Janesville Jets players are set to arrive in town today.
Team and North American Hockey League management have spent months working on a plan they hope will keep the Tier II junior players on the ice for a full season during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Those plans include: virus protocols at the local, team and league levels; limited capacity at the Janesville Ice Arena; changes to the league’s normal 60-game schedule; and road trips that will look a bit different.
But if all goes well, the Jets will open their NAHL season with a home game in front of perhaps 200 or so fans against the Fairbanks Ice Dogs on Nov. 5. The league announced its full-season schedule at the end of last week, with some teams beginning play Oct. 9.
“I think that (the schedule) was the final piece for a lot of folks, including some of our sponsors,” said Bill McCoshen, Jets team president, founder and managing partner. “We were telling them it was going to happen, but until they saw the schedule, some of them may not have believed it.
“Now it’s out there for everybody, and the entire team will be here as of (today). We’re excited to get rolling.”
Each Jets player needed to provide a documented negative COVID-19 test before arriving in Janesville.
Two teams from the United States Hockey League—including the Madison Capitols—and four teams from the NAHL—including Jets rival Springfield—have opted not to play their seasons due to local restrictions or regulations.
“That’s unfortunate for all those teams and players; that’s 150 kids that had to find a different place to play,” McCoshen said.
“So we feel fortunate we’re playing. It’s going to be a little different, and there will be fewer fans due to local requirements, but we’re going to be playing hockey.”
Planning for the NAHL season began as soon as last season was cut short prior to the end of the regular season. There were no playoffs as the pandemic shut down sports around the world.
McCoshen said the planning involved several tiers—from the local level to the division level to the league level.
Locally, the team found ways to hold offseason camps both in town and around the region to help fill its initial roster. Per current county regulations, the Jets will begin the season with a capacity of 205 fans in an arena that officially holds in upwards of 1,200. And Jets management, including first-year head coach Parker Burgess, will work to create a sort of mini bubble for players.
“They can’t get a college scholarship if they’re in quarantine; they’ve got to be on the ice. That’s the message we’re giving the kids as they show up,” McCoshen said. “This is their chance. And it’s not just themselves. You don’t want to get a teammate sick, so it’s incumbent on each of them to be smart and make the right decisions if they want to keep playing.”
Road trips will require some slight changes. Players will be asked to space out more on buses and to wear masks, and they will stay two players to a hotel room instead of three.
“Since main camp, our coaches have had Zoom calls every week with the entire roster, so they’ve been building the culture before the kids even get here,” McCoshen said. “It appears they’re all on the same page. So we’re excited, because on paper, this might be the most talented team we’ve ever had. Will it turn out to be the best team we’ve had? Time will tell.”
McCoshen also serves as the Chairman of the Board for the NAHL’s executive committee, so he has been involved in planning and protocols at the league level.
The schedule looks a bit different this year compared to past seasons. Instead of 60 games, teams will play either 56 or 52 games, depending on what division they are in. Janesville and the Midwest Division will play 52.
“Teams could start as early as Oct. 9 playing games if their markets allowed it,” McCoshen said. “Or you could not play until Nov. 5. So all of the divisions will play close to the same number of games, but not identical.
“We wanted to give the kids a chance to develop and to get the kids the exposure they need to get their college commitments. But we also didn’t want the season to roll into the summer. We extended the season a couple weeks.”
USNTDP to stop in Janesville
McCoshen said the Jets will get an exhibition in Nov. 4, the night before their regular season opener.
The United States National Team Development Program will send its U17 team to the Janesville Ice Arena.
“They’re supposed to have a pretty good squad, and they’re coming to Janesville,” McCoshen said. “We may not be able to have fans, but it’ll be full of NHL scouts that night.”
Tradesman headed to town
McCoshen is also the team president and owner of the Oregon Tradesmen, a first-year team in the North American 3HL Tier III junior league.
Dane County restrictions will keep the Tradesmen from playing at home to start the year. All of their October home games—six of them total, including the first this Friday night—will be played at the Janesville Ice Arena.
Oregon hosts the Wausau RiverWolves here at 7:30 p.m. Friday.
“We’ll play, but we’re going to be in Janesville in October before youth hockey starts, and then in November we’ll be in Monroe,” McCoshen said. “It’s tough when you’ve got a brand new team and you’re trying to build a fan base in the market you chose, and you can’t do it for the first couple months of the season because of local regulations.”