Delayed start not stopping hockey’s experienced momentum into 2020 campaign

A+TEAM+OF+VETERANS%E2%80%94The+Wildcats+enter+2020-21+returning+a+majority+of+their+goals+from+last+season+after+losing+three+players+to+graduation.+Led+by+captains+senior+forward+Joseph+Nardi+and+senior+defenseman+Ben+Newhouse%2C+NMU+is+filled+with+veteran+players.

Photo courtesy of NMU Athletics. A TEAM OF VETERANS—The Wildcats enter 2020-21 returning a majority of their goals from last season after losing three players to graduation. Led by captains senior forward Joseph Nardi and senior defenseman Ben Newhouse, NMU is filled with veteran players.

Travis Nelson

Despite the bizarre circumstances that’ll surround the 2020-21 NMU Men’s Hockey season, the Wildcats’ expectations are still there.

After a Sept. 10 announcement from the WCHA and the rest of Division I conferences that the start of the season will be delayed due to COVID-19, this year’s veteran ‘Cats squad will have to wait to roar past opponents for an unknown time period.

“Through the course of the summer it was such an ever-evolving timeline, and probably the last month it’s been a reality that getting off the ground on October 3 was probably something that wasn’t going to happen,” Head Coach Grant Potulny said. “We’ve tried to plan accordingly with the delay of the season, that being said with the changing and the increased ability to test and some of those things, it’s hard to put a timeline on when you can play. It’s such a fluid situation that we just have to be ready as best as we can.”

In terms of the players’ thoughts on the delay, the announcement had ended months of confusion, senior forward Joseph Nardi said. But when the time of a start date comes, the team needs to seize the opportunity.

“Honestly I think that the guys were kind of wondering this past month what the timetable would be like so we were actually pretty glad to hear at least some information regarding this season. Obviously, you never want to hear your season being delayed, but I think as long as we can get back and everybody does it in a safe manner, I think we’re all just ready for that moment.”

As far as what the Wildcats are doing right now? This past week of Sept. 14 was the third week of practice for NMU, Potulny said, and the team has been separated into three groups of 10 guys each to maintain social distancing. They’ve been using three different locker rooms and have protocols for water breaks in order to follow COVID-19 regulations from the moment the guys arrive in their cars to when they leave, Potulny said. As for easing the team back into activities that are hockey related, the first couple of weeks have been focused on the players’ soft-tissue muscles.

“Those things are different, we’re now a couple weeks into it so it’s kind of what the guys expect when they come to the rink,” Potulny said.

A big part of getting past this pandemic will be being socially responsible, and for the hockey season to begin, that’s also a big part. If you ask Potulny how his team has handled the quarantine and social distancing, he would give an optimistic answer.

“I couldn’t be more proud of the guys. It’s such a hard time to be a young person anywhere right now with the changes in your lifestyle and some things that are inconveniences. But we’ve had zero positive cases among the players and staff,” Potulny said. “The attitude has been phenomenal, that’s the one thing that you can control. They have been phenomenal, they’ve been very socially responsible and when they come to the rink every day, their mindset and attitude whatever might be going on.”

This year, the Wildcats will be led by a nucleus of Nardi and senior defenseman Ben Newhouse, and those two will be this season’s captains, Potulny said. As a returning leader to this year’s team, Nardi is trying to carry over another season’s worth of knowledge not just on the ice.

“I guess every year you learn different things, you learn from past experiences and I’m in a position where you can kind of give feedback to the younger guys because you’ve been in those past situations. For me it’s just leaning on guys and if they’re ever in a situation where they’re unsure about things,” Nardi said. “I can give them advice and push them through some tough situations but far as leadership goes, I think it’s just making sure that you’re professional in what you do on and off of the ice.”

Last year, the ‘Cats were a young hockey team and did fairly well without having much experience. This season, the team has a lot more veterans including the incoming juniors that were really Potulny’s first recruiting class, he said. Not only are there more veterans on the team, but the depth has greatly improved so that there’ll even be good players not playing because of the competition for ice time, Potulny said.

“For the first couple of years, the first year I had no idea what we were going to be like, the second year I thought that we had a pretty good team, third-year (last year) I had no idea how we were going to be, we were just so young, we had 16 freshmen and sophomores,” Potulny said. “Those guys are now sophomores and juniors so you have a way better idea of what your players are capable of.”

This is a year where experience might be king and teams will have to lean on players who played big minutes a year ago due to the late start and less practice time, Potulny said. With all of the experience returning this season, the hype for when the season does arrive is as strong as it can get.

“It’s very promising right now, just looking at some of the guys that we have on the ice, the freshmen that we’ve brought in have been really good out there, I’ve been really impressed with them,” Nardi said.