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UND's hockey season is over; NCAA cancels national tournament

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UND practices Thursday morning ahead in Ralph Engelstad Arena. Photo by Brad Elliott Schlossman / Grand Forks Herald
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One of the best seasons in UND hockey history is over.

It ended in an unprecedented way Thursday afternoon as the NCAA canceled all of its tournaments, including the men's hockey event, due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The NCAA's decision came just hours after the National Collegiate Hockey Conference canceled its postseason tournament.

UND players gathered in the players lounge at The Ralph at around 4 p.m. after the news came out, some of the seniors in tears.

UND (26-5-4) was the No. 1-ranked team in the Pairwise Rankings, which are used to seed and select the NCAA tournament field. It was the odds-on favorite to win the NCAA national championship in the Vegas casinos. But now it won't get a shot at making one of those memorable runs through the NCHC Frozen Faceoff, NCAA regionals and Frozen Four.

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"It's disappointment right now," UND coach Brad Berry said. "We did a lot of really good things this year. We won a Penrose championship. We were No. 1 in the Pairwise at this time. I feel for our guys right now. I feel for our players, our staff and I feel for our fans. This is the exciting time of year, this is what you work so hard for to get to, and earn everything to get into a position where we were at.

"I've got to be sensitive to the world around us, too, though. It is what it is. It's a situation where everybody is being very sensitive, and they should be. It's disappointing because our guys put every ounce of energy into being a consistently, hard-working team that brought it every night."

Berry spoke to the team after the NCAA put out its announcement.

"I'm so proud of each one of them individually and collectively as a team," Berry said. "Here at North Dakota, we use the word 'culture' so strong. It's a team-first culture. They checked their egos at the door. Everything you ask them to do, they do it 100 percent. And to see that end without determining a champion, it's tough to see. In saying that, I'm so proud of our guys for what they've done. They're going to be successful in whatever they do, whether it's hockey or a real-life job and raising families. I'm so proud of them."

UND senior forward Westin Michaud, who transferred for his graduate year, posted on Twitter: "Couldn't have asked for a better group of guys to win a Penrose Cup with. This team had it all: tenacity, grit, hard skill, heart, and more importantly Sioux culture. I couldn't have asked for a better last year of college hockey. #siouxforever."

Rapidly changing environment

Everything changed quickly Wednesday and Thursday.

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On Wednesday, the NCHC announced its playoff games would occur without fans present.

The NCAA also announced its national tournaments would go on, but without fans.

At 9:30 a.m. Thursday, UND held a spirited practice in Ralph Engelstad Arena that ended with the team holding its weekly shootout competition. Everything was still on track at that point, but behind the scenes, the season was on the verge of collapse.

NCHC commissioner Josh Fenton was on the phone with league athletic directors, presidents and chancellors about calling off the entire NCHC tournament. Fenton frequently consulted with interim UND interim president, Dr. Josh Wynne, who is an M.D.

"Certainly, we're living in unprecedented times," Fenton said.

The Fighting Hawks were set to play Colorado College in a best-of-three, first-round NCHC series Friday, Saturday and, if necessary, Sunday in Ralph Engelstad Arena. So, the Tigers flew to Minneapolis on Wednesday night and started a bus trip to Grand Forks on Thursday. They found out during their drive that their season was over and turned the bus around.

"Like everybody, I'm just really, really surprised at how it's changed and twisted and turned and morphed into what it has today," Ralph Engelstad Arena general manager Jody Hodgson said. "And certainly, greatest disappointment is for the student-athletes and our fans."

Ralph Engelstad Arena put sanitizing stations all over the arena and in the home and visiting locker rooms in preparation for the weekend series. It also had a large shipment of food brought in, as it planned to feed nearly 25,000 people this weekend.

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"I don't have an answer yet," Hodgson said on what they're going to do with the extra food. "We'll try to save as much of the non-perishable stuff as we can."

Financial impact in the NCHC

The NCHC has been building a reserve fund during its six years of existence, preparing for a potential year of revenue shortfall. Fenton did not reveal how much was in the reserve fund, but according to a 2017 federal tax return obtained by the Herald, the NCHC had roughly $1.9 million stored away.

"The amount in there is an amount that we and the membership feel comfortable to manage difficult situations, whatever those difficult situations may be. . . this year being one of them," Fenton said.

Fenton said the league was not focused on its revenues during the decision-making process.

"The decision-making process was grounded in what's best for the health and safety of all involved," Fenton said. "There were a lot of circumstances and factors that come into these decisions, but there's no doubt in my mind that our membership was wholly grounded in what we should be doing for the safety and health of everyone involved."

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Schlossman has covered college hockey for the Grand Forks Herald since 2005. He has been recognized by the Associated Press Sports Editors as the top beat writer for the Herald's circulation division four times and the North Dakota sportswriter of the year once. He resides in Grand Forks. Reach him at bschlossman@gfherald.com.
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