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UConn men’s hockey preparing for a preseason unlike any other

Though head coach Mike Cavanaugh expects the start of the season to be delayed, he doesn’t know when the first puck will finally drop.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Under normal circumstances, UConn men’s hockey coach Mike Cavanaugh would be enjoying the final days of his summer before the new season begins. In a week, his players would be making their return to campus for the semester. In two weeks, the Huskies would begin a “testing week” where everyone shows how much work they have (or haven’t) put in during the summer. After Labor Day, the team would start practice in preparation for its season opener in early October.

But now, Cavanaugh doesn’t even know when he’s going to be able to meet with his players in-person for the first time.

“It’s funny, I can’t have a team meeting,” he said. “I can only meet with those guys technically outdoors and not until their quarantine is over, I think. It’s very, very ultra-conservative.”

As of Monday, the entire team had returned to campus aside from the two Russians, Vlad Firstov and Yan Kuznetsov, who are still awaiting visas.

When the team last congregated on campus in March, there was still hope that the virus would be contained enough by May that summer workouts in Storrs could happen, but that didn’t pan out.

It didn’t stop all team activities from happening, however. Cavanaugh said that strength and conditioning coach Mo Butler assigned workouts for players to do on their own while the coaching staff organized a five week “virtual development camp”.

On a video call, the team would spend 30 minutes talking about hockey, whether it be a film session or something similar. After that, a speaker would come on to talk for a half hour as well. The guests and topics ranged from ones that were hockey specific to those that were unrelated to the sport.

“[UConn baseball coach Jim] Penders was a speaker for our team, he was fantastic,” Cavanaugh said. “One of my former players, Mike Mottau, who won the Hobey Baker and played at BC. He played professionally for a long time, played for the Wolf Pack. He was a speaker. We had (Hartford restaurant owner) Guy Carbone on health, wellness, and nutrition and we had Tanner Creel, a former goalie who’s studying to be a sports psychologist on mental health.”

With the team now on campus, that should allow the staff to work with the players more — though exactly how much is still a question mark. For Cavanaugh, there are two factors that will determine what practices and workouts will look like.

The first and most important are the health guidelines provided by both UConn and the State of Connecticut.

“I don’t even know when I’ll be able to have the entire team at a practice,” Cavanaugh said. “That’s going to be up to the doctors.”

The second factor will play a big role as well, though. As of now, Cavanaugh doesn’t know when the season will even begin. With fall sports canceled at UConn, the coach expects the start date to be pushed back at least a month, if not more.

“I’ve heard everything from November 1 to December 1 to January 1,” he said. “We’re not going to play in October. They just canceled all fall sports so I don’t see them (allowing hockey to start playing in October).”

Because of that, he isn’t going to throw the team straight into preseason camp without a definitive date for the season opener.

“If [the season starts] January 1, I’m not going to be holding practices five days a week in September,” Cavanaugh said. “I’ll burn these kids out.”

Though most of the European players secured ice time over the offseason to workout without issue, Cavanaugh said that the North American players were hampered by whether or not local regulations allowed them to do so. So with the team all at different starting points, he’s thinking of using the month of September to make up for the lost summer workouts.

“If they’re telling me I’m not going to be able to have a team practice until October, maybe we’ll meet with each kid and try to go two times a week,” Cavanaugh explained. “We can work on skill development and let them really focus on the off-ice, the physical part of it — the strength training.”

Though Cavanaugh wants to get going as soon as possible, he also sees a silver lining in the situation. The coaching staff doesn’t normally get an opportunity like this to work with players on an individual level prior to the start of the season. So once word comes down about when the first game will be, the team will be more prepared for the ramp up.

“I only need three weeks really to get these guys ready,” Cavanaugh said. “Especially if I’m going to be doing skills with them two days a week prior. I don’t think on September 15 or October 3, they’re going to say ‘Hey, you’re playing next week. The season starts next week.’ It’s not going to happen like that.”

In late July, Hockey East announced its plan to play the 2020-21 season in some capacity. A priority will be put on league play and the conference will make multiple potential balanced schedules to “allow maximum scheduling flexibility”.

Despite this announcement, Cavanaugh believes the fate of his season will be decided by UConn — not the conference — and will depend on what happens with basketball.

“If our basketball team isn’t playing this winter, how can they let the hockey team play, you know?” Cavanaugh said. “That’s the thing, I think there’s got to be equity among the department. Those decisions are going to be made by David Benedict, President [Thomas] Katsouleas, and to a larger extent, probably our governor.”