The Utah Grizzlies had their hockey season cut short by COVID-19; for some players, it might have been a career-ender

(Photo courtesy of Utah Grizzlies photography) Forward Tim McGauley shoots during a recent Grizzlies preseason game.

The Utah Grizzlies were on the verge of making a playoff run.

With just 10 games remaining in the regular season, the Grizzlies were third in their division with a good chance of finishing in the top four and qualifying for a postseason berth. But the COVID-19 pandemic caused the cancelation of the East Coast Hockey League, putting end to what the team felt was an opportunity to win the Kelly Cup.

Now everyone on the roster has gone home. For some players, the reality of their season ending didn’t hit them until their hours-long drives to where they live in the offseason.

And for players like Taylor Richart and Mitch Maxwell, the end of the 2019-20 season carries with it some different emotions.

“It doesn’t really sit well,” Richart said. “It’s a little bitter taste because … it’s just an unknown. We don’t know what could have been. Who knows if we could have went on to make a run and won a Kelly Cup?”

Both players, who are roommates, were in the last year of their hockey careers. And now that the end of their playing days didn’t come on their terms, they’re rethinking that decision.

“If this summer, if I don’t happen to find a job that suits me very well and that I think that I want to go into — a good career — then I’ll probably be back,” Richart said. “I’m just taking it kind of day by day. … Now I’m just kind of keeping an open mind about it.”

The older players at the end of their careers are just one shade of the spectrum. Plenty of players on the 2019-20 roster were fresh out of college and starting their professional hockey careers. Others were veteran players with experience who sometimes played up a level with the Colorado Eagles.

So no matter the situation or experience level for individual players, they have all gone through a sense of loss.

“Theres an array of emotions there,” Grizzlies coach Tim Branham said. “I think you listen to them and you feel for them. In every situation, you feel for your players — that’s for sure.”

The ECHL announced it would suspend operations until further notice on March 12, in conjunction with the National Hockey League doing the same. But just two days later, the league announced it would cancel its season outright, including the playoffs.

The NHL, meanwhile, is still on hiatus.

One silver lining to the season’s cancelation is players who were hurt going into the final stretch of the season will get more time to recover from those injuries as opposed to whenever the season would have naturally ended.

“Right now, I can say for me and a lot of other players too, our bodies have gone through a lot with all the games we played and we’re really banged up and hurt,” said Tim McGauley, who was with the AHL Colorado Eagles when he learned the season was canceled. “This is a good time to recover our bodies and try to do anything possible, while you’re in isolation, to better yourself as a player.”

In a regular offseason, McGauley said it takes about two weeks of rest and relaxation before he’s itching to get back on the ice. The current up-in-the-air situation could help the Grizzlies return next season — whenever that happens — with extra motivation and hunger, he said.

“If this pandemic lasts a lot longer than it’s supposed to, then that hunger is going to be really strong,” McGauley said. “Personally speaking, it’s one of those things where the longer I stay away from the game, the hungrier I get. I think most guys are like that. If this lasts a long time, there’s going to be a lot of guys waiting to out the skates back on and get back out there, that’s for sure.”