March 25, 2020
Coaches have a lot of tough conversations with their teams, in fact, it’s a significant part of the job. From the extremely minor positioning corrections to the more serious matters like off-ice discipline issues, there’s a well-creased (if entirely internal) handbook for dealing with various degrees of unpleasantness. The coach generally starts his or her career with a foundation built on a mélange of personal values and ideas taken from past mentors during a playing career. Then, as time moves forward, they can fine tune things based on experiences, seminars and other peer conversations, and the input of a staff.
All in all, it’s an effective system that finds an intersection between best practices and individual styles, and has benefited millions of coaches and athletes throughout the history of organized sports.
However, there’s just no chapter in that handbook for the unprecedented meeting Minot State head coach Ryan Miner had with his Beavers on the morning of March 12th. So he had to write his own for one of the toughest of the tough conversations any coach has had with any team, even if they already sensed what was coming: thanks to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, second-ranked MSU won’t be able to take their earned shot at a national championship. The ACHA, following the lead of public health experts and other sports organizations, had canceled its national tournament festival, originally slated to begin today just outside of Dallas for women’s teams.
“[The morning of March 12th] Ryan texted me saying we needed to gather everyone in between our classes, and I kind of said to him like well we have class so it will have to be quick,” Beavers captain Sami Jo Henry said. “And he responded to me with ‘everyone must be there.’ When he said that I knew it was going to be canceled, because he usually tells me beforehand what a meeting is going to be about, so as soon as I felt that distance, I knew it was bad. It was pretty tough to sit through my morning class knowing that was probably going to be the outcome.”
“When [other sports leagues] started canceling, our national tournament was kind of up in the air, and we knew in the back of our heads that it was gonna happen,” Miner said. “Right away, we wanted to sit the girls down and tell them before it got released on social media, and going into that meeting, we knew there was going to be a lot of emotion.”
“It was probably one of the toughest meetings that my coaching staff and I have had to go through in terms of just telling them that their season’s done.”
Careers abruptly ended. An entire year rendered moot. A legitimate shot at an all-too-elusive championship gone.
“I think the hardest part about it is that we had such a successful season, and having that opportunity taken away from us especially, since we had the opportunity to win a national championship,” Miner added. “It’s a big ‘what if’ and it’s kind of devastating.”
“There was a lot of emotion and anger,” Henry, who was recently named first-team All-American, said. “I know I was very angry and mad because it is something you have no control over. Losing out is something [where] you have control, but having it taken away like this is not. Lots of hugs and love spread around our team because we are so close, and we do care a lot about this team.”
For Minot State, this year was both a redemption tour and a booming debut.
For the last two seasons, as a Division 2 team, the Beavers steamrolled just about everyone on the way to 21-4-1 and 24-1-0 regular season records, including a combined 10-2-0 mark against Division 1 opponents. But both years ended in national championship game defeats, with Lakehead winning their second straight title in 2018. Last year’s result was the real stunner though, as MSU was upset by Assiniboine by a 1-0 score, a result that flew in the face of the Beavers’ 6-0-0 mark against ACC through the regular season, including 7-1 and 9-2 wins during its final weekend.
Minot then moved up to Division 1, continued some of the ACHA’s best recruiting efforts, and were nearly as dominant at the higher level, going 18-4-1 in ACHA games (including 7-4-0 against fellow national tournament invitees) and winding up second in the rankings, while also coming agonizingly close to a conference championship in the brutally-tough Women’s Midwest College Hockey. Heading to Texas as one of the favorites, the Beavers were certainly driven to complete the job on an even bigger stage.
“We thought we had a pretty good chance this year,” Henry said. “We were ready to start prepping game film on our first and potential second round matchups, and had big plans leading up to the national tournament. [It was a] huge disappointment for us losing that conference final, but we wanted to take it and prepare for them at nationals.”
Now…we’ll never know how it would have turned out. MSU is a program on the rise and will certainly have other days. But those days might come without a senior class of Mackenzie Balogh – one of the ACHA’s best players ever – Shelby Tornato, and Brooke Mead that had seen the program forward from its early days and now probably won’t make it to the finish line. While each could theoretically use a fifth year of eligibility on one more shot, doing so can often be complicated by academics and finances.
“I really just feel for our seniors especially Mack, she is one of my best friends and my roommate in Minot,” Henry lamented. “It’s just sad it had to end like that for her because she is one of the best, if not the best, players Minot will ever have. I enjoyed playing with her every year I did, including high school together, so it is a very sad time knowing we will never get that chance again.”
“She deserved a ring and I really wanted to win one for her.”
The 2019-20 Beavers will forever remain an unfinished story, but just one of many truncated by the pandemic.
