As Ben Holden and Dave Starman put their headsets on leading up to the Dec. 1 Pod opener between Omaha and Minnesota Duluth, it’s a chance to take a deep breath and think of what all has happened around the country. 269 days since the last college hockey games and nine months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Finally- a sense of normalcy.
“When we put our headsets on, Ben and I just looked at each other and said life feels normal again,” Starman said. “There were no fans in the building, and that was okay. The building was quieter, and that was okay. The press box was a little emptier, and that was okay. The normal schmoozing we do when we get to a rink the day before a game, that was missing. We’re also kind of walled-off up in the press box.
“Yeah, you certainly notice what you don’t have, but I think like everybody else we just looked at each other and we are all so appreciative of the fact we’re here. We were ready to have some fun, and with everything else going on in the world, it does have a little bit of a feel of normalcy to it.”
Holden and Starman make up a team that will call all of the games on Midco Sports Network throughout the Pod. The two have been calling games together for over 10 years now.
Dec. 1 marked the first time Holden had stepped back in a hockey rink since Feb. 28, a game at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center in St. Cloud, MN between the Huskies and Denver Pioneers. Holden was forced to miss the next week due to health concerns and the following week, the entire country shut down.
“Just walking to the rink that first day, it was special,” Holden said. “I feel comfortable anytime I’m calling any sport or I’m in a broadcast booth, but a hockey rink just feels like home. I’m glad I’m here, I’m grateful for the opportunity, and I’m glad that I can be a small part of this.
“This is a big stage and all of the hockey world is watching. Dave is constantly getting texts from coaches, scouts and players, and it’s the same for me. You know there are a lot of eyeballs on our sport and this conference that probably wouldn’t be there normally.”
Eyeballs there are, and it’s seemingly 24/7 hockey in Omaha. 38 games in 21 days, as the National Collegiate Hockey Conference attempts to pull something off that has never been done in collegiate athletics.
Although Starman and Holden may headline the cast, they’re not the only voices fans at home have been hearing. It’s an all hands on deck effort to pull this thing off.
Jake Brandt and Alex Heinert, who drive to Grand Forks from Brainerd, MN and Sioux Falls, SD respectively to call nearly every North Dakota home game find themselves at Baxter Arena donning the headsets.
When Donny Baarns hasn’t been on the radio call for Omaha games, he’s also found himself working with the Midco cast.
As for stepping back into the booth, the voice of the Mavericks also said it feels like home. Especially as someone who has gotten to know Baxter Arena well, it has been weird without fans in the building. Baarns had to do a double-take on Omaha’s first goal against Minnesota Duluth, but he has gotten used to it as the Pod has moved along. He’s especially thankful for the opportunity.
“It’s a little emotional in a way because it is a nice escape and it does feel great to be calling games again,” Baarns said. “For a couple of hours you put the headset on and the world around you goes away, and it does feel a bit more normal. It’s been a welcomed relief from a lot of things.”
That idea of being thankful for the opportunity is a common theme amongst all of those that are here calling the games.
“It’s a privilege,” Heinert said. “Even when we’re not on the call, just being able to watch games. We all know how many people would love to be in our shoes, so just to witness this in-person, and to be able to bring people at home closer to the action, it’s really special. I don’t take it for granted.”
Brandt, who spent four years between the pipes at North Dakota, said it’s humbling to be selected to be here calling games. It’s also been a great learning experience.
“To be here to call games is a lot of fun, but to witness first-hand the amount of commitment put in by everyone here, it’s been exciting,” Brandt said. “I’ve just learned so much from the other guys too. Dave Starman is the best in the business, so watching him do his homework, it’s no surprise he’s as incredible as he is. I’m trying to be a sponge off of these guys and I’m very lucky to be able to be here.
“Everyone probably wonders what it’s like being part of the Pod? And we spend the bulk of the day in our hotel room, maybe walk to get a cup of coffee, and then walk over to the rink to either call a game or watch. Go to sleep, get up the next day, and repeat.”
This is the fifth year the two have spent working together and only the second time they’ve worked outside of Ralph Engelstad Arena. The two are used to calling games in front of a packed house in Grand Forks, so it’d be easy to get caught up in the fact there’s no crowd to feed off of.
“Surprisingly, it’s not even close to what I envisioned,” Brandt said.”It’s still pretty real because the ice effects are pumped into our ears, so we hear the sticks, the chatters, and guys calling for pucks and tips. So really the crowd noise is blocked out.
“The only difference you feel is the energy from the crowd on the momentum shifts or when a team scores. That’s the only thing I feel like you’re missing as far as the noise within the building and having to talk louder because it’s loud in the rink, but weirdly it feels normal.”
His play-by-play man said the same thing. Sure you notice it when you look around and see the empty seats, but it’s hard to think about it too much when you’re caught up in the action on the ice.
“I didn’t notice the first game we were back as much, because the excitement of being back calling hockey again was the overarching theme of the entire UND vs Miami game,” Heinert said. “We were just giddy the whole time and didn’t even think about the fact that it was an empty arena.”
Since that first game, the games have gone on without any issues, all things considered. However, this has been in the works long before the Dec. 1 start date. On Oct. 16 when the concept was officially announced, it was a mix of intrigue, skepticism and excitement, understandably so.
“When this was floated initially, I didn’t think this was going to happen to be honest,” Heinert said. “This wasn’t anything from the conference, it was just speculation from people around college hockey. Logistically, I didn’t think this would be an option for the student-athletes. Then the summer kind of progressed and you realized they’re going to go for it.
