Due to COVID-19 concerns, the National Collegiate Hockey Conference announced the cancellation of their playoffs and year end tournament late Thursday morning, March 12, cutting the Mavericks’ season short.
In a 48-hour span that saw the NBA, NHL, MLS, MLB and several other professional leagues suspend their seasons, the ripple hit collegiate athletics just as hard.
What started as teams announcing they’d be playing in empty arenas led to conferences across college hockey cancelling playoff series and year end tournaments. Shortly thereafter, the NCAA followed suit, cancelling the entire NCAA tournament and ending the 2019-2020 season.
From the Omaha perspective, the Mavericks had already arrived in Denver when they received the news. In the days leading up it was practice and business as usual, as the Mavericks were getting set to face the Pioneers in the opening round of the NCHC playoffs.
Wednesday night the conference announced that attendance would be restricted and closed to the public, leading to the inevitable the next day. When the news broke just before noon CDT on Thursday that their season would be over, it wasn’t easy for the Mavericks’ head coach Mike Gabinet to tell his group.
“It’s been an emotional time,” Gabinet said on Friday afternoon. “I tried to stick to the facts because it was constantly getting updated, but also until we knew more, I wanted everyone to remain calm. When we found out the NCHC tournament was officially cancelled though, it’s obviously tough news for the team.
“In the forefront, you really feel for the seniors and your thoughts are of your players and what they’re going through. But also, you have the responsibility of everyone’s health and wellness in mind, so ultimately it’s about what’s the safest for everyone.”
Although it’s in the best interest of fans and athletes alike, it’s still hard for many to wrap their heads around what all has happened across the world of sports. As much of a whirlwind as the last few days have been, it still hasn’t hit that the 2019-20 season is over.
“For me, I don’t think it’s sunk in yet that the season is over,” Gabinet said. “You go into autopilot mode on preparation, and it’s hard to switch that off, so it’s hard to digest right now.”
Omaha finishes the season (14-17-5) overall, and (8-13-3) in NCHC play, compared to a (9-24-3, 5-17-2) mark just one year ago. However, the bigger strides go beyond what the records show this season, especially for having such a young roster.
For a team that came into this year with 12 freshmen on the roster (ending with 11, as Colby Enns left the program in December), there was a lot of unknown at the start of the season. More than five months later, almost every one of them made an impact at some point in the season, especially over the last few weeks due to injuries.
Their effort was reflected earlier this week, as the Mavericks tied Denver with the most representatives on the NCHC All-Rookie Team, two. Center Joey Abate, 9-9-18, and defenseman Brandon Scanlin, 3-11-14, both were named to the team. Sophomore Taylor Ward, who was on the all-rookie team last season, was also named an honorable mention for the All-Conference team.
“It’s a really impressive season for the group overall,” Gabinet said. “As the season progressed, when they faced some adversity, they just kept growing and getting better. Like we’ve talked about throughout the season, these guys weren’t afraid to play anybody and just went out there and competed.
“Especially playing the strength of schedule that we had to play, and having so many big wins, you just really have to be proud of the groups’ effort and willingness to grow, learn and compete. Very, very positive steps this season.”
That “strength of schedule” he points out was very much the case. While Omaha spent five weeks in the top-20 themselves, the Mavericks played 18 games this season against ranked teams. Amid the tough competition, Omaha posted a (6-10-2) record in that stretch, highlighted by both a road and home win over, at the time, No. 1 and No. 2 North Dakota.
In addition to the success against UND, Omaha knocked off Arizona State, Wisconsin and Western Michigan in Baxter Arena, while also grabbing road wins at Ohio State, St. Cloud State and Western Michigan. The Mavericks also went toe-to-toe with No. 4 Denver, seeing both of those games end in a tie.
Going into the offseason, that success will be something for this program to build on, especially since they’ll bring so much of this roster back. On top of that, the Mavericks have another impressive freshman class on the way.
However, as promising as that future may be, it’s a tough ending for five members of the Omaha roster. With this weekend’s series being cancelled, seniors Ryan Jones, Zach Jordan, Tristan Keck, Teemu Pulkkinen and Dean Stewart’s time in Omaha has officially come to a close. For Gabinet, that’s been one of the hardest parts of this whole situation.
“I was thinking about my seniors right away,” Gabinet said. “Just thinking about how hard they worked all season long. Not just physically, but also mentally too, and that shows a lot of growth and leadership. I’m just really proud of their love for each other, love for the community and the university. They did a great job of setting a standard and leading the way for our freshmen.”
After arriving back safely in Omaha late Thursday, it’s the end of a crazy two-day stretch and a premature ending on a playoff run this team hoped to put together. At the same time, they know they’re one of many teams and sports affected by the coronavirus all across the globe.
It’s still a tough thought to process that this season is over, but with so much unknown going forward, it’s a decision many felt had to be done.