NCAA men's hockey tournament -- How teams are navigating COVID-19 withdrawals

With three teams removed from the NCAA men's hockey tournament because of positive COVID-19 tests, coaches are realizing the rug could be pulled from under them at any time. AP Photo/Michael Dwyer

The Minnesota State men's hockey team was on the ice, practicing, on Friday when whispers started spreading that Michigan might have to withdraw from the NCAA tournament because of a positive COVID-19 test.

Coach Mike Hastings was near the boards when a trainer made him aware the Wolverines could be the third team to pull out of the tournament this week, joining Notre Dame and St. Lawrence University. Hastings recalled memories of telling his team the tournament was canceled last season because of the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic, remembering it as one of the most challenging times he has experienced as a coach.

Though his team didn't have any positive tests, the fact another team had gone through all the protocols -- including testing its players, coaches and essential staff members prior to traveling and testing them again for two days upon arrival at the respective regional site before being allowed to step onto the ice -- and still had a positive test on Friday was a stark reminder the rug could be pulled from under any team at any time.

"What happened with Michigan, I don't know when that [positive test] came up, but my guess would be that test would've been [Friday], which is game day," Hastings said. "We haven't elaborated on that [with the players], because I don't need them thinking about it, but that's what I've been struggling with. They've been clean on all those and then that pops [Friday] morning; that one, I think, has sat everyone up."

The players had been taking the protocols seriously, but seeing teams withdraw from the tournament, erasing the hard work they put in all season to make it this far, has heightened the awareness for everyone at the four regional sites. The reality has set in that the teams that went home aren't coming back, and their hopes of a national championship this season have vanished.

On Wednesday, the original 16 teams traveled to their respective sites in Fargo, North Dakota, Bridgeport, Connecticut, Loveland, Colorado, and Albany, New York. Anyone traveling with the team was required to produce a negative PCR test prior to leaving campus within 48 hours of arrival and then needed to produce two negative tests within 48 hours upon arrival.

Travel was one of the aspects of the tournament that created a challenge. Each team had different travel arrangements and needed to coordinate how to safely get their team to each site.

For Boston University and head coach Albie O'Connell, they were approximately a three-hour bus ride from their destination in Albany. The team took three buses, socially distanced on the buses as best they could and wore masks the entire trip.

That wasn't the case for Minnesota State, however. The Mavericks took a 90-minute bus ride to the airport, flew on a charter plane to Denver spread across the 31 rows while social distancing, then took another 90-minute bus ride to Loveland all while trying to keep seating charts the same in every vehicle.

O'Connell felt comfortable with the team's travel, but once other programs started to withdraw, he made his players aware of the gravity of the situation. His team had only played 15 games out of a possible 24 this season due to COVID-19 related issues, so he knew how fast things could change and the immediate potential impact.

The daily testing that takes place for every team is necessary, but has become as nerve-racking as coaching in an actual game.

"I tell you what, being there as a coach, the kids think they're going to [test] negative every time," O'Connell said. "You go in there leading the group, and it's a little bit of a pressure cooker. Going in there, the first day I did it, and there's about 30 people socially distanced waiting in chairs for their results.

"We had one guy with a little bit of a fever and I'm like, 'Oh my God, this isn't good.' It's nerve-racking and they jam the swab a little high up there, too; a little higher than when you self-administer."

The protocols are as strict as they can be, so there isn't much the coaches can change to help prevent any positive tests at this point.

The NCAA has implemented policies that include COVID-19 test zones, areas that are reserved for Tier 1 and Tier 2 tested individuals, which include players, coaches, medical staff, trainers and relevant team staff members. There are designated bathrooms for Tier 1 individuals, a buffer zone in the arena that includes the first five rows of the seating area or 20 feet from the back of the team bench area.

The field of play and team areas are thoroughly disinfected between each competition and practice, the teams are separated at the hotel on different floors and players are either in their own individual room or have one roommate to continue to social distance.

Some of the team meetings are held in conference rooms with only four players to a table with 10 tables spread throughout.

The protocols require the players only participate in team activities, which means they've been stuck in a hotel since Wednesday with basically nothing else to do but get tested for COVID-19 and practice.

Minnesota State skated Wednesday morning on their campus, traveled to Colorado, and didn't step back on the ice until Friday. That isn't normal procedure when preparing for a national tournament and trying to keep athletes in peak condition.

"We're trying to keep them active and we discussed hopping on a bus, or buses, and driving to a place to go hiking," Hastings said. "We decided against that because a bus is a tight environment, even two buses. As a staff we're talking about how we don't want our guys just laying around their hotel room all day."

The typical option is taking a walk outside the hotel, doing yoga with the team while socially distanced and masked or getting a meal from the hotel and taking it back to their individual rooms to eat.

But risking a chance at unnecessary exposure that could lead to a withdrawal of their own just to go hiking isn't worth the risk. Players have sacrificed getting tested numerous times a week all season, some staying away from family to avoid exposure, and they're not going to risk anything now.

That sacrifice isn't easy for a college student, though, as the mental fatigue is starting to set in. Their normal routine has been thrown out the window, and they're fighting for a national championship while navigating protocols and limitations that normally wouldn't exist.

Minnesota Duluth was the team set to play Michigan in the first round and found out its game was canceled the day of the game. After all the preparation, some players were getting in their pregame nap when they were told there would be no game.

Sure they were moving on to the next round, but how it was happening was jarring and added to the myriad thoughts spinning through their heads about how to keep their own team in the tournament.

"There's no question you get nervous every time you test now when you see what's gone on," Minnesota Duluth head coach Scott Sandelin said. "So, just keep your fingers crossed every time, when you test, that everybody's negative. It's a crazy thing, like I've told many people, the weird year keeps getting weirder."

Every day the players and staff are tested, it presents another chance a team could be eliminated without a loss on the ice.

These programs didn't get the opportunity to compete for a championship last season when the tournament was canceled, so they're grateful for this chance. But they know tomorrow isn't guaranteed.

They understand they have to be diligent and more careful than they have been if they want to see the opportunity through to its fullest extent. Wins and losses they can deal with, knowing they left everything on the ice, but not getting that chance to compete is not the way any of the remaining programs want to end their season.

"We said at the start of the year, the team that could end up at the end is the team that stays the safest and smartest and takes the most precautions," O'Connell said. "Whether it be tomorrow, today or the rest of the weekend, if we have the opportunity to move on, we'll have to bubble wrap everything."