NCHC to return to play Dec. 1 in Omaha pod

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Jordan McAlpine
CONTRIBUTOR

Omaha’s Baxter Arena will host the NCHC’s return to play pod format starting Dec. 1. Photo courtesy of Omaha Athletics.

After over eight months of waiting, NCHC hockey will be back on ice. The league announced their 2020-21 plans early Friday afternoon, beginning with a three-week pod right here in Omaha.

Especially for a conference that spans over three time zones and 1,207 miles from it’s furthest two points (Colorado College and Western Michigan), the decision to start together in a pod is seen as a necessary action and was unanimously approved by the NCHC’s Board of Directors.

As a return to play gets closer, there’s still a lot to be decided, but here’s what we know.

The format

The pod will begin on Dec. 1 and span three weeks. The NCHC has been split into two divisions: Miami, Minnesota-Duluth, St. Cloud State and Western Michigan in the East, and Colorado College, Denver, North Dakota and Omaha in the West. Each school will play 26 games during the 2020-21 season. The pod will consist of 40 games total.

A full schedule is still being put together for both the pod and return to campus site portion of the season. However, NCHC commissioner Josh Fenton says there will be no more than two games played per day Monday through Friday, and no more than three on Saturday and Sunday while in the pod.

For Omaha, that schedule will include two games each against all four East Division schools, along with two against one of Colorado College, Denver, or North Dakota while in the pod. Once games return to campus sites the first week in January, the Mavericks will play four games against whichever western division team they play in the pod, along with six against each of the other two schools.

Each school will play eight games at home and eight on the road in the second half against divisional foes. There is potential for those six games to be played in two three-game series, however, the format and specifics are yet to be determined. Teams will have multiple bye weeks built in to offer both schedule flexibility and extra time off. The 26-game regular season will conclude the weekend of March 5, followed by the playoffs.

The need for a pod

As much of a logistical headache as this may seem to be, the need to get it done was simple: getting games played in a centralized location was the safest decision for the athletes. Although other conferences around college hockey have released plans for their season schedule, the NCHC will be the first to use a centralized location concept.

“We believe it’s our best opportunity to start the season successfully,” Fenton said. “Knowing that all teams will be in a centralized location, under a consistent set of protocols including testing, we can get the season started off on a good foot.”

Fenton says the three main priorities throughout the entire process have been testing and medical support, financial impact and the market and venue infrastructure.

“We’ve been focused on the health and safety of student-athletes, and frankly everybody associated with our campus communities from the start,” Fenton said. “We’ve looked at ways we could limit our travel, which then comes down to regionalizing our schedule. As you can appreciate, it’s very difficult to regionalize a schedule in a conference that spans three different time zones, so we started to think creatively and uniquely about a centralized location to take care of a certain amount of games to start the season.”

The league at one point also considered an “air” and “land” division when aligning the team. That would’ve consisted of the four teams on the outskirts of the conference (Colorado College, Denver, Miami and Western Michigan) being grouped into a division, and the four teams in the middle pairing together (Minnesota-Duluth, North Dakota, Omaha and St. Cloud State).

As previously mentioned, one of the biggest targets of the pod was to limit travel, especially air travel. Fenton says a normal calendar year in the NCHC consists of 20-30 flights. This season, they’re realistically looking at five or less.

It will also provide all eight NCHC schools more time to put together a plan for when the NCHC returns to a full on-campus schedule. Especially when it comes to testing and general gameday protocols.

They feel playing in a centralized format is the safest way to go, so next stop, Omaha.

Why Omaha?

In what Fenton described as an exhausting process, the final decision was made to bring the three-week event to Omaha.

One of the biggest factors in that decision was the role of the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

“The testing and the medical support was priority number one when we were considering the concept and ultimately determining the location,” Fenton said.

The NCHC has been engaged in conversations with them for over two months in order to get a better understanding of the virus, testing, and to understand what student-athletes may be facing. Fenton says he’s also been meeting regularly with AD’s for the past three months, along with the eight NCHC coaches for a portion of that time.

The end goal is to make sure everyone is as prepared as they can be.

Testing and cleaning protocols

With safety at the forefront, testing will surely be a big topic of concern around pulling this event off.

Although final protocols and details are still being developed by the conference in partnership with the UNMC staff and the Global Center for Health Security, they feel confident in their testing abilities moving forward.

Before leaving for Omaha, teams will be required to enter a modified quarantine for the week leading up to departure and will need to report clean and negative results before leaving.

Teams will start arriving in Omaha a couple of days before the start of the event and all players, coaches and staff involved will be required to take an onsite PCR test immediately once entering the bubble.

After that, there will be a modified quarantine process for all participating teams.

