The Gophers women’s hockey team was just a day into preparing to play Minnesota Duluth when it was hit with familiar news: The series was off.
The two-game series, scheduled for Jan. 4-5, was the team’s third straight series to be impacted by COVID-19, a now-familiar pattern for the Gophers.
But after a break for final exams and the holidays that was extended a few extra days with UMD unable to play, No. 2-ranked Minnesota finally will be back in action at 3:07 p.m. Thursday at Ridder Arena, taking on St. Cloud State in a game that recently was added to the schedule.
“It’s definitely been a bit of a disappointment,” Gophers senior Emily Brown said of the schedule changes. “We’re all just eager to play and looking forward to that next game, but at the same time, we’re just preparing every day like we’re playing that next weekend, playing that next day, and controlling what we can.”
All three series impacted have been because of positive COVID-19 tests within other programs, leaving their scheduled opponents — Wisconsin, then Ohio State, then Minnesota Duluth — without enough players to field a team. The Gophers’ planned trip to Columbus, and the Badgers’ trip to Minneapolis both have been rescheduled.
The constant schedule changes have required the Gophers (5-1) to remain flexible and creative, with coaches mixing things up in practice to break up some of the monotony.
“Fortunately, (the virus) hasn’t hit us yet but it probably will. As you look at almost every team in our league, a majority of them have had to cancel some series, and we’ve been fortunate where we haven’t had to be the ones that are cancelling series and we’ve still been able to get some games in,” coach Brad Frost said. “I think all the players in the WCHA are trying to do the right thing, and even by doing the right thing, they still some of them are getting it and their teams are having to shut down.”
The Gophers are somewhat fortunate because of the geographic landscape of the conference. With relatively short distances between Minneapolis and St. Cloud, Duluth and Mankato, it makes it easier for them to potentially add a midweek game than it would be for, say, Wisconsin or Ohio State.
Though the series with Minnesota Duluth was dashed, Frost said there was hope that the Gophers might be able to schedule a midweek game against the Bulldogs in the future. When the series against Ohio State was postponed in December, the Gophers were able to swap in a two-game series against Minnesota State. Thursday’s midweek game against St. Cloud State is another example of geography playing to their favor.
Changing the schedule relies on much more than just geographic convenience, though, because of the required testing protocols. As one of three Big Ten teams, the Minnesota staff and players — along with Wisconsin and Ohio State — get tested for COVID-19 six times a week. Other WCHA teams are tested less frequently, though they bump up to six times a week in the period ahead of when they are scheduled to take on a Big Ten opponent.
Since the Gophers were scheduled to play the Huskies (2-4) in a home-and-home over the weekend to begin with, St. Cloud State was already going through the more rigorous testing protocol, making it possible to add another game to the schedule.
The Gophers will now play three games in four days against the Huskies, a scheduling quirk in a season that has been anything but normal.
“We want to play games. St. Cloud wants to play games,” Frost said. “I think all teams want to play as many games as possible, and so while it’s unique and different and a lot of games in just a few days, we’re all for it to allow our players to be playing more games.”