The coronavirus pandemic paused sports all over the country. From professional leagues to high school teams, players and coaches were forced to not do what they love. Leagues lost money, fans lost their favorite pastimes.
As 2020 has wound down, most sports have come back. The pros figured out how to get through postseasons. High schools around the country started fall and winter seasons on time. And while there have been postponements and cancellations due to positive COVID-19 tests, they’ve treated as nicks rather than amputations.
But one professional hockey league may be having the most difficult time coming back. The ECHL returns Friday after having its previous season canceled in March and never naming a champion for 2019-20. The Utah Grizzlies play the Rapid City Rush on the road as one of the opening matchups.
The league consists of 26 teams, but only 13 will begin a 72-game schedule that starts Friday. Two teams hope to start their seasons in January due to how the pandemic is affecting their local markets. Eleven teams won’t play at all and hope to return to action in the 2021-22 season. The reason for the opt outs mostly have to do with fans not being allowed in stadiums and the organizations not being able to sustain that type of financial hit.
“This decision for our clubs was immensely difficult amidst the ever-changing landscape of the COVID-19 pandemic and the inability to return to play throughout our various jurisdictions,” ECHL Commissioner Ryan Crelin said recently. “We look forward to returning fans and ECHL hockey in these great markets as they shift their focus to the 2021-22 season.”
The lower number of teams means the league won’t have separate divisions this season. It also means playoff qualification will be determined by winning percentage. And only the first month of the season schedule has been announced so far.
The Maverik Center will allow 1,800 fans for home games this season. Fans will be required to wear masks and their seating will be spaced out. If fans want food or a drink, they can order by texting a number, and their concessions will be delivered to them.
Suffice it to say that this season is going to be unlike any other for not only the Grizzlies, but all of the ECHL.
“As far as what we know with this season and how it’s going to go, it’s going to be unique,” said Grizzlies defenseman Teigan Zahn, who is entering his fourth year with Utah. “It’s going to be different. It’s going to be difficult. There’s lots of words to use.”
Zahn was recently re-signed by the Grizzlies despite suffering a season-ending injury in January. He said rehabbing was difficult during the pandemic because finding a way to get on the ice was a challenge.
Zahn is excited about this year’s team mainly for its speed, and he feels confident that it can make some noise.
“I have a very good feeling about this team and things that we can do,” Zahn said. “It’s exciting.”
The Grizzlies have the same goal most teams would have entering a season: win the Kelly Cup. But that has additional meaning in the pandemic era. Tim Branham, head coach and general manager of the Grizzlies, said the team also has a “safety goal” this season.
“The goal is to be able to play each and every game,” Branham said. “The players know what they have to do to stay safe, to stay healthy.”
The Grizzlies have attempted to create their own bubble in an effort to keep the coronavirus out of their lives. They wear masks constantly, even in the locker room, where players are seated only next to those they live with. They’re even asked to socially distance from their own roommates in their apartments.
Players get their temperatures checked every day and record the value on a mobile application, and the league tests them for COVID-19 for twice a week. Branham said the situation isn’t perfect, but everyone is trying their best.
“A lot of this is we’re putting a lot of trust in the players that they’re going to abide by the rules,” Branham said.
While almost half the ECHL opted not to play this season, the Grizzlies made the opposite choice. It doesn’t appear that there was ever any discussion that Utah would skip this season. Branham said participating in the season is voluntary for every player and coach.
“As far as I know with the Grizzlies, they were full steam ahead and they wanted to get going as soon as possible,” Zahn said.
One of the consequences of the new schedule is the Grizzlies won’t get to face some of their traditional rivals, like the Idaho Steelheads, a team so close that Utah would get to road games by bus. But Zahn thinks playing less teams can create new rivalries with others and make for a competitive atmosphere.
“A lot of these games will be like postseason games where the intensity is up there — it’s ramped up,” Zahn said. “It’ll be fun.”
The Grizzlies want to get through the season as safely as possible. But once the puck hits the ice, they’ll try to focus on the task at hand.
“Our goals are just to win hockey games,” Zahn said. “We want to win as many hockey games as we can and we want to make playoffs. At the end of the day, we went to win the Kelly Cup and be champions of the ECHL.”