June 4, 2020
In late February and early March, the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in North America and brought society to a standstill. Businesses were shut down. Stay-at-home orders were issued. A lot of people died, and even more people lost their jobs as the economy crashed. Joe Exotic (and his arch-nemesis, fish oil connoisseur Carole Baskin) somehow became a phenomenon.
Sports, along with every concert, trade show, and family reunion, were canceled – obviously, including the ACHA National Tournaments and the golf-a-thon disguised as an annual meeting.
While people focused on the teams qualifying for nationals and their ambiguous endings and lost chances in the early days of the situation (guilty), the fact is, even those who had finished their scheduled games sacrificed plenty as well. Team banquets, a cherished opportunity to celebrate the season, are a staple for most.
There is also the chance to skate and work out as a group without the pressures and physical toll of having games a couple days beforehand and a couple days afterwards. Those are helpful in a hockey sense, but even more so in terms of team building and simply having some fun. Players who are over 21, or can at least convince a bouncer they are, often hit the bars together. Beer league is another option, of course.
All of that was wiped out as restaurants, bars, rinks, and gyms went dark.
And not only was the end of 2019-20 canceled, as things have ground on, the timeline has inched further backwards to the point where the 2020-21 season isn’t entirely safe either. For now, we’re left with total nothingness, as we sit around, obsess over social media, and hope for the best.
Well, that’s not entirely true. As it turned out life, and the ACHA, found a way. That way largely involved Zoom, a previously-anonymous video conferencing app that lapped competitors from Apple, Google, and Microsoft to become the Starbucks of the virtual world this year: ubiquitous and universally-known, great for meeting up with people, but you need to buy something if you stay longer than 40 minutes.
So when talented Roosevelt defender Ali Sinnett joined her teammates, coaches, and a steady flow of visitors every Friday through the spring for a Zoom workout before starting her shift at Whole Foods, it felt less like a desperate grab for normalcy and more like an innovative way to keep otherwise-isolated players plugged in during the offseason while also growing the program. The Lakers’ sessions, organized by coaches Carla Pentimone and Mason Strom, were a multi-faceted success.
While Pentimone was there every week, she also featured a healthy roster of guest stars. Former Wisconsin teammate Carolyne Prevost, who went on to play pro hockey and become one of the top-ranked CrossFit athletes in the world, led one session. So did Saige Pacholok, another former Badger, and stuntwoman April Sutton, who has worked on Chicago P.D. and Chicago Med.
“[Carla] had different people every week, usually she knows these people, but they’re from like different walks of the exercise life,” Sinnett said. “She had [Sutton] come out, she’s had coaches come out, different former players, she had a mental health practitioner come out and talk about how serious the whole mental health thing is.”
Fellow Lakers blueliner Cora Weibye enjoyed later sessions that had a bit less celebrity, but a bit more familiarity and comfort.
“My favorites have really been when we’ve had our seniors lead them the last couple weeks, I definitely think that’s been fun,” she said. “It’s been more team-based in that sense, less like you’re watching a workout video. It’s more personal, and it’s fun because you can make fun of each other, and you don’t feel like you need to behave for your guest. Ali ran a great one, Val Whalen ran a great one, Emily Urban ran a great one. So those have definitely been my favorites for sure.”
Not only have the workouts provided RU an opportunity to assemble remotely, joining the Chicagoans with their teammates from Texas and Minnesota, it’s also proved a fertile outlet for recruiting and marketing. Those vital opportunities are not lost on Sinnett, as the program formerly known as Robert Morris looks for a successful launch into its new era.
“Even though we would’ve had weekly team workouts, and we probably would’ve seen most of each other at least once a week, I think this is even better in that we can have recruits come on,” she said. “Carla usually opens it up to different hockey players in Chicago and across the world. I think at one point we had people from eight or 12 different countries on at once.”
“I think having that aspect to it as well is beneficial, not only to our team, but getting our team out there since we are a new team this year, I feel like that’s a hidden silver lining that I really appreciate,” Sinnett added. “Asking the current players to come out and bring a workout for the girls is also a great opportunity for the new recruits to see the current players in action and interact with them.”
“There’s this one girl, and I think she’s like from Indonesia, some foreign country, I don’t know where, and she keeps her mic on and just yells things at us the entire time,” Weibye said. “She tries to show us her hockey sticks, and her hockey jerseys, and it’s very entertaining, but it’s also your prime ‘what is going on right now?’”
Beyond the overexcited prospects, the standard boring technical issues of mics and cameras cutting out, and the runaway dogs – as happened to forward Xochi Ryskamp during one session – things have been pretty seamless.
“It’s cool because it adds to the team dynamic,” Weibye said. “You’re forced to interact with each other, everyone’s looking at each other, you’re holding each other accountable, which is huge too. It’s nice because we have a decent amount of girls who live out of state, and our quarter would’ve ended at the beginning of May, so I imagine we wouldn’t have been interacting as much at this point with most of them going home.”
Of course, technology unfathomable to Hap Holmes, Odie Cleghorn, Joe Malone, or anyone who participated in the influenza-doomed 1919 Stanley Cup Finals helps players and coaches stay in touch on a more casual level as well.