“It’s not practical that we would necessarily ask all of our student-athletes, coaches and staff members to come and sit in their apartments, houses, dorm rooms in isolation for a period of time leading up to it,” Fenton said.

“But we are going to ask them to severely restrict their movement and contact with the outside public for at least a seven-day period before the team departs. Although the exact strategy has not been defined, there will be frequent and regular testing done that week leading into the start of the event, and teams will have to certify clean and negative results throughout the week.”

In addition to the plan before leaving and once arriving in the city, there are several risks involved once action gets underway. A full list of testing protocols is still being developed.

Life in the pod

Although it may seem like a broken record by now, there are still several details being worked on, and this is one of them. What will life look like in the pod for these student-athletes?

“The guidelines and protocols are being developed right now,” Fenton said. “They’ve been in the works for a couple of weeks now and they’ll be further developed. We certainly want the environment to be fairly restrictive because if the environment isn’t restrictive we have a chance for virus transmission within it.

“So it’s important for us to create an environment that keeps the student-athletes, coaches and supporting staff members as safe as we can have them. That’s going to mean an environment where there are things they can do, and things they can’t do.”

After watching the NHL pull off successful completely closed off playoff bubbles in Edmonton and Toronto, it proves it can be done. However, the collegiate level is a whole new ballgame.

The NCHC has had conversations for a month plus ranging from people within Omaha athletics to people who work for the city. The plan now is for all eight teams to be staying at hotel properties within Aksarben Village, due to the close proximity to Baxter Arena. Restrictions will be put in place for the size of each team’s travel party, and who will be allowed in the facilities due to the potential for exposure.

As for Baxter Arena itself, that’s another key element of successfully pulling this event off. Some may wonder if two sheets of ice will offer enough flexibility to accommodate games, practices and morning skates for eight Division I hockey programs. Would the conference consider rinks elsewhere in the city?

“We’re focused on keeping centralized at Baxter Arena,” Fenton said. “We did have some conversations and thought about potentially using other facilities in and around the area, but just the risks and exposure going into facilities that aren’t under our purview was something we were a little hesitant on.”

In addition, there are questions with locker room availability, training and recovery options and media access. The league is confident this event can be pulled off at Baxter Arena.

“We’re assured by the UNO staff that the locker room situation will be one where teams can do what they need to do,” Fenton said. “We do anticipate some moving around, but the process and what that looks like is still to be defined. I can tell you that the staff at UNO has already stated that their ability to clean and disinfect will certainly be there and that will happen on a regular basis.

“I can assure you that we’ve spent numerous hours on venue logistics to ensure that this can still happen.”

Ways to watch

The burning question everyone wants to know… Will fans be allowed in the building this season?

No official decision has been made for fans at any point in the season. Fenton says a big part of it in Omaha specifically will come from what the Douglas County Health Department says. However, by using the pod format and giving schools more time to prepare for the second half, it might bode well for a return to the arena. That is yet to be determined.

“The decision for fans at venues across our conference will be made by institutions in conjunction with their local health authorities,” Fenton said.

As for watching online or on TV, that’s still yet to be finalized. The conference plans to use NCHC.TV and MidCo, along with several other regional and local networks to maximize and get as many games televised as possible. However, Fenton says they have explored and had talks at the national level.

One of those might come with CBS Sports Network, who currently has a partnership agreement with the conference. Specifically with weekday afternoon games, some type of television deal would make sense and be a great source of revenue to help offset some of the costs associated with the pod. Especially if fans can’t be in the arenas.

What’s next?

Although it’s far from smooth sailing from here, it’s a big step in the right direction for pulling off a successful 2020-21 NCHC hockey season. With the fall semester being completed or having the ability to shift to online learning, this gives the conference the ability to get games in while kids are not on campus and get the academics taken care of.

There are still several questions to be answered regarding costs and logistics, Fenton believes cutting down on the travel alone this season will ease a lot of the burden on the athletic departments, but would not disclose any more of the financial details.

“I would capture the cost as it relates to the pod as administrative cost,” Fenton said. “Which is general venue-related cost, testing cost, officiating cost, and maybe a little bit of travel cost from a staff standpoint.”

Some questions still remain. Who will be officiating? Will teams be allowed to play games before the pod?

No decision has been made on any type of restriction on non-conference games for this season, but the league hasn’t ruled out allowing teams to get an exhibition game or two in before the start of play. Some of those situations may include teams in close proximity, like Colorado College and Denver or Minnesota Duluth and St. Cloud State. That will be formally decided on in the coming weeks, as will the release of a full schedule.

In the meantime, buckle up and get ready. NCHC hockey is back. 46 days and counting.

Make sure to follow @jordan_mcalpine on Twitter for news and live game updates, and check out https://unothegateway.com/category/sports/ice-hockey/ for postgame recaps and Maverick Hockey coverage all season long.

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