A three-week December stay in Nebraska might not prompt the same immediate reaction as, say, a trip to Cancun, but to some hockey-starved players in the Upper Midwest, an arena in Omaha will be better than any sandy beach.
“There was some celebrating in the locker room — I could hear it in my office,” St. Cloud State men’s hockey coach Brett Larson said. “The guys are getting sick of practice. They can’t wait to finally play.”
The National Collegiate Hockey Conference on Friday announced its season will begin Dec. 1 with all eight members gathered in a “pod” in Omaha, playing 10 games apiece over three weeks at Baxter Arena. It’s the first of a two-part, 26-game regular season that will be delayed two months because of the coronavirus pandemic. After the stay in Omaha, teams will return to their campuses to play beginning Jan. 1 and running through March 6.
In another twist, the NCHC will temporarily split into two divisions. The East will feature Minnesota Duluth, St. Cloud State, Miami (Ohio) and Western Michigan, while the West will have Colorado College, Denver, Nebraska Omaha and North Dakota.
In an effort to limit travel and avoid the spread of COVID-19, all the cross-division play — eight games per team — will take place in Omaha. Teams will play two games each against division opponents in Omaha, then the remaining 16 division games in their own arenas. Three-game series are possible, and bye weekends have been built into the schedule to allow for flexibility.
Finding a way to play
The pod system at one site is a first in college hockey and came about because of the far-flung footprint of the conference, which straddles the Central, Eastern and Mountain time zones.
“We’ve looked at ways in which we could limit our travel, which then comes down to regionalizing our schedule,” NCHC Commissioner Josh Fenton said. “ … We believe it’s our best opportunity to start the season successfully.”
Fenton estimated conference members would need fewer than five airplane trips under this plan, down from the usual 20 to 30.
Minnesota Duluth coach Scott Sandelin gave a thumbs-up to the pod plan. “Now that we know when we’ll get going and play games, it’s exciting for everybody,” he said. “ … It’s like that first road trip of the year — except it’s longer.”
Larson concurred, pointing to the success that the NHL had with its playoff bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, with no positive COVID-19 tests during the two-month run.
“Once they heard about the bubble, they were ecstatic,” Larson said of his players. “It worked well in the NHL. This is a great opportunity to get the season off to a great start. It’s great for the morale of the players.”
The NCHC is the third conference to announce its 2020-21 format. The Big Ten starts Nov. 13 with a 24-game conference season, plus four home games per team against independent Arizona State. Atlantic Hockey opens Nov. 13 with the league split into two regional divisions.
Details still being developed
During the three weeks in Omaha, medical support and COVID-19 testing for players, staff and officials in the pod will be conducted through the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.
Fenton indicated that there likely will be a period in which players are asked to avoid contact with others in the days leading to their departure for Omaha. Upon arrival in Omaha, the traveling parties will be subject to immediate COVID-19 testing before members are allowed in the team hotels near Baxter Arena.
Sandelin said he was hopeful that his Bulldogs could play a game or two before going to the Omaha pod. Fenton was lukewarm on nonconference play at that time. “There’s a risk with nonconference games, even if it would be two weekends before they come into the pod,” the commissioner said.
The NCHC’s complete schedule will be announced later, and Fenton said decisions on fans attending games at Omaha or on campuses will be made by the schools in conjunction with local health officials. The NCHC also said there are no plans to change the format of its conference tournament.
Though pleased with the work that the NCHC and its members have put in to develop a return-to-play plan, Fenton warned that there’s a bigger mountain to climb.
“Certainly, there’s a little bit of satisfaction, and kudos to our membership for the work that they’ve put in to get us here, but I feel like it’s maybe a little bit of a false summit,” he said. “In order for us to truly reach the actual summit, we’ve got a lot of work yet to be done.’’