Just before UConn men’s hockey head coach Mike Cavanaugh walked into a 2 p.m. team meeting on Wednesday, his phone rang with news from Hockey East. All of a sudden, his squad had one gamed scheduled against UMass this weekend. Soon after, one matchup with the Minutemen turned into two. Then, it wasn’t all officially confirmed until midway through the Huskies’ practice.
But that’s just par for the course during what’s already proven to be an unpredictable season and UConn’s coach plans to have his guys prepared for whatever comes their way.
“I told the players right from the beginning in September that this is a year where we’re gonna have to be flexible and we’re gonna have to be very mentally tough because it seems like decisions change by the minute — and that’s an understatement,” Cavanaugh said. “They always say you have to be flexible in marriage. Dealing with this pandemic and a hockey team makes marriage look like a walk in the park, I’ll tell you.”
Originally, UConn was scheduled to play two games at Vermont this weekend until the Catamounts pulled out after their athletic department postponed all games through Dec. 18. That didn’t change the Huskies approach at all, however, as they continued to prepare as if they were going to play this weekend, even if they didn’t have an opponent just yet.
“Coach made it evident to us that we still had a chance of playing someone this weekend,” senior Adam Karashik said. “So we were preparing all week like we’re gonna play a Hockey East team. Anyone can win any given night so we’ve been ready to go all week and yesterday UMass and us found out they were playing each other so it’s just going to be a good game of hockey.”
With so much volatility in the schedule and team’s plans in just the first week of the season, Cavanaugh emphasized the importance of not getting too far ahead of anything.
“I just think you really have to stay in the present, and that’s what I’ve been focusing [on],” he said. “You always focus on that during the season but very rarely are games getting canceled. You know where you’re going, you know the bus trip, you know the hotels you stay at on the road. This year is totally different.”
In fact, Cavanaugh isn’t just going day-by-day. If anything, he’s operating hour-by-hour.
“We really, really have to stay focused on just today’s practice — and we’re not even there yet so I don’t even want to jinx it,” he said with a laugh. “I want to make sure that we can get everybody into practice today.”
Though UConn has been working out on the ice in a limited capacity for much of the semester, the Huskies have only held 14 full-team practices through Thursday. Normally, that number is in the 20s ahead of their first game, but with Hockey East only releasing its schedule last week, UConn didn’t want to ramp up to the season too early so held off.
Luckily, everyone else in the conference is in the same boat and the Huskies have taken advantage of their limited on the ice.
“I think we’re prepared as well as we could be,” Cavanaugh said. “All 14 practices we’ve made them count. UMass is essentially in the same boat. They’ve had to probably deal with a lot of the same issues we have. And if they haven’t, it doesn’t matter. We’re playing them tomorrow night and we better get up-to-speed, quick.”
The team has played a handful of intra-squad scrimmages to simulate game situations, but those can only help so much. Karashik is looking forward to finally playing against someone other than his own teammates.
“We’ve just been going at each other for months here and it’s going to feel good to give someone else a crack,” he said. “So we’re really excited.”
There is one area where the Huskies are noticeably behind: conditioning. Even though a lot of players returned to campus in great shape, the pandemic made it difficult for many of them to maintain their fitness level.
“When they first came back here in August, I think they were in great shape, but right away, they were quarantined for two weeks and then someone on the team may get COVID and then 10 other kids are quarantined,” Cavanaugh said. “Then at one point a dorm that a lot of them lived in was quarantined. So they went — some of them — a month, or five weeks without being able to work out. Not only physically, but mentally, that was really, really hard on a lot of our players.”
All in all, it’s been nothing short of a chaotic preseason — to put it lightly. But with a game finally set for Friday, UConn can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
“Between quarantines and sitting out and contact tracing, there hasn’t been any structure, and it really hasn’t been fluid,” Cavanaugh said. “It’s been fractured, to say the least. But our guys have been mentally tough and right now, knock on wood, this minute, we are healthy and ready to play hockey.”
“Quirks and perks” of Freitas Ice Forum
Because of COVID-19, UConn will play all its games on-campus at the Freitas Ice Forum instead of the XL Center in Hartford. Though it’s a sub-par facility for any Division I hockey program, let alone one in Hockey East, that should give UConn a unique home-ice advantage.
“It feels a little bit smaller, it’s a quicker game there, I think, and we practice there every day,” Karashik said. “So we’re gonna be ready to go. We’re excited to be playing at the Freitas, right from our dorm rooms, right to the rink. It’s what we’re used to. We’re used to being at that rink practicing there every day, scrimmaging there. No one else has had that experience. So it’s a huge advantage.”
“It’s got its quirks and its perks and I think I think it’s gonna be a lot of fun playing there,” junior forward Carter Turnbull added. “Playing on campus — we’ve never got to do that so I think it’s gonna be something different, and we’re excited for it.”
Sophomore defenseman Carter Berger is questionable with an unspecified injury. Other than him, everyone else will be available on Friday night.
How to Watch
Friday night’s game will start at 6 p.m. NESN+ will have the broadcast in New England while Sports Live will stream it for free outside the region. Saturday’s game, set for 4 p.m., will be shown on Sports Live for free.