It’s 6:45 a.m. on Wednesday, March 11. The Miami University hockey team is at Goggin Ice Center loading a pair of busses for what should be a routine trip to Minnesota-Duluth for the first round of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference playoffs.
If Miami were to win its best-of-three series this weekend at Amsoil Arena, the RedHawks would stay in Minnesota for the next weekend’s NCHC Frozen Faceoff in St. Paul. The trip could last four days or a week and a half.
I’m on the second bus with the freshmen and seniors, planning to announce the games this weekend on Miami’s student station, RedHawk Radio. As we hit I-70 and roll west, players are stretched out, listening to their AirPods, eyes closed, resting.
The plan was to travel Wednesday, practice Thursday and play up to three games on the weekend starting Friday.
I’m sitting near flagship radio announcer Greg Waddell, trainer Drew Ruckelshaus and equipment manager Andy Geshan, my father.
On the drive, between naps, homework and Netflix series, everyone follows the coronavirus developments spreading across the nation.
First, the virus is declared a pandemic. Next, major college sporting events, such as March Madness and the Frozen Four, move to play games without fans.
As Chicagoland and rural Wisconsin pass by the window, everyone is already discussing what it all means for Miami’s own tournament this weekend.
The night sky settles in as the team approaches Duluth. It’s my first time here, and the famous drawbridge and Lake Superior come into view.
In the background, I hear the President addressing the nation, telling Americans no travel from Europe will be allowed for 30 days.
“This is like 9/11,” Waddell says.
Two minutes later, just as the bus crosses the lake into Minnesota, athletic department personnel inform the coaching staff that all NCHC games this weekend were to be played without fans. Players would be given a certain amount of tickets for their families.
Enjoy what you're reading?
Signup for our newsletter
“Only a matter of time,” a player muttered.
There is an anxious vibe as the busses arrive at the hotel. When the team walks into the lobby, a TV greets them with the news that the NBA had suspended its season.
Thursday at breakfast, phones blow up around 10 a.m. CST, telling everyone the power five conferences are canceling their basketball tournaments.
Nobody had to say it, but with these events, it became a matter of when, not if, the NCHC would call things off.
Players were given free time between breakfast and lunch. Practice was scheduled for late afternoon at the rink. Ruckelshaus, my dad and I head back to the room and monitor ESPN.
We watch the live coverage of college basketball players across the nation getting pulled off the floor before their conference tournament games were to tip off.
Ten minutes later, my dad’s phone vibrates.
Walking into the meal room, there’s a strong, awkward, unfamiliar feeling. The team is sitting among three large tables before lunch, silent. By this time, everyone knows.
“It sucked to go all that way and not play,” senior captain Gordie Green said. “It’s just sad — sad that I don’t get to put the Miami jersey on again and play with my brothers.”
In the meal room, head coach Chris Bergeron addresses the team, calling the event unprecedented, apologizing that this is how the season has to end.
Nobody knows how to react.
Players are staring at the floor. There are blank, expressionless faces. An eerie silence.
Senior defenseman Grant Frederic found out on Twitter in his hotel room.
“The only feeling I can describe is that it just felt weird. It’s still weird,” Frederic said. “To think that college hockey’s over for us hasn’t really hit yet. I’m trying not to think about it, but I just never thought the virus would get this bad.”
Players trickle to the buffet and grab food, as the reality of the moment settles in.
Their season is over.
Team staff go to all the seniors and comfort them. Nobody is overly emotional, just disappointed. Disappointed that it had to end this way. A way that was completely out of their control.
“It’s terrible we couldn’t do whatever was ahead,” Frederic said. “When we walked off the ice the Saturday before at Western Michigan, I just wish we knew it was our last game.”
After the silence comes conversation. Players and staff begin talking about how to spend the rest of the afternoon and evening. It was now the last night this team would ever be together.
When the busses arrive home on Friday night, there are hugs and goodbyes. It ended too soon for these players and staff who worked hard all year. They don’t deserve this ending.
“What’s going on?” a handful of people ask.
Many hoped this trip would last a week and a half. Instead, it was three days.
“I’m disappointed I can’t live out the last few months of college the way I planned,” Green said. “There’s just really no closure.”