Photo courtesy of Carol MacKay, University of Denver Athletics
When the DU Pioneers open up their 2020-21 season on Wednesday, it will have been 270 days — or almost exactly nine months — since Denver last played an organized game of hockey. In between then and now, a lot was up in the air and there were more questions than answers.
Uncertainty is probably the best word for it, and it might just be the word of the year for most of us. But since then, things are now becoming a little clearer for DU, in that a schedule has been set, a new format laid out and hockey officially on the docket in just a matter of hours at this point.
But things are certain to look different, as life has for all of us.
“It’s definitely going to be a new challenge for us, like it is for everyone,” DU Pioneers senior captain Kohen Olischefski said. “Everyone’s eager to play, everyone’s extremely excited. We know it’s going to be a challenge, this format. It’s a lot of games in a short period of time.”
This format will be interesting. In an effort to limit travel, the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) put a plan together, which was unanimously approved on Oct. 15, which will have all eight conference teams play the first 10 games of their schedule against each other in a “Pod” in Omaha, Nebraska, mirroring the NHL’s successful “Bubble” format for its 2020 playoffs.
Teams will play 10 games in three weeks in the Pod. For the DU Pioneers, it will be 10 games in just 18 days. After that, the plan is to have all of the teams return to a normal schedule in January, where each team will begin travelling and playing in their own arenas.
Until then, the Pios are prepared to hunker down in their hotels, armed with their Playstations, books, favorite streaming platforms (the show to binge right now is “Yellowstone,” according to Olischefski and head coach David Carle) and their own team lounge in one of the hotel’s conference room.
Building that camaraderie in the conference room and in the Pod will be crucial for a team with nine new freshmen and three graduate transfers.
“It’s a lot different obviously. We’re trying to stay away from each other as much as possible just to avoid positive tests and stay ready to go,” Olischefski added of the team rapport. “I think overall we’ve done a pretty good job of, with the restrictions, staying together and getting closer and getting to know the new guys over time.
“We have a pretty outgoing group. I think we have a lot of characters…It’s exciting — we have everyone on the same page and everyone bought in early. We’re looking forward to get going here. I’m pretty excited for this team.”
Life in a Pod inherently comes with minimal outside interaction. With this means no fans will be permitted within the closed-off safety net of Baxter Arena. That said, the Pios will need every little bit of that character Olischefski mentioned in order to manufacture their own energy.
“We’ve talked a little bit about it. It’s no different from being on the road. It’s your bench that builds the energy for you…it’s going to be very important,” coach Carle said. “There’s nowhere else the energy is coming from, it has to come from within. I think it’s a great challenge.
“It’s been eight months, I don’t really worry about lack of emotion or energy with our group.”
Coach Carle’s group would agree with his assessment. After how last season ended, and having not played in so many months, the engines are revving. They’ll need every last drop of fuel in the tank, too, given their opening up against tough conference opponents right off the bat, rather than having the traditional non-conference warm-up games.
“No doubt, it’s a tough opening schedule. But it is what it is,” Carle added. “I think we’re real grateful and we’re really excited for the opportunity to get into it. And to have meaningful games right away is awesome.”
With 10 games in 18 days — and six of those 10 games against nationally-ranked teams — it’ll be a full-blown sprint right out of the gate for the DU Pioneers. Combine that with living life in the Pod away from friends, family and loved ones, while balancing a full course load of college class work and staying healthy, it’s sure to be a stressful few weeks for the Pios.
It will look anything but normal, but for the boys in Crimson and Gold and for fans alike, it’s a welcome return of perhaps just a little bit or normalcy.
“I think we’re all just grateful for this opportunity,” Olischefski said. “We’re about to go into a situation where we get to play hockey and do what we love. There are people out there who have it a lot worse than us. We’re grateful for this opportunity and for this chance and we’re really excited to start playing hockey again.”