makes us confident that we can weather this storm.