UTICA, N.Y. - The return of playoff hockey to the Adirondack Bank Center appeared to getting closer, but with the American Hockey League announcing the cancellation of the remainder of the 2019-20 season, Monday, the Utica Comets are left with only what could have been.
"I liked my hockey team," said Comets head coach Trent Cull. "I was excited about where we were going, I was excited about how I still felt we were getting better with only 15 games left. I would love to have had a chance to get out there and show our what our team can do, especially with the postseason, we were very excited about that, but it's one of those things that we want to make sure everybody's being safe. That's first and foremost."
With the AHL deeming that resuming play was not feasible under the current conditions of the coronavirus pandemic, all stats and standings as of March 12, the day of the season suspension, are now deemed official and final.
The Comets finish the year through 61 games at 34-22-3-2, good for third place in the North Division with 73 points. Had that held, Utica would have returned to the Calder Cup Playoffs after missing out in the 2018-19 season.
The end of this year is unlike any others in the past. Not being able to decide its own fate is perhaps more difficult for the team than any result that would have played out on the ice.
"It's a different feeling," said Cull. "If you don't make the playoffs or are you going to playoffs and get beat or you go into playoffs and you win, it's whatever happens then you've got to deal with the consequences after. I feel like now it's just like you ran off of a cliff and you're kind of just hovering in the air, and that's where we are at. There is no finality to it."
Cull said that for a brief period he wasn't sure exactly what to say to the players after they had dispersed back to their permanent residences. After that, he remained in touch, checking in on different players every day, discussing life during this time and trying to stay away from speculating about the status of the season.
"I didn't want to be the boss still," Cull said. "I wanted to call, talk, 'how are things going, how are you feeling?' When they walked out of town, the boss kind of left with them. I wanted to give them their time away."
Now, the talks may be about hockey again as the focus turns to reflecting on the season with potential video conference meetings between players and coaches to close out the year.
"Now it's a season in review that's what today brings I guess," said Cull. "We think now we will switch gears and try to give [players] almost some closure and some feedback. [We'll discuss] how their year went, whether the good or bad, things to improve on if there are areas, or things that we thought they did really well, and tell them how proud we are so they can move on."
The third-year head coach, who resides in the Utica area with his wife and three kids, says that it took him some time to find his bearings in the days after the team had to separate. Being in the midst of a playoff run, it was hard to turn focus away from the game, especially with all the uncertainty surrounding the situation.
Since then, he said his to-do list of both indoor and outdoor chores is shrinking, he is remaining active doing workouts with his sons, and his wife is acting principal of their home-school efforts.
Still, uncertainty does remain in many ways as he and the team begin to look towards next season, which may be delayed as well depending on the status of the health crisis in the fall.
"We haven't sat down as an organization or talked about how we are going to move forward," Cull said. "I don't think we are having those talks right now because we don't know what the timeline is on anything with free agency, the draft, this season of the NHL still a possibility, so I don't know how those talks will go.
"The only thing I can say is that by going through this past season it sets us on our path for next year."
NOTE: Comets leading scorer Reid Boucher, who finished the season with 67 points (34g, 33a), had tied Alexandre Grenier's career franchise scoring record with his 175th point in the penultimate game of the year against the Charlotte Checkers on March 7.
Boucher broke the Comets' career goals record this season, as well as breaking his own single-season goals and points marks both previously set in 2018-19.
He will be a Restricted Free Agent when the free agency period for the NHL begins.