It’s been more than eight months since the last time the Minnesota Golden Gophers women hockey team was preparing for game day, readying for a critical NCAA Tournament matchup against Ohio State.
Getting from that point — when the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic forced the abrupt ending of the 2019-20 season — to the beginning of this season was a challenge in and of itself as leagues and universities spent months working to devise thorough safety protocols.
Getting back to March safely? Well, that’s a whole other issue.
The Gophers are set to begin its season on Saturday against Ohio State at 3:07 p.m. at Ridder Arena, almost two months later than the season normally would have been scheduled to start. What happens next is anyone’s guess.
COVID-19 is spreading rapidly throughout the country, especially in the Upper Midwest, where all of the WCHA’s teams are located except for Ohio State. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz has put a halt to youth and high school sports. Last week, the Ivy League announced it will not move forward with men’s and women’s hockey this season.
It’s an uphill battle. But for now, the WCHA is full go — until it can’t be.
“Right now, as a league, we are committed to providing the best, most meaningful season we can for our student-athletes, and we are hopeful that that includes a postseason championship,” WCHA women’s commissioner Jennifer Flowers said on a Zoom call with media members this week.
If they get to that point, the point where a team is hoisting a trophy in March, the Gophers are expected to be right in the thick of things. A perennial powerhouse, Minnesota was picked second in the WCHA preseason coaches’ poll, behind rival Wisconsin.
The Gophers brought in transfer Lauren Bench to take over between the pipes following the graduation of Sydney Scobee. They return three of their top four scorers from last season in Grace Zumwinkle, Taylor Heise and Amy Potomak. And, they have the No. 1 freshman class in the country, which includes Abbey Murphy, the nation’s top recruit and the preseason pick for WCHA Rookie of the Year. The seven-player freshman class also includes forward Maggie Nicholson from Minnetonka, the No. 3 player in the class, per NeutralZone.net, as well as Addie Burton, another top-10 player, and two — Anne Cherkowski and Audrey Wethington — who sit just outside the top 10.
“They’re going to provide quite a bit of depth for us … which we need, and I would expect all of them to be getting some playing time here as we move into the season,” coach Brad Frost said of his freshmen. “Abbey, I think, is probably the most dynamic player that came out of the U.S. or Canada and will probably be the most dynamic freshman in the country this year.”
While the Gophers have the pieces to be one of the best teams in the country, Frost is talking with his team about flexibility, which it is likely to need in order to get through such an unprecedented season as this one.
Players and coaches already have started a routine that includes antigen testing six days a week. The team is working hard to limit its contacts and distance when possible. Still, the Gophers know all of that isn’t impenetrable.
“We could show up on a Friday and get tested in the morning and three players are out, so what’s our team going to do? How are they going to react? And so, I think just knowing that there’s a lot of randomness to the year and to the season, they need to be interchangeable,” Frost said. “Forwards all need to know how to play wing and center, D need to know how to play potentially forward, and we’re just going to take it as it comes.”
But, stacked up against so many uncertainties, they do know one thing for sure: They’re ready to get back on the ice.
“We just don’t know what the future holds here and so we want to seize each moment we have together,” Frost said. “And we want to play our best hockey.”