“Now at that time we didn’t know if this was going to be in Omaha or Grand Forks, or what the schedule was going to look like, but the further along you got, it made a lot more sense. This was probably the only way to make sure you could get this many games in and these kids could get a legitimate college hockey season. Then once it became a reality, the past couple of weeks it became figuring out how we pull this off.”
When those rumors first started to circulate late in the summer, there was talk the two might not have to travel far from their normal broadcast perch. Grand Forks looked to be a serious contender, but with COVID-19 cases on the rise in North Dakota and the testing abilities in Omaha, the focus shifted to Baxter Arena.
“Originally I thought it might be in Grand Forks, but I started to hear a lot of buzz about Omaha, and that was exciting,” Brandt said. “I’d never been to Omaha, but I just didn’t know as far as the TV stuff if it wasn’t in Grand Forks if Midco would still try for the Pod. I was chatting with Alex quite a bit about this potentially happening, but I was just being cautiously optimistic.
“As things started coming together though, it was exciting to find out that we were going to do the Pod. Then we got Ben Holden and Dave Starman and that was kind of the home run hit.”
A home run hit indeed. Starman and Holden, who have been the predominant voices of the NCHC on CBS Sports Network, were both intrigued from the start.
“I thought it was brilliant,” Starman said. “There’s always the risk-reward factor that you’ve got to take a look at, but you already saw the success of the bubbles in Edmonton and Toronto, so it was doable. Let’s just say it didn’t surprise me that the NCHC came up with this idea.”
Both felt it was a brilliant idea, but there was one more common denominator between the two- they both wanted to be part of it.
“I wanted in, plain and simple,” Holden said. “I’ve done many different sports in my career, and I feel hockey is by far and away my sport. I know this is corny and cliche, but I feel like this is the sport that I was meant to call. I’ve been a part of the league since it started and I wanted in. I missed the game, I missed being around the people, and this is an awesome opportunity and platform to do those things.”
Now being here and seeing the Pod come to fruition, it wasn’t an overnight process. Countless hours of work were put in by NCHC Commissioner Josh Fenton and the league. Sacrifices were made by all eight teams, and there was a nightmare of logistics to pull this off.
It goes beyond just the lodging and accommodations for teams staying in Aksarben Village though. Teams were asked to quarantine at home the week before they left and details about testing still had to be ironed out. At the end of the day, everyone is here, and the teams haven’t missed a beat.
“I didn’t think the games would be anywhere near as good off the hop as they have been,” Starman said. “That’s a credit to the players and the coaches because these do not look like teams that haven’t played hockey in nine months.”
Starman, who also calls the World Junior Championships, has been vastly impressed with the way everyone has done their part. He’s said it numerous times, but it almost feels like one big youth hockey tournament.
“The way the building has been adhered to in terms of the protocols, that has really impressed me,” Starman said. “There are signs everywhere separating the different tiers and it’s been very streamlined, and that has caught my eye. As for the on-ice aspect, I love the fact coaches have been wearing track jackets instead of suits.
“This feels to me in a way like a big minor hockey or peewee tournament. I love seeing the teams waiting to play the next game sitting in the stands watching, and I think that is so cool. It brings you back to your roots as a kid, a player, or a coach.”
Holden has spent several Saturdays this fall calling college football, so he’s no stranger to the circumstances in the arena. It’s especially hard to notice when you’re wearing the headset and laser-focused on the action. Six of the 10 games he called were at Army, so there were Cadets in the stands, but the other four featured little to no fans.
As for the bubble concept, he’s optimistic this can be pulled off successfully.
“I mean no disrespect to other sports, but hockey people are different, and hockey people get it,” Holden said. “They’re genuine, they’re humble, and I think at times they’re more responsible from what I’ve experienced in all of the years I’ve been around the sport, whether it’s college, high school or pro.
“That’s not to say things can’t happen or won’t happen, you certainly hope it doesn’t, especially because of all of the time and effort that went into this. We all understand the opportunity we have here and everyone is willing to do whatever they can within their power to make this thing work.”
For those here living it, it’s almost surreal. Especially after watching what took place with the NHL bubbles this summer, they would have never imagined themselves being in those shoes. It’s an opportunity very few people around the country have right now, and they’re not taking it for granted.
“It means everything to be honest,” Starman said. “Not that many people in the country are getting the opportunity to do this, and it is a welcomed rest from the tragedy that surrounds us. Personally, it’s a chance to do something I love and bring people enjoyment in what I feel is the greatest game on earth. If what we do in the booth can take people away from the everyday drudgery of what’s going on with this pandemic, then great.
“Our job is to inform, analyze and entertain, and if we can bring that to the viewer, then we’re all doing a really good service. Every time I put the headset on, step on the ice to coach a practice, or scout a game, no matter what it is, I feel extremely lucky. Right now I feel like I’m among the luckiest people in the country because I’m able to do what I love to do and hopefully we’re able to bring other people enjoyment out of it.”
The same can be said by his partner. They called their first game together during the 2007-08 season and have shared a lot of great moments, but nothing will ever compare to what the two have experienced here in Omaha.
“College athletics has never seen anything like this and this is something that may never happen again,” Holden said. “This is going to go down in history and what’s wrong with being part of history?
“Hopefully Dec. 22 we’ll walk out of here and this thing goes off without a hitch. I’m going to fly home, and I’m probably going to shed a tear. It means a lot to me and this is going to be something I’ll never forget no matter what happens moving forward for the rest of my career.”