Putting together a consistent schedule during a pandemic has been an enormous challenge in the hockey world, but one league that has managed to push through the struggle is the USHL. America's top junior league began its 2020-21 season in November and while there have been game postponements along the way, the circuit hasn't been forced into a bubble or any league-wide breaks so far. The keys? Planning and flexibility.
"When we were putting our plans together, the first step was making sure we had proper Return to Play protocols that we were all comfortable with," said USHL commissioner Tom Garrity. "So we spent a lot of time on that in the summer months leading up to the year. We worked pretty diligently with a variety of resources provided to us, internally and also from the NHL and USA Hockey - anyone willing to share information with us."
Safety was naturally the top priority and making the schedule flexible aided in that quest. Garrity estimated that more than 60 percent of scheduled games have been played so far, with the others postponed due to either positive cases surrounding teams or, more commonly, county health regulations in the home markets. As of this week, every franchise has played at least six games and no more than 11 (the Tier-2 NAHL has also had moderate success this season, though one franchise, the Minnesota Magicians, has yet to play a game, while some others have only played a few).
Knowing there would be hiccups, the league built potential make-up dates into its initial schedule and dropped its total from 60 games per team to 54. The 2021 playoffs will also feature just eight teams instead of the usual 12 and the USHL wants to finish on time so as to not drag the campaign on longer than necessary. The final regular season games are scheduled for April 24.
Two teams - the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders and Madison Capitols - are on hiatus this season. The arena in Cedar Rapids was damaged by a derecho storm in August, while Madison was prohibited from even practising by local Wisconsin health authorities (both teams are expected back next season). The Capitols are owned by star NHL defenseman Ryan Suter and while he was willing to play the whole season without fans in the stands, the franchise could not get the go-ahead from health officials.
Speaking of fans, there have been some folks in the stands, but not nearly at the normal level. While November is typically a slow month for attendance, the pandemic has obviously been the big driver of the dip. Garrity is hoping for better news in January and February, but the financial reality of the season was known to all USHL stakeholders before the first skates hit the ice.
"I give a lot of credit to the owners," Garrity said. "The financial impact is pretty dramatic and the owners understood that in the best-case scenario they would have financial difficulties - which they've had. But they were committed because of the purpose of our league and they made a commitment to these kids and coaches."
It hasn't been easy - changing health restrictions have meant new limits on crowd sizes within 48 hours of games - but the USHL has been rolling with the punches. And the league knows the pressure on its players: The USHL is unique in that each year features a ton of roster turnover and high stakes. Most of the players have NCAA commitments, so they're either preparing to jump to the next level in college, showing off their talents in their NHL draft year or both.
"No. 1, all the teams are excited to be playing, that goes without saying," Garrity said. "The teams have been great to work with - they understand this isn't a perfect year and this is bigger than playing hockey. We have to keep people safe, listen to doctors, listen to trainers. Collectively, the league has worked really well together."