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Griffins hockey and COVID-19 face-off

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The incredible runs that were cut short

MacEwan University Griffins’ goaltender Thomas Davis distinctly remembers his final practice before his rookie season was shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “The ice felt different from before,” recalls Davis. “Maybe it was just me, but that’s how I knew we were going to get the bad news.”

That’s exactly what Davis and his team received. 

On that Thursday practice in March — less than 24 hours before the Griffins were set to take on Red Deer College in the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference (ACAC) semi-finals — head coach Mike Ringrose told his team they were likely not able to finish the season. The official announcement came later that night. 

“There are some things that are bigger and more important than hockey,” says Ringrose. “But it’s difficult when you invest that much time and energy into the season.”

Davis says that the final practice was a short one. Nobody was motivated to play. “The mood was glum and everyone was so upset.”

The team’s mood four days before that initially spelled a different story.

The Griffins were riding high with a 2-1 series win against crosstown rival Concordia Thunder. The 2019-2020 season was supposed to be the end of a fruitful chapter for MacEwan hockey. 

Both the men’s and women’s teams had won three straight championships. The playoffs were supposed to be the big exclamation point before their move to higher-level play in the Canada West league. 

“They won three championships in a row and I wanted to get one too,” Davis says. “We wanted to go out of the ACAC with a win. (It) would have been nice to compete and see if we would have got there.”

For the Griffins women’s hockey team, the end of the season was arguably more heartbreaking. 

Up 2-0 in a best-of-five against the NAIT Ooks, the Griffins were potentially only one game away from their fourth-straight ACAC championship. The dominance that the Griffins showed for four seasons came crashing to an end that same Thursday night, just a day before game three of the finals.  

“We were in full playoff mode. It was the best Griff hockey we had that year,” says fourth-year forward Jill MacWilliam. “Once we heard that they wouldn’t let us play that final game it was so disheartening. It was tough to let it go.”

MacWilliam says many of her teammates felt cheated, especially the girls in their final year of eligibility. 

Head coach Lindsay McAlpine emailed the team that night to let them know their historic run was over. “I didn’t do anything that day besides watching my phone and waiting. I was dying to find out,” MacWilliam says. “I remember reading the email and honestly crying.” 

The reality of COVID-19 shook up the entire sports world in March. Thousands of student athletes nationwide were affected, unable to finish the season. However, the sting of the pandemic hit even harder for Griffins hockey with how close they were to winning it all again. 

Looking forward

For most student-athletes, the summer months are spent relaxing, taking a short break away from their sport — resting their bodies before the next season begins. This year was different though. The hunger to get back on the ice was more apparent than ever after the previous season was cut short. 

“All I wanted was to start playing again,” says Davis. 

Unfortunately for Davis and the rest of MacEwan athletics, they will have to wait. 

Canada West announced in June that the hockey season was cancelled until at least January 2021. However, unlike in March, the Griffins were prepared to face the bad news. 

“We could see the writing on the wall,” Ringrose says. “Major sports around the world made the decision to postpone, so I wasn’t surprised to see university sports do the same.”

On Oct. 15, eight days after the originally scheduled statement, Canada West announced that they officially cancelled all regular season and playoff events for men’s and women’s hockey. 

Canada West president Clint Hamilton said in a press release, “This isn’t the outcome any of us wanted, however, it has become increasingly clear over the last few weeks that the environment wasn’t going to change sufficiently to ensure safe competition in traditional conference formats in these sports.”

The announcement was not what the Griffins wanted to hear. However, there is a glimmer of hope that competitive hockey can still be played come January. Canada West’s announcement outlines that non-conference competition is possible, depending on regional restrictions. Even if games are eventually played, this year won’t count towards players’ eligibility –– which is five years maximum.

“Anything will be better than nothing,” says MacWilliam. 

She mentions that everyone on her team is coping with the loss of hockey differently. Some girls are using the time to stay home and spend time with their families. Others are hitting the gym and training in case they get the go-ahead to start playing games. For MacWilliam, it is a tough transition without hockey.

“I feel so lost without being at school and seeing the girls at the rink. Everything is turned upside down.” 

Davis adds that even though competitive games might not be played until fall 2021, he is glad that he is a part of the Griffins hockey organization.

“The guys are really close-knit. We’re all working towards the same goal (of playing).”

Professional hockey already returned in the form of the NHL bubble here in Edmonton. Ringrose says that he can’t remember the last time he’s been away from the game for this long. But soon, university sport will return as well. 

“We’re going to get through it together. I’m excited to get back to the rink, back to the ice, and back to the sport I love.”

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