“As a team we’ve stayed in touch in our group chat almost every day, players and coaches during quarantine, checking in making sure we all know we are together on this,” Khloe Yunker, who helped launch Bowling Green’s team last season, said. “Coaches are also making sure that we are staying productive with weekly workout schedules and making sure we still have the commitment to hockey, even if we are not playing. I think the most important thing out of it is that even though we are not seeing each other or practicing, we are still working as a team and as a family.”
Just a bit north of Yunker and her gang, Concordia Ann Arbor coach Maria Barlow has proceeded with her recruiting on a close-to-normal level.
“[The pandemic] wasn’t a huge hit, because states and stuff in Michigan were already over,” she said “You missed out on [USA Hockey] nationals, which is a good chance to see people from further away. But I mean with our technology these days, honestly, it hasn’t been that different. Online recruiting and videos and stuff is just almost overwhelming how much you can use, so that’s been our focus lately.”
In some ways, ACHA teams are custom built for these types of events. The lack of a 500-page rules manual (along with plenty of supplemental documentation), or the multi-tiered bureaucracy behind it can sometimes be a detriment when it comes to compliance enforcement or preventing poor legislation like well-intentioned but asinine age limits, but in pandemicland, it’s been a boon. The suffocatingly-regulated NCAA recently extended its COVID-related recruiting dead period in Division I through July 31st, while voluntary on-campus workouts were only once again allowed on June 1st (and furthermore, strength and conditioning coaches aren’t able to conduct those workouts).
The ACHA offers no guidance whatsoever pertaining to any of that, and teams are only limited by physical closures and technology, allowing Pentimone and Barlow to do things they wouldn’t be permitted to do elsewhere. Even beyond that, there are cultural differences, usually born out of an environment where, compared to the white-glove treatment afforded NCAA student-athletes, no quarter is given. Quite literally in the cases of teams without a dedicated locker room.
“I think we do know how to make the best of a bad thing,” Sinnett said. “I’m not necessarily saying anything poor about us, but I feel like we can see the good and the bad, and we can make the best of it. And we know how to still be happy about what we can do.”
“A lot of these NCAA teams are on campus, they don’t necessarily have the rink on campus, but they for sure will probably have like a gym on campus that they would be able to use,” she continued. “Or they have like all of these different tools available to them that we don’t necessarily have. We don’t have the amount of funding that they do at all, so we wouldn’t have had any of the stuff they would have either.”
Workouts and recruiting are pillars for any team during the ghostly postseason-but-still-in-school period and into the summer, but most have gone beyond the bare essentials to also preserve elements of what makes them unique.
Barlow’s CUAA, for example, typically has in-person chapel sessions available each weekday, with her squad in attendance once a week. The course schedule and cafeteria are blacked out, and the campus pastor (with occasional guest pastors) leads 30 minutes of a message, a couple songs, and a couple prayers before sending the Cardinals on their way with a bite-sized bit of inspiration. The school has been able to continue conducting chapel thanks to Zoom.
“I think I see negatives and positives on each side,” Barlow admitted. “I’ve seen it both ways, you lose out on that personal touch, we’d chat a little before and a little after in person, so you kind of miss out on that. I would try to open it up a bit in our team group chat to talk a little bit before and after, but you just kind of lose out on that personal conversation.”
“But I do think a lot of people, especially this younger generation, they almost thrive on figuring out the easiest way to do things. Now you don’t have to get out of bed and walk across campus to go to chapel, you can log in on your phone and you’re still in bed laying there, listening to chapel. I guess some people could see that as a negative, but I personally see it as a positive that they’re still finding ways to get it done, that sort of thing. I know I appreciate not getting up and getting dressed to go there.”
Others have managed to keep the beat going through social media. The old days where teams would drop all semblance of a digital presence between March and October (then were often forced to start new accounts if the password holder graduated) have largely passed naturally, but things seem to have kicked to a new level during the pandemic.
Roosevelt and Concordia have both been publishing “meet the team” graphics, while Minot State took things a step further with players recording short videos introducing themselves. McKendree even participated in the viral toilet paper challenge, which involves the entire team taking turns virtually passing a roll of toilet paper across state and national borders with some creative flair and crafty editing.
“We just make sure we are connected to each other, and a few of us enjoy connecting to fans and supporters, keeping them updated and hoping to inspire them to join in and do the same with their friends and family,” said Yunker, who helms BG’s active account.
As everything tentatively opens back up, hopefully for good, it seems as though most have taken things in stride. After all, COVID and its attending issues, as widespread as they may be, are simply another set of challenges to overcome in a sport full of them, and carrying a unique set of lessons to learn along the journey.
“The big thing has really been making sure we hold each other accountable, which is important because we definitely have had some accountability issues last season, with participation and all that jazz,” Weibye said. “So I think that’s been a big thing, I hope that it’s teaching us the importance of staying together, especially during things like this, the hard times and challenges.”
“I think just kind of going with the flow of things, and kind of not worrying about the things you can’t control has been huge throughout all of this,” Barlow added.