The Strangest Ending: The Inside Story Of COVID-19 Dismantling NCAA Hockey

“You’re not in the locker room . . . guys sitting in their gear. WE’RE ON A BUS JUST TRYING TO FIGURE OUT WHAT THE HELL WE’RE GOING TO DO!”

—Bowling Green coach Ty Eigner

March 12 will always be remembered as “Black Thursday,” the day the music died for the 2020 winter sports season in America. The diabolical COVID-19 virus had ventured into the sporting world with the instantaneous force of a tornado, ripping the roof off of the intensely popular March Madness of both hockey and hoops.

No other Division I league had progressed as far as WCHA men’s hockey, with four schools — Minnesota State, Bemidji, Bowling Green, and Michigan Tech — having all advanced in best-of-three quarterfinals, with a viable route to the NCAA tournament laid out before them. And then the Coronavirus reared its ugly head, and the biggest sports institutions in America tumbled like so many dominos, and thousands of national championship dreams were dashed.

Due to the time and place of the NCAA’s announced postponement, Bowling Green found itself in a hockey version of The Twilight Zone. Having attempted to streamline their travel from Alaska after their quarterfinal matchup with the Nanooks, coach Ty Eigner and his Falcon staff determined that rather than head south to their home in northern Ohio, two days in Minneapolis was the best way to hedge their travel bets in the likely scenario that they would be playing a Minnesota school in the semis, either Bemidji or Minnesota State. And that is exactly what happened, with BGSU advancing to play Bemidji for a berth in the WCHA championship game.

It was on the Falcons’ scheduled travel day to Bemidji that the world’s ugliest reality finally caught the moving target.

“We had checked out of our hotel, got our gear, and loaded the bus,” said Eigner, recalling Thursday’s bizarre sequence of events. Before boarding the bus, he had already been on a conference call with all four WCHA contenders, listening to commissioner Bill Robertson attempt to pare down the postseason tournament to minimize risk of infection. 

“We had gone through the process with the league,” Eigner said. “Tom Serratore (Bemidji coach) and Mike Hastings (Minnesota State) combined with commissioner Robertson. We were just going to play one game Friday in Bemidji, and one game Friday in Mankato, and the winners would play at whatever site made sense. A great idea, try and get it done.”

But news was breaking on every mobile device on the bus, none of it good, and none bigger than pro basketball shutting down its season. 

“Once the NBA did what they did, I think you’re kidding yourself that the NCAA would allow themselves to [continue],” Eigner said.

Eigner had the hottest hockey team in the country locked and loaded, a semifinal venue three hours to the north, but was stuck in limbo, unsure whether or not to roll on to Bemidji. So he called an audible to buy some time.

“We were getting close to lunchtime, so we decided we were going to the Mall of America parking lot to set up home base,” he said. “You’re following things online and you’re seeing that things start to happen, cancellations and such, so we just held tight there in Minneapolis.” 

And in that nine-mile trip across the Twin Cities, the first-year coach got the call that derailed a season like no other: his Falcons, the team with the NCAA’s longest unbeaten streak in the country, would have their season ended while perched on a 40-seat luxury bus.

“We got the news on the way there,” Eigner said. “I actually told the players that [the season] was canceled on the bus in the parking lot of the Mall of America.

“It was kind of surreal,” said Eigner, describing a scene unique in sports history.

“It was quiet, you could see the players were emotional. The end of the year always ends in tears. I don’t care if it’s the eight seed versus the one seed — when you lose that last game, there’s a lot of tears because there’s finality. We didn’t have any finality, we were just told, ‘It’s over.’ That was difficult, I’ve never had this experience.

“I told the players — and I used this word — ‘It sucks.’ For our team, because we were playing great; it sucks for seniors because they didn’t get to play their last scheduled game.

“But it doesn’t suck for us any more than it does for Minnesota State, or North Dakota or Boston College, or Sacred Heart for that matter. Or pick any number of teams in college basketball men or women, this is not sport-specific. And I said, ‘If this is the worst thing you had to deal with in your lifetime, consider yourself lucky.’”

Eigner then stepped out of the bus to take yet another red-alert phone call, which he quickly wrapped up so he could say farewell to his red-eyed warriors. They were stepping down the bus stairs into a strange parking lot, 10 hours from home, saying goodbye to a season of promise that had been ripped from their hands. The seniors came out last, including Bowling Green’s All-American captain. 

“I’m as close to Alec Rauhauser as I’ve been to any kid I’ve coached the last 10 years,” Eigner said. “Just a wonderful kid, the kind that puts a smile on everyone’s face. For as good a player that he is, he’s not cocky, he’s not arrogant. Everybody that has the fortune to interact with Alec loves Alec.”

Eigner experienced the same emotion that Hastings had Thursday with Marc Michaelis, Serratore had with Adam Brady, and Joe Shawhan had with Alex Smith: saying farewell to a surrogate son. But Eigner was the only one to conduct that life passage next to an idling bus at a mall. 

A day later, Eigner still struggles to reconcile a Thursday like no other.

“As a head coach, I will never forget how this season ended. It’s a once-in-forever deal.”

Tim Rappleye is the author of Jack Parker's Wiseguys: The National Champion BU Terriers, the Blizzard of '78, and the Road to the Miracle on Ice. He can be reached on Twitter @TeeRaps.

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