The equipment was packed. The bus was loaded. The Lakers were ready to go to Boston.
Less than 72 hours prior to this moment, the Mercyhurst women’s hockey team had come back to beat Robert Morris 2-1 in overtime for their 15th College Hockey America (CHA) conference championship in program history. They were three games away from their first national title.
“You’d go through social media, and another [conference] tournament was cancelled or another game was cancelled,” said Brad Davis, Director of Athletics at Mercyhurst. “You just didn’t know what was going to happen.”
With only 30 minutes before the team left for Cornell University, the site for the 2020 Elite Eight and Frozen Four, Davis told them not to leave.
“The sporting world stopped that day,” said Mercyhurst head women’s hockey coach Mike Sisti.
The official announcement came March 12, 2020. All 2020 NCAA winter and spring championships were cancelled. It was the beginning of business and event closures all over the country from the COVID-19 coronavirus.
“It was bittersweet,” Sisti added. “We were playing our best hockey of the season.”
12 months later, businesses and sporting events have opened their doors and mask mandates are beginning to relax. And for the next three weekends, the city of Erie is the epicenter of women’s college hockey.
Thursday began the CHA women’s hockey tournament at Erie Insurance Arena downtown, which will wrap up Saturday. The tournament winner will receive an automatic berth to the NCAA Women’s Ice Hockey Championship, which will play all seven games, including the Women’s Frozen Four, in Erie.
The Flagship City has not hosted the Big Dance since 2011. This setup happened because of the partnership between the arena, the Erie Sports Commission and Mercyhurst University.
“To be involved in this process, to get [the NCAA tournament] back here again is a great achievement,” said Mark Jeanneret, executive director of the Erie Sports Commission. “I wish we were going to be able to do it full-throttle [with fans at capacity] like we had planned to, but hopefully, in the next week or so, we’ll at least allow some fans in the building to watch.”
The preparations to host during COVID have been a lot of work, according to Davis, from coordinating where the CHA’s six teams are all staying to where they are eating to making sure they test everyday. However, he said it is an honor to host the city’s first major event in a full year.
On Thursday, Erie mayor Joe Schembert said hosting the two tournaments will provide a nice economic boost, but it will not have as much of an effect as it would if there was no pandemic.
But one man who has been impressed by this weekend’s CHA tournament is the conference commissioner, Bob DeGregorio.
“They’ve done an outstanding job,” DeGregorio said. “It’s been such a team effort. No matter who you ask, ‘Can you help me with this? Can you do this?’ They jump up and they do everything they can to help you.”
And for Davis and Mercyhurst, what remains of the Lakers women’s hockey season will be a show of pride for the team and for the city.
“Everything goes through Erie, the rest of the way,” Davis said. “We feel like we’re defending our title in our home community. [Our players] are going to be in front of whatever fans we can provide them with COVID. And we’re all excited to provide that first-class game experience.”