SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — The Sioux Falls Stampede has enjoyed its share of success, winning the USHL’s top prize three times since joining the league in 1999.
Sioux Falls is actually the reigning Clark Cup champion, as last year’s campaign was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This season, the Stampede continues to navigate its way through the pandemic, playing by COVID’s rules.
It’s a Friday night in early February, and fans are flocking to the PREMIER Center for Stampede hockey.
“We get to come play hockey every day, so can’t complain,” Stampede center Will Dineen said.
It hasn’t been quite every day. Three months into the USHL season, the Herd has had four games altered or postponed by COVID-19.
“The league has done a really good job, put a lot of protocols in place making sure the teams are doing everything they can to keep the players safe,” Stampede President Jim Olander said.
The USHL has a team doctor available to answer questions and hosts a weekly call among the presidents, allowing teams to compare notes when it comes to COVID-19.
“They’ve been really good about getting us information, been there if we have questions or need help and they’ve been a real good guidance for us to make sure we can do things successfully,” Olander said.
Success comes at a price. Stampede players aren’t allowed to gather and socialize away from the ice.
“It’s harder to grow as a team when you can’t really hang out outside of the rink, you can’t be with your teammates outside of the rink, but we’ve found ways to come close, but it’s definitely unique,” Stampede defenseman Nate Schweitzer said.
“We’ve made it quite clear to the players that it only takes one person for something to go wrong here and for this virus to spread. You’re seeing it at the NHL where teams are shutting down for weeks on end and we don’t want to have that happen here,” Olander said.
The players are not subject to regular COVID testing, but are monitored by Athletic Trainer Jordan Whitsell.
“Making sure we’re filling out our forms, taking our temperatures every day at the rink and then if someone has symptoms they’ll go get a test and from there it kind of spirals from there. If they test positive we’ll go get other guys checked out too that have been around him,” Dineen said.
That’s the scenario that recently played out in the Stampede locker room and the reason head coach Marty Murray wasn’t on the bench last weekend.
“We had one player that tested positive and unfortunately he took six players down with him due to close contacts, me being one of them. I did a video with him the day before he tested positive, so that’s the world we’re living in right now,” Murray said.
After missing two games, Murray tested negative on Tuesday and returned to practice Wednesday. Another chapter for the first-year head coach to add to his story.
“Probably been more stressful than a normal year for him, but I think he’s really handled it well and has done a terrific job in making sure our players are safe and that we can still put a competitive team on the ice,” Olander said.
“It’s been a battle, no question about it. There’s still lots of things that you wonder if you’re doing things right or if you could have done things differently, but this is something new to all of us and it’s almost a day to day, week to week thing where things come across your plate and you just handle them as they come,” Murray said.
The coaches and players aren’t the only ones making adjustments.
“Our fan base has done a tremendous job of following the rules and being respectful of others and making it a lot easier for us,” Older said.
The Stampede has ranked number one in the USHL in attendance since 2012. This season, asking guests to wear a mask and social distance, the team is seeing about 65% of its usual number of fans.
“Now for most teams in our league that’s a pretty good number. For us, we’re a little down, but that was to be anticipated,” Olander said.
“Not the capacity it’s been in the past, but me being new, I probably don’t know any different, but I certainly feel the energy with our fans and you can certainly see why they’re the best fans in the USHL,” Murray said.
Those fans will only get louder as the Stampede continues its title defense.
“I like the way our team’s playing right now, so I think you should watch out,” Dineen said.
The USHL regular season ends April 24th. The top four teams from each conference will advance to the Clark Cup playoffs. A total of 12 teams typically qualify for the playoffs, but Cedar Rapids and Madison aren’t playing this year, leaving only six teams in the Eastern Conference.