Coach Cole Bell has waited a long time and has worked hard to get Ohio back on the ice again.
It won’t be a normal season. Fans won’t pack Bird Arena every weekend. Only 14 regular-season games have been scheduled and the Bobcats will play after having nearly an entire year off since COVID-19 canceled the postseason in March.
Despite the strange and unusual circumstances, Bell and the Bobcats are excited — really excited.
“We’re trying to keep it as normal as possible,” Bell said. “Obviously, it’s pretty tough to do in 2021, but the excitement is through the roof.”
Routine preseason scrimmages are usually exciting on their own since they mark the beginning of a new year, but this season’s annual Green and White scrimmages, which happened four months after they would have started in a normal season, brought much more hype than usual.
Bell felt good getting behind the bench and getting into a game-day routine once again. The Bobcats were playing live again, with officials watching over, pucks being dropped, mistakes and opportunities being made and almost everything else that comes with a typical game.
“It was really exciting to get back into a game environment,” Bell said.
With a shortened schedule that is subject to change due to COVID-19 protocol, Ohio can’t waste any time in getting into midseason form. Bell has been happy with how his team’s leaders have pushed the players into being as sharp as possible by the time the season opener comes, even if they haven’t played a game yet.
Bell knows there will be some rust like in any other season, especially given how long it’s been since most of the Bobcats have last played in a game, but he expects to see the team progress as the players get more time on the ice.
Even with the absence of Tyler Harkins, Justin Houston and Gianni Evangelisti, some of last year’s top producers on offense, Bell thinks he has a strong team in place this year. It’s no secret among the team that Kyle Craddick, Ryan Higgins and J.T. Schimizzi will be strong leaders with the supporting cast around them.
“We made a few changes that are going to work better for the personnel we have this year,” Bell said. “I’m looking forward to seeing what sort of success they’re going to have this year.”
The goaltender position has questions that don’t have answers that are quite as clear. Fortunately, even though Jimmy Thomas has graduated, the Bobcats have a good problem at the position. They have so much talent to replace Thomas that Bell doesn’t have a clear choice on who the regular starter will be.
Jackson Chilberg and Mason Koster are both talented returning goaltenders who could both compete for the starting position this season. Not only that, but Ohio has two freshmen, Max Karlenzig and Matt Server, behind them.
Right now, Bell isn’t quite ready to name a full-time starter, so all four goaltenders could see opportunities to make a name for themselves.
“The biggest thing is they all have a good compete level,” Bell said. “Battling for pucks, fighting to see through traffic. I really like what all four of them can bring to the game.”
In 2021, Ohio’s message has been to be faster, bigger, heavier and more physical. All of these traits can lead to a ferocious and successful team, but they can also lead to some penalties, which were a problem for the Bobcats last year.
Bell knows penalties come with the nature of the game, and he believes the key is talking with his players so they understand what is acceptable and what crosses the line.
If one of Bell’s players gets a hard hit trying to make a play and gets called for it, the team can live with that. It’s the extracurricular activities that Bell can’t accept.
Stick penalties and things that come away from the puck, behind and after the play, are the lack of discipline Bell wants to remove from the Bobcats this year.
“Things like that can really kill a team,” Bell said.
Ohio’s team-first mentality that Bell has pushed on his players this season is a good antidote for poison, such as penalties. Now that the players are finally active again after a long offseason, nobody has an interest in acting selfishly.
“Nobody puts themselves above the team,” Bell said. “I think that’s one of the exciting things about the group we have this year.”
“Exciting” is the perfect word to describe the state around the Bobcats right now.
Everyone knows the season won’t be normal. It couldn’t possibly be normal. Regardless, hockey is coming back to Bird Arena, and both the fans and everyone involved in the team have every reason to be excited.
“(The players) are excited to get it going,” Bell said. “We’ve worked really hard. I think they’re tired of having to practice against each other. We’re ready to see some new faces here and put all this hard work to play.”