It threatened to create a black hole in their schedules.
The Northeastern men’s and women’s ice hockey teams had been planning to represent the United States at the World University Winter Games in Lucerne, Switzerland. But those plans to compete for more than a week in mid-December ended abruptly when the event was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
For many players, the reaction was disappointment over the loss of a trip overseas and a rare opportunity to represent their country.
For the coaches of the two teams, the response was more complicated: How would they overcome a month-long void in the middle of their seasons—sitting idly while their Hockey East rivals continued to compete and develop in conference play?
For Dave Flint, coach of the No. 3 women (16-2-1), the answer was to cancel team events.
“We had practices planned,” he says. “But then we had a couple COVID-19 cases pop up, we had some kids that were injured, and one of them was dealing with mononucleosis.
“I didn’t want COVID ripping through our team right before Christmas, and then kids can’t go home because they’re quarantined,” Flint says. “So I shut everything down and let the kids focus on their academics and their finals.”
Flint’s players are aiming to extend their season deep into March with the goal of a second straight trip to the NCAA Frozen Four, which will be hosted by Penn State.
“We have these visions of winning an NCAA championship,” Flint says. “It makes for a long journey, and the teams that are most successful are the ones that are the healthiest and playing their best hockey in February and March.”
For Jerry Keefe, coach of the No. 10 men (13-4-1), the break presented an opportunity to recover from injuries and focus on the fundamentals.
“We were so banged up that it was probably not the worst thing for us hockey-wise to be able to recover from that and get some healthy bodies back,” says Keefe.
Five of Keefe’s top six forwards had been injured, which made the Huskies’ recovery from a 3-3 start all the more impressive. The emergence of sophomore Devon Levi as the nation’s top goaltender (based on an NCAA-leading 0.955 save percentage) played a big role, enabling the men to finish the first half of their season on a 5-0-1 run, culminating in an away-and-home sweep of No. 13 Providence Dec. 3-4.
Keefe turned the midseason void into an unusual midseason training camp that included a level of intensive weightlifting that usually is not possible this time of year. Defensemen went through footwork drills, forwards dug pucks out of corners, and everyone practiced shooting from the positions likely to yield shots for them starting on Friday, when their season will resume with a pair of home games against Long Island.
“We shot a lot of pucks,” says Keefe. “The time gave us an opportunity to also have individual meetings with guys.”
The Huskies are fully aware that the men’s NCAA Frozen Four will be held in April in Boston, potentially providing them with a home-ice advantage. To get there, however, they recognize the need to stay focused—even during their extended break.
“Everyone has to stay in shape, and everyone has to do the right thing,” says senior defenseman Julian Kislin, an assistant to team captain Jordan Harris. “We have a certain way of playing, and it comes from being focused 24/7 and doing all the little things so that we can achieve the goal at the end, which is winning games and winning championships.
“But everyone has to be committed to what they’re doing and what their role is,” says Kislin. “So that’s really the big thing—staying focused throughout this break and coming back like we haven’t taken a day off.”
The same mentality defines the Northeastern women, who are obsessed with winning the national championship after losing the NCAA final last year in overtime. Flint gave his players a workout program to do at home during the break.
“In years past, I’d be worried about whether kids would actually do what they need to do,” Flint says. “But this group is really, really committed and driven. They don’t want to let their teammates down because they know their teammates are doing it. So there’s a level of accountability within the team, which is really good and kind of makes it easy for me.”