Maine is the only New England state that hasn’t hosted a college hockey game this season.
And with the state-mandated 50-person limit for indoor events unlikely to be changed with the COVID-19 pandemic still raging, the University of Maine’s men’s and women’s hockey teams likely won’t play any home games at Alfond Arena.
The total number of players, coaches, trainers and equipment managers for two teams comes out to 52 even before you count rink personnel, referees and linesmen, and necessary game-day personnel.
But coaches for both teams agree that playing on the road is better than not playing at all.
“We’re just happy to play wherever it is we play,” UMaine men’s hockey coach Red Gendron said. “But I don’t believe that we aren’t going to play any games at the University of Maine. We aren’t playing any games there now. But we’ll see what happens.”
Playing on the road is challenging in that their opponents are familiar with the nuances of their rink and they get the last line change so they can get a favorable match-up.
Fans aren’t a factor because Hockey East isn’t allowing any to attend the games.
“One thing we’ve learned during this pandemic is nothing is assured. Every day new information comes out and new situations happen,” Gendron said. “We started with a 27-game schedule and that’s not going to happen. No matter who or where we’re playing on a given night, we have obstacles to overcome and it is our job to overcome them. I’m not going to lament what I don’t have because it’s not productive. What we do have is the opportunity to play and we’re grateful for that.”
The UMaine women’s hockey team has played six games to date at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, at the University of New Hampshire and at Providence College.
The men’s team played a two-game set at UNH but has had eight games canceled or postponed due to COVID-19 concerns.
The teams have to follow strict protocols on the road as do the two basketball teams.
The teams take two buses instead of one, they travel to the game site on the day of the game rather than the night before and they are restricted to their hotel rooms and a meeting room where they can eat and go over game strategy.
UMaine women’s hockey coach Richard Reichenbach said his players eat in their hotel rooms and have their strategy meetings via zoom.
Reichenbach said their road situation isn’t something they have even discussed.
“We don’t care where we play, we just want to play games,” said Reichenbach, whose team is 4-2.
He said the most challenging aspect of it is the fact each state has its own set of safety protocols that they must adhere to.
But he was quick to point out that the strict guidelines in place at the University of Maine have been beneficial in enabling them to make the necessary adjustments on the road.
Players do have roommates at the hotel and they are their on-campus roommates, also.
Gendron and Reichenbach said getting the last line change is a definite advantage for the home team and he has made modifications to his lines and defense tandems so they don’t find themselves facing a significant matchup disadvantage.
“We are hopeful we will have the ability to host games but we are committed to following established state guidance which for now does not permit us to host,” UMaine director of athletics Ken Ralph said. “If the guidance changes we will be ready and able to host at that time.”
Brian Smith, associate commissioner of Hockey East, said if it becomes apparent that UMaine won’t be able to play any home games, the league will look to give the Black Bears home team status for some of their games which will enable them to get the last line change.
“It plays a big part in your game plan,” Reichenbach said.
The financial aspect of playing all of your games on the road, including having an extra bus, can be taxing. Ralph said it is “difficult to put a final financial number on this arrangement” as the team’s are essentially working with a week-to-week schedule.
“The men’s team has already missed out on eight games due to the pandemic so there is a savings there. When we do travel now we must follow UMaine System guidance and take two buses instead of our typical one bus. Otherwise there are few additional expenses other than the extra dates on the road,” he said.
Traveling on the day of the game is another cost-saving measure, but Ralph said that has more to do with state testing protocols than cutting costs.
The most road trips each team could take this season would be 10 because the teams are playing a maximum of 20 league games. The UMaine men made 11 regular season road trips last year and the women made nine.
“All of our teams will be playing greatly reduced schedules. That is the biggest cost savings. We have found other savings through some reorganization of administrative tasks and by leaving vacant positions unfilled,” Ralph said. “We are very grateful to the UMaine System leadership that we have not had to resort to mass layoffs or furloughs like many of our peers.”
Gendron and Reichenbach applauded Hockey East officials for their handling of the situation including constant schedule changes.
“The league has done the best job it possibly can under these circumstances,” Gendron said.
They were pleased that the league decided to include all teams in the playoffs instead of just the top eight in each division. There are 11 men’s teams and 10 women’s teams.
“It will be very difficult if not impossible to create equity in the schedule,” Gendron said. “You have teams coming in and out of competitive ability based on the number of [COVID-19] cases. By including all of the teams in the playoffs, it is an opportunity to create a certain amount of equality for all the teams.”
“And it takes some stress off of us,” Reichenbach said.