FARGO — The Fargo South-Shanley boys hockey team would have spent last week installing its systems and working on special teams. The Bruins would have played their first game of the season Tuesday, Nov. 24, and had a chance to evaluate their penalty killing and power-play units at practice this week.
Instead, they’ve been away from the ice, conducting their own workouts to maintain some level of conditioning while their season is on pause.
The Bruins had barely wrapped up tryouts when North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum issued an executive order Nov. 13, initially stating winter sports would be suspended until Dec. 14. Hockey and wrestling were the first winter sports to open their seasons Nov. 9.
Burgum later walked back on the limits, which were implemented due to the state’s surging COVID-19 outbreak, to allow teams to start practices Nov. 30 and start playing games Dec. 14.
“I think mostly, our initial issue was just to keep the boys motivated and inspired to look at this as a chance to rest up and heal up and get mentally ready for when we got back,” said Bruins head coach Dean French.
The mandated 14-day break came at a time when French's team was nursing some residual injuries from fall sports. Several players were unable to go through tryouts. If the Bruins would’ve opened their season Tuesday, they would’ve been at least five guys short.
“Typically, every season you deal with injuries a little bit at the beginning. But this particular year, we had an almost unprecedented number of injuries,” French said. “We were scrambling to move players around to different positions. Now coming back on the other side of this, for the first time, we’ll be fully healthy.”
French won’t waste any time getting down to business when South-Shanley returns to the ice next Monday. It’ll be a critical time to install a lot of the systems and for the players to build line chemistry.
“The way the schedule is going to work, as coaches, you’re going to have to spend a lot more time planning out what you want to cover in these first two weeks and how you want to cover them, because there just isn't going to be a lot of time for adjustments after the fact,” French said.
“That was what was fantastic about the two weeks that they've now given us,” French added. “There would’ve been almost no time to install some of the complex things that teams do. You would’ve just started from scratch and just started playing.”
On top of developing practice plans, French has spent many hours designing practices in a way that will allow the team to maintain social distance as much as possible.
“We have to pay attention to every detail,” French said. “Normally, if you were doing a drill and had some players sitting in the bench area, you would have maybe one line and some defensemen in one bench and another line and some defensemen in another bench.
“Now, we have to spread them out. We typically have no more than three guys in one bench area. We use the penalty box areas to spread out even more guys and sometimes, we’ll have guys step off the ice and stand right behind the glass so we can keep everybody spaced out and keep that distance so we can continue to do the drills.”
The Fargo Davies girls hockey team made it through five practices before it was put on pause late Friday night, Nov. 13, after the Class 3A state football championship.
“We've known and we've asked for flexibility and patience from everybody this year, knowing full well that for many different reasons, our season could look different at any given time at the snap of a finger,” said Davies head coach Josh Issertell. “Watching the numbers trend the way they were trending, in the back of your mind you were wondering if something was going to come down the line.”
To stay as ready as they can for when the season picks back up, Issertell has given some guidance for off-ice dry-land training and encouraged the girls to shoot pucks. The Eagles have done some virtual team-building activities to boost team cohesion. The squad was selected just two days before the announcement.
“Any pause of a couple weeks, you’re going to lose some of what you had built up,” Issertell said. “How much you lose is indicative of the training that you do away from the rink on your own. Regardless, you’re not going to start on the 30th in the same spot that you were on the ninth.”
Hopefully, by allowing the teams to practice earlier, it’ll also help limit injuries coming off of an extended break, Issertell said.
Fargo South wrestling coach Brian Woelfel thinks his team should be able to hit the ground running when they return to practice next week. The Bruins were able to get four practices in before the shutdown. It gave them enough time to get the roster figured out and see what they would be working with this season.
It also gave the team a chance to get coordinated and open communication channels, which has helped while the Bruins have been away from the mat. Woelfel said his team captains have sent out some recommended individual workouts to their teammates.
“They’ve been trying to stay isolated and distant in the shutdown period and follow the governor's recommendations the best that they can,” Woelfel said. “There are some recommended individual workouts we’ve sent out in the past for the offseason or for students who aren’t in a fall sport, just to keep them from being sedentary.”
With wrestling being a close-contact sport, Woelfel said he will try to isolate individuals as much as possible during practices and meets. The Bruins will also train in small groups and stagger their times in the locker room to keep them as separated as possible.
“We’ve had a lot of meetings with the administration and the other coaches to figure out how to keep everybody as safe as possible,” Woelfel said. “A lot of it has to do with keeping people separate from each other. You keep people drilling hard, but apart. And you limit how much close contact the kids have with each other.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge this season will be keeping his wrestlers motivated, Woelfel said. Without the big, multi-team weekend tournaments, their regular-season competition will mostly consist of the weekday duals and triangulars. He expects his wrestlers could end up with less than half the number of matches they would have in a normal season.
“I anticipate it may become more challenging to keep people ready for practice after practice after practice without the reinforcement of competition to see the strides we’ve made,” Woelfel said. “We’re going to have to focus on the mental side to keep their emotional tanks full and keep them supported."
On top of added time in the practice room, it could also mean fewer opportunities to see different wrestlers with different styles to help get ready for the state tournament.