UMaine defenseman Simon Butala battles for the puck with Teemu Pulkkinen of Nebraska-Omaha during a game last January in Portland. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

The University of Maine men’s ice hockey team will not be hosting UMass in a season-opening series this weekend, after all.

This is not a reason to sulk or panic at the thought of a lost season. UMaine administrators need a little more time to implement their COVID-19 safety guidelines as it pertains to school athletics. The women’s ice hockey team is still getting ready to open its season at Holy Cross (Worcester, Massachusetts) this weekend, and the UMaine basketball programs are still on pace to open their seasons at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut next week in non-conference games against national powers Virginia (for the men) and Mississippi State (for the women).

“The reality is, there were some quirks we couldn’t get finalized. We tried everything we could. There was a couple timing issues that just didn’t quite line up,” UMaine athletic director Ken Ralph said in a Zoom press conference Wednesday afternoon. “Since we are being ultra safe about everything, we don’t want there to be anything that we don’t feel we’re in control off 100 percent, we weren’t quite there yet for this weekend at home.”

Ralph didn’t get into specifics as to what those quirks are, but in the current climate, it’s safe to assume they involve COVID-19 safety protocols at the University’s athletic facilities. There’s a number of forces at work to ensure UMaine’s winter teams have a season. Everyone has to be 100 percent on board. Everything has to be 100 percent checked and checked again. Even so, nothing is perfect, but to start there can be no questions.

You know the adage, measure twice, cut once? Apply that to starting a sports season in the middle of a pandemic that is at its worst point in Maine thus far.

 

 

“The fact that we’re going to have a Black Bear team playing Friday night feels awfully good. It just feels so good that we’re going to see a team out there… I see today as the best day we’ve had in a long time,” Ralph said.

If you expect Maine men’s ice hockey coach Red Gendron or his team to pout about the delay, you couldn’t be more wrong on the wrongest day of your life.

“Our team has been working real hard since we arrived on campus in September. Up until today, there was an awful lot of ambiguity. A lot of times our players are asking me for answers that I simply can’t provide because I don’t know,” Gendron said. “I feel about as good as I felt since September.”

“We just had a lot of speculation going on the past couple of weeks. No one really knew anything, but we were preparing like we were going to play this Friday,” Black Bears captain Jack Quinlivan added. “Now we have a definitive date, and the guys are super excited. You see a lot of teams get cancelled this year, so a lot of guys were scared.”

Quinlivan hit on it perfectly. The Black Bears see buddies at Ivy League schools down and out as their seasons canceled. This week, Union College and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute canceled their seasons. Quinlivan and his teammates now this delay is a bump, not a brick wall.

Maine forward Eduards Tralmaks (34) tries to score on Nebraska-Omaha goalie Austin Roden during a game last season in Orono. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

They, and everyone at UMaine, also know this can change at any time. If the COVID-19 situation worsens in Maine, or there’s an outbreak at a Hockey East rival, the season could be put on hold or the schedule could change. Already, the University of Vermont delayed the start of its winter seasons until mid-December. The Catamounts were going to play UConn this weekend. With UConn and UMass suddenly looking at open weekends, Hockey East announced late Wednesday afternoon the Huskies and Minutemen will play each other this weekend.

The upcoming season will require the patience of a hunter and the flexibility of a Slinky.

“That’s not totally alien,” Gendron said on the prospect of an ever-changing schedule. “It’s kind of what you do in a tournament situation. That’s what you would do in the NCAA tournament. You don’t know who you’re going to play. You’ve got to be ready for anything.”

What the Black Bears have going for them, what all UMaine winter teams have going for them, is that as of next week, they will have the campus to themselves for a while. Most students will leave for Thanksgiving break and complete the semester remotely. That creates a de facto bubble in which the Black Bears can study and train.

Maine defenseman Jakub Sirota (2) gets flipped upside down in front of his goal as teammate Simon Butala, center, contains Nebraska-Omaha’s Teemu Pulkkinen during a game last season in Orono. Michael Seamans/Morning Sentinel

“We’re already seeing students heading back (home) for the break. It certainly does make the environment even safer. I think we’re safe as it is, but I think this makes it even safer. I can’t say this was a focal point of the discussions, but it certainly was brought up,” Ralph said.

Fans were looking forward to the Black Bears playing this weekend. The team was looking forward to getting on the ice against somebody other than the same bunch of faces its practiced with for weeks. A delay is not ideal, but it’s not a cancellation, so keep hope.

It’s also a warning. A lot had to happen to get to this point, and it can all be undone if we’re not careful. Do you want sports in Maine this winter, be they college or high school? Wear a mask. Practice social distancing. This postponement is a hiccup. You know the thing about hiccups, though. If you don’t do something to stop them, they can last a while.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM

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