Liberty’s Division 2 team is also compelling for what it lost in the cancellation. The formerly-downtrodden program abruptly rose to prominence in 2017-18 and made an appearance at the ACHA National Tournament that season. But the Flames were even better last year, steamrolling to a College Hockey East title over Delaware – yet not qualifying for nationals thanks to an extremely odd and poorly-communicated awarding of the CHE autobid to Mercyhurst (which hadn’t even won its division during the regular season, let alone the playoff title). So, the champs had to sit next to their trophy on the couch and fire up YouTube to watch the Lakers and Buffalo represent the league in Dallas.
This was the season meant to correct that wrong, as Brittany Hegele, Paige Arnosti, Holly Turner, and company left no doubt as to their nationals chops, and were ready to take a run at a manageable pool round schedule.
“Obviously this season meant a lot, when we started the season, we didn’t really know what to expect,” Flames defenseman Delaney Adams said. “We lost people and gained a few new ones, but we just kinda focused on having fun and kept nationals as our goal.”
Now…the goal will remain unfulfilled. The Flames still have a young roster and presumably will make a credible run at the 2021 tournament and CHE championship, but that’s hardly a guarantee. Motivations change, players change, and the competition changes. There will never be another moment identical to the one that just passed.
“When I got the news, I was at lunch with one of the other captains, we were both kinda shocked and extremely upset,” Adams continued. “We were so lost on why this happened because we got cheated out of nationals for two years. We just went to the gym and skipped classes to try to get our brains to slow down a bit.”
Perhaps nobody’s reality is quite as tragic as Lindenwood-Belleville, a team fighting against the ending of all endings, well beyond the expiration of any one player’s or class’ eligibility: that of the school and team itself, a bombshell that dropped shortly after a loss in the 2019 national championship game.
All year long, LUB used the rallying cry “last Lynx” in an attempt to will themselves to a title that was just as much about demonstrating their worthiness to those who killed their school as it was about finishing on top of the ACHA. The determination of whether a doomed team could manage to end on a title – literally, the plot of hockey’s most famous movie – was maybe the single most anticipated question of the tournament.
Now…it will remain forever unanswered and LUB’s existence will always be saddled with a maddeningly-ambiguous conclusion, right alongside The Sopranos’ infamous Don’t Stop Believin’-backed cut to black. At least with a TV show, the use of imagination and interpretation is permitted and even encouraged. Hockey is supposed to have a scoreboard for that, and you can be damn sure that the Lynx would pay anything to roll the dice just one more time.
It’s Minot State, Liberty, and Lindenwood-Belleville. It’s also Colorado, trying to avenge a 2018 defeat to Liberty’s Division 1 team with key players like Maura Kieft and Lexi Hartmann about to move on. It’s Boston College, New England’s best D2 squad for the last few years, and their underrated seniors like Peyton King and Jess Olivieri. It’s Michigan State trying to get a bit of a tournament albatross off their backs while taking one last shot with two-time Zoe Harris Award winner and former World University Games captain Maddie Wolsmann.
Everyone has a story. But like Miner, nobody has the chapter they need right now.
In absolute terms, the situation actually hasn’t cost that much. Seventeen of the 25 Division 1 teams and 39 of the 51 Division 2 teams managed to successfully complete their 2019-20 seasons. For the other eight and 12 who qualified for nationals, there were a maximum of five additional games on the table. Hockey’s sacrifice, in a strict numbers sense, wasn’t anywhere near that of the spring sports, which were cut off early in their seasons, prompting both the NCAA and NAIA to quickly grant those student-athletes an extra year of eligibility that may or may not be coming for the hockey players and other winter competitors.
And the hard reality is that only one team in each ACHA division gets to win the national championship – most participants would’ve seen their seasons end in a loss, regardless of the pandemic. Minot State and Lindenwood-Belleville are both in Division 1, so it would have been impossible for both of those stories to have a happy ending. In any realistic sense, there was at least as much chance that the three teams I’ve discussed would have been shut out of the titles as there was of any of them bringing one home.
One could even take it a step further and argue that, in some rational sense, the Lynx’s WMCH third-place game victory over rival McKendree on a lightly-attended Sunday morning on home ice is a better outcome as a season’s final game than most of the available possibilities at nationals. Others, like Rowan, Mercyhurst, and Northern Michigan did even better than LUB, ending their seasons with on-ice league tournament celebrations.
But that’s not really the point, is it?
As part of my pandemic-mandated social distancing efforts, I decided to binge The Office. The show had, for most of its run, been appointment viewing, but I (along with at least a couple others, I suppose) fell off the wagon when Steve Carell left late in the seventh of its nine seasons. In fact, other than the series finale, I had never seen any of the post-Carell episodes. So, okay, the last two seasons might not be quite on the same level as the rest of the show, but it would still be new-to-me television, an only slightly-watered-down version of something I’ve enjoyed watching, right?
