The #20 Denver Pioneers hockey team sits 6-9-1 with yet another postponed series again this weekend. Coming into the season, there were high expectations followed by erratic play and disappointing results. Various theories attributed the performances to coaching decisions, leaky goaltending, tepid faceoff results, or a simple inability to score?
Or is the simple answer the ‘COVID-19’ pandemic?
It is true that all college hockey players are facing COVID-19 and the associated uncertainty so what makes Denver so special? And, clearly, that is a valid point. But every person, every organization responds to risk and uncertainty differently. Maybe we, as fans, should modify our expectations with the understanding that COVID-19 just makes everything more difficult. If that sounds like a poor excuse, maybe you’re right! Or maybe you should consider the effect this pandemic has had on each and every one of us at work and in our own lives. How are you holding up? How are things going at home? Why should we expect a different experience for student-athletes who, arguably, have it harder than any of us right now?
Denver is a private university that faces more financial risk than public schools because DU is largely dependent on full ‘on campus’ tuition so COVID-19 protocols, procedures, and policies are extremely rigid and unforgiving. While other schools and universities in the region and nation have faced campus closures, DU’s successful testing and isolation procedures have kept the school open for on-campus learning. But, these results may have come at an ‘on-ice’ cost.
Another coach in another sport, University of Kansas Basketball Bill Self, is directing the Jayhawks to a historically slow start. “I think I’m coaching differently in large part to the crazy year this has been, and the isolation and the no energy,” Self said during a media availability session. Self went on to cite the isolation experienced by his athletes, social justice issues that extend well beyond race, lack of overall social engagement, and interrupted activities in dorm rooms and classrooms which have added to the pressure on the court. KU, like all other DI programs, has modified, reduced, and in some cases eliminated team practices to reduce potential student-athlete exposure to COVID-19.
Add the pressure of high expectations placed on blue blood programs like Denver Hockey or KU basketball, no student-athlete wants to be the one who spreads the virus and infect other teammates or cancels games. As a result, athletes can ill afford to socially interact with people outside their close circle like other students.
The COVID-19 impacts are especially harsh on newcomers who are expected to integrate smoothly into a new program. In DU’s case, add nine freshmen along with graduate three transfers (Corbin Kaczperski from Yale, Bo Hanson from St. Lawrence University, Steven Jandric from Alaska-Fairbanks). That makes nearly half of the 28 man roster are new to the culture and systems employed by DU. Offensive leader Bobby Brink missed key ice team playing for the gold-medal winning United States at the World Junior Championships early in the season when Denver was struggling to establish an offensive identity. Add in the ill-timed early departure of veteran goalie Devin Cooley, the cards were stacked against the Pioneers from the get-go.
Yet, many fans expect similar results as they have come to expect. It is fair to be critical of a team that has established such high expectations. But the answer may clearly be in front of us. That doesn’t mean fans should ignore erratic play or not look for answers for a team that is clearly struggling. But it does mean that we must find a way to understand that this is an unusual time. Sure, some programs are adapting to the unusual circumstances better than Denver has. But can’t that same thing be said for every other facet of life? Take a deep breath (six feet away from the next closest person and with your mask covering your mouth and nose, please), and remember it’s just another COVID-19 year.
Photo of Jake Durflinger courtesy of DU Athletics