Updated: March 15, 2020 11:24 PM
Created: March 15, 2020 10:08 PM
(ABC 6 News) - For the Rochester Grizzlies, this past week started like any other, or possibly better.
The team was set to play the Peoria Mustangs in the first round of the Fraser Cup playoffs until their season was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We're on the bus to Peoria and we stopped in Iowa City and they told us, 'turn around, your game is cancelled,'" Grizzlies captain Peyton Hart said. "So, that was a little tough. A lot of emotions running through your head like, is the season going to get cancelled? We see all these other leagues getting cancelled so it was definitely a scary time for all of us."
One day later, the final domino fell.
"Coach Ratzloff told us it was over and I had to relay the information to the guys and it was just obviously a really tough thing to accept," Hart added. "There's no other words to describe it."
What started as an exciting week after an incredible regular season, ended with many feeling rattled and uncertain.
"[You] kind of send out these press releases that you really don't want to send out and you never thought you would," Grizzlies Director of Broadcasting and Media Relations, Matt Winthrop, said. "I was in the office at the time with Coach Ratzloff when I found out [about the cancellation] and it just kind of hit me. It's just so sad and upsetting to see it end this way because we really had something special here with these guys."
This was the Grizzlies second season, but first year under Head Coach Chris Ratzloff. The team finished the year with a 37-8-1-1 record and on a six-game win streak. Aside from the accomplishments, one of the defining parts of this team was the close relationship they had.
"I would honestly say, it's the best group that I've had, that I've been associated with in 20 plus years in the game," Ratzloff added.
Throughout the sports world, there has been a sense of surreal, a lack of closure, and the question of what if? Rochester clinched the NA3HL's central division in February and finished their season on a strong note. So, the idea of what could have been sits in the back of their minds.
"At least when you go out on a loss, you have some closure to the season and it's over but with this it's just, half way to the game, turn around, come home," Ratzloff said. "Then get the announcement the next day, it's over and guys are going home."
The team's unknowingly last game was on Sunday, March 8, where they defeated the Alexandria Blizzard 6-5 in overtime.
"That's the sad part we didn't know," Grizzlies forward Jesper Hofling said about their last contest. "We had no idea."
And for some, this was their last season in a Grizzlies' uniform.
"It's a disadvantage for our '99s especially," Ratzloff said. "They're the ones that are aging out this year. They have had interests from colleges. However, most of the colleges lost out of playoffs before their season was cancelled so they would be here watching those guys. So, they would have probably had opportunities. Now, it's going to be up to me to get on the phone with the colleges and video from the season and get them opportunities."
Now, it's time for the next step. Some players are heading home, but for two it's not that easy. Grizzlies' goalie Mathias Backstrom and Hofling are from Sweden and don't know when they can go back.
"It's not even about hockey anymore," Hofling said. "It's just life. I don't know when I can go back to Sweden. I mean, hopefully I can go back soon, but I don't know."
Backstrom shared the same thoughts that he didn't know when he could go home, but at the same time, he recognized his second home is right here in Rochester.
"My teammates and the coaching staff became a second family away from home so that was extra hard for me to realize that I might not see them in a few years or months."
In all, just a tough reality for the team, coaches, and community to process.
"The heartbreak isn't only that they're not going to get to play for a championship, which I think we had a pretty good shot at but it's also that they're leaving their friends and for some of them they might not see them again," Ratzloff explained. "For some of them they will see them down the road."
Looking back on their season, the team and Coach Ratzloff shared their utmost appreciation for the fans and community who supported them throughout the year.
"I just want to thank the owners, Mr. Cooper and Mr. Patrick and our fans," Ratzloff exclaimed. "We've had a great fan base the whole year. It's disappointing that we can't see it out with them, but we appreciate all that they do, the Rec Center, the City of Rochester...It's been a great year."
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