One year ago today, UND coach Brad Berry gathered his team around center ice before morning practice and addressed the commotion around the sports world.
In the previous 24 hours, the National Collegiate Hockey Conference announced it would not allow fans to attend its quarterfinal best-of-three series because of the coronavirus pandemic. The NCAA announced its winter championships would be played in front of limited family members and essential staff only. And a few hours after those announcements, the sporting world was rocked when Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 and the NBA abruptly shut down.
Berry told his players to focus on what they can control.
After all, every goal was still in front of a UND team that surprisingly steamrolled its way through the season and won the Penrose Cup as NCHC regular-season champions.
They wanted to become the first No. 1 seed -- and first team at UND -- to win the NCHC playoff championship. They wanted to play in an NCAA tournament, reach the Frozen Four and hang a ninth green banner in Ralph Engelstad Arena as NCAA national champions -- a target clearly in sight as the No. 1 team in the Pairwise Rankings.
While arena workers installed hand-sanitizing stations in the home and visiting locker rooms to prep for the quarterfinal series, the Fighting Hawks concluded practice at around 10:30 a.m. They soon skated off the ice, unknowingly, for the final time as a team.
Within two hours, the NCHC playoffs were canceled. Within five hours, the entire NCAA tournament was wiped out. The season was over just like that.
The players returned to the arena and gathered in the locker room that afternoon. Each of the seven seniors spoke.
"We kind of had our last moment together as a team," UND captain Jordan Kawaguchi said. "It was definitely an emotional day."
Forward Shane Pinto added: "I just remember the heartbreak, especially for our seniors. They didn't get an opportunity to finish what we started."
So, UND vowed to try to finish it for them.
Kawaguchi and Matt Kiersted, two of the most coveted NHL free agents in college hockey, pledged to return to campus instead of turning pro, setting a tone for the rest of the team. First-round NHL draft pick Jacob Bernard-Docker, second-round picks Grant Mismash and Pinto and sixth-round pick Collin Adams joined them.
They had a common reason for returning: They had unfinished business.
Nothing stood in the way of UND getting back to this moment -- not the delayed start to the season, the fan-less games or the constantly evolving schedules. The Fighting Hawks again stormed through the college hockey regular season, winning another Penrose Cup -- this one by the second-largest margin in league history.
It is once again March 12th.
On the one-year anniversary of that crushing and emotional day, UND gets to pick up where it left off: The Fighting Hawks are the No. 1 seed hosting eighth-seeded Miami in an NCHC quarterfinal game at 7:37 p.m. in Ralph Engelstad Arena. They're once again targeting their first NCHC playoff title in program history, and a few weeks, that goal will again turn to hanging a green banner.
"We're going to have to take advantage of this," Pinto said.
Kawaguchi said: "We feel lucky to be having the season we've had. We're just lucky to be playing in general."
UND (18-5-1) is the NCHC's top seed in the pandemic-altered, single-elimination tournament, which is being held in Ralph Engelstad Arena. The Fighting Hawks are 26-2 in their last 28 games in the building.
"Our guys are excited," Berry said. "I know it was very disappointing for our team and other teams across the country of not finishing out the playoffs last year. It's the most fun time of year, especially at the college level. It's what you work hard all year to get to. It culminates into this."
The quarterfinals are today and Saturday. The semifinals are Monday and the championship game is Tuesday.
"It's incredibly ironic that it's a year to the day," said Jody Hodgson, Ralph Engelstad Arena's general manager. "In many ways, I hope it's a rebirth for our venue and our community to do events that we all like to do."
It's a bit of a rebirth for the hockey players, too, who get their first opportunity to play in the playoffs in two years, and an opportunity to finish what they started 18 months ago.
"I'm really fired up, especially after last year," Pinto said. "There was a lot of build up, but we're finally here and I think I can speak for all the boys that we're ready to go."