Wrong. Despite my best intentions, it didn’t hold my interest. I knew the ending, so the road there became significantly diminished. I just couldn’t generate the same investment in the characters or the story when I already knew where everything was headed – if you know that Dwight and Angela get married and that Jim and Pam end up okay, you suddenly don’t worry quite as much about those couples’ respective hiccups.
It’s not that Ralph Waldo Emerson and Aerosmith were entirely wrong when they came up with that stuff about journeys and destinations, it’s just that they underestimated the extent to which each depends on the other. The journey feels unimportant with a pre-determined destination, and few destinations are worth an unfulfilling journey without challenge and conflict.
That’s why cold calculations of games played and games remaining in a hockey season, the percentage of a journey experienced, break down at a certain level. The unclear destination of a game, a season, or a career is a vital part of what we accept as people with an interest in sports, in any capacity. Even if that destination is heartbreak.
The scoreboard, either literal or metaphorical, is the fundamental contract of sports. You might not make the team, you might not be where you want in the lineup, or you might lose the game. But if you pay the price along the way, you get to take your best shot at the scoreboard, whether it hangs above the ice or only exists on a coach’s clipboard.
It’s the single inalienable truth about all of this, the single core value we all share. Whether it’s some LED-illuminated monstrosity in an NHL facility or an old-fashioned lightbulb matrix in a community rink, we live by the scoreboard and the idea that performance trumps all. We trust that, whatever the scoreboard shows at the end of a playoff game or a tryout or anything in between, it’s an accurate accounting of not only that day’s events, but also a cumulative judgment of every practice, every trip to the weight room, every film study, and every shot against a basement wall up until that point taken by everyone who participated. It’s years and decades of sweat equity, boiled down to simple data that gloriously illuminates where things stand at a moment in time.
That’s what feels so incongruous here, so unquestionably wrong. While seasons and careers end in defeat for most, not having the opportunity to take a shot at the scoreboard – after paying the required price to do so – is much, much worse than any game result. When the pact of the scoreboard is broken, when coaches must tell teams that the final scoreboard they’ve been dangling as motivation since the season’s first dryland no longer exists, it irreparably damages the entire concept of sports as a competitive pursuit.
This would normally be the point where I shift tone while attempting to find some silver lining, in order to at least close on an optimistic note. But I’m not sure that one exists here. Opportunities were lost, careers and even programs wrapped up prematurely on open-ended terms, and both journeys and destinations disappeared while forever arrived and the scoreboards remained off.
Outside of hockey and sports, of course, the world is dealing with a terrifying virus of a scale not witnessed in modern times. Some people are dying, others have lost their sources of income while most businesses are closed to contain things as much as possible, causing the economy to tank. Even the presently-unaffected are living in perpetual fear, washing their hands and buying toilet paper at feverish rates while wondering if and when the tsunami will crash down on themselves or loved ones, while most political leaders seem more concerned with spin and blame assignment than solutions.
Worst of all, nobody can say with much certainty when the crisis will pass, whether it’s a timeframe best counted in weeks or months, or what the sum of the devastation may be at that point. Reliable information is scarce, and positive reliable information is nearly impossible. And, of course, most of the things we ordinarily rely on to help us through the hard times have been taken away.
However, just when I was ready to write things off, I noticed something in Miner’s season-closing press conference. He started by answering the obligatory questions about the cancelation and his senior class of course, but about halfway through, he seamlessly pivoted into talking about recruiting and the construction of the Beavers’ 2020-21 schedule. The scoreboard may have failed him once, but he still believes in it. He’s still pushing towards that next time it’s ready to tell him whether he’s filled the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds worth of distance run.
Michigan-Dearborn does too. The Wolverines offered one of the first forward-looking statements I saw in the hockey world after the pandemic shut down most of society, retweeting a graphic from the Michigan High School Athletic Association defiantly insisting that “we will play again.” Adams’ Liberty team, newcomer Maryville and Midland have recently announced commitments, and all three will certainly also stand and be counted when the time comes and have a renewed appreciation for the opportunity.
In the rear-view mirror, of course, are the miles driven in 2019-20. They were too few to reach the end of the journey, but they are still worth some degree of celebration and reflection. The ACHA announced its individual award winners last week, and Henry, who narrowly lost out to Michigan State’s Wolsmann for the Zoe Harris Award, was still able to draw some good from the campaign.
“Positives are hard to come about in a situation like this, [but] we had a very good inaugural season in Division 1, ending in the second ranked spot,” she said. “I think we learned a lot about ourselves as a team and created an identity, which is something you can always build on.”
Adams also found a positive nugget in the chaos.
“We had a lot of injuries so I think it’s potentially positive now we can heal and have a lot of time to train,” she said.
“But right now, it feels like an L.”