GRAND FORKS — The National Collegiate Hockey Conference announced last week it will start the season Dec. 1 with all eight teams in Omaha's Baxter Arena.
Every team, including UND, will play 10 games in a three-week span before Christmas.
The games will mark the NCHC's first since the opening weekend of March, when the coronavirus pandemic wiped out the 2019-20 season.
After last week's announcement, NCHC commissioner Josh Fenton joined a Zoom call with media members to answer questions. Using some of Fenton's answers and some other reporting by Forum News Service, we've compiled some answers to frequently asked questions about the Pod and the start of college hockey season.
Here are some of those questions and answers as of Oct. 19:
Why try the Pod system?
The NCHC appears to be the only college hockey league that is going to try the Pod system, but there are a number of benefits, according to Fenton.
It allows the league to standardize coronavirus testing. It allows home sites more time to get their testing protocols in place before games return to campus in the second half of the season.
Schools are expected to save money with this setup, too, eliminating a number of airline flight trips by playing most of those games in one location.
"We believe it's our best opportunity to start the season successfully, knowing that all teams will be in a centralized location under a consistent set of protocols, including testing," Fenton said. "We believe we can get the season started off on a good foot."
Why is it being held in Omaha?
The league looked at a number of options, but it came down to Grand Forks and Omaha.
Ultimately, a vote of the league's presidents decided it would be in Omaha.
"The process was fairly exhaustive," Fenton said. "We have been meeting regularly for the past three months now. We've been meeting at least weekly with athletic directors for three straight months. In some cases, it has been multiple times a week. There have been a lot of constituents that have been engaged. Certainly our athletic directors are at the forefront of those discussions."
Grand Forks went all out to land it, but ultimately, the No. 1 factor was Omaha's partnership with the University of Nebraska Medical Center, which is world renowned for its work with infectious diseases.
"The testing and medical support was Priority No. 1 when we were considering the concept and ultimately when we were determining the location, there's no doubt about that," Fenton said. "We have a world-class medical facility in the City of Omaha with the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
"We've been engaged with an affiliated entity of the University of Nebraska called the Global Center for Health Security, which is a world renowned center for infectious disease and infection research and frankly, the only national quarantine for high-consequence infections across our country. We've been engaged with them for probably two months or so, just trying to help us understand the direction of this virus, what had happened to that point, and what may be coming here in the future."
Did North Dakota's high COVID-19 numbers prevent Grand Forks from hosting the event?
The state of North Dakota has led the United States in both COVID-19 cases per capita and COVID-19 deaths per capita in the last couple of weeks. Meanwhile, hospitals are reaching their capacity in the state.
Did that play a significant role in the Pod going to Omaha?
Fenton said every time athletic directors met, local coronavirus case numbers -- specifically county ones -- were presented to the group. However, they also were cognizant that those numbers can, and will, change by the time the Pod starts.
"A decision was made on Oct. 15," Fenton said. "We're talking about the Pod not starting until Dec. 1. So, the numbers today certainly can and will be different on Dec. 1."
How will the schedule work?
The NCHC set the league into two divisions for scheduling. The Western Division features UND, Omaha, Colorado College and Denver. The Eastern Division features Western Michigan, Miami, Minnesota Duluth and St. Cloud State.
In the Pod, each team will play twice against every opponent from the opposite division (a total of eight games) and two games against one team from its own division.
The two divisional games will not be against a travel partner. Travel partners are UND-Omaha, Western Michigan-Miami, Minnesota Duluth-St. Cloud State and Denver-Colorado College. Those travel partners will play six times in the second half.
After the Pod, teams will not play against opponents from the opposite division. They'll play six against their travel partner, six against whatever division team they don't play in the Pod and four against the division team they do play in the Pod.
So, who exactly will UND play in the Pod?
UND's schedule in the Pod will be:
- Two games against Western Michigan.
- Two games against Miami.
- Two games against Minnesota Duluth.
- Two games against St. Cloud State.
- Two games against either Colorado College or Denver. It will not be one game against each. It will be two against one of them. It has not yet been announced which team it will be, though.
The specific schedule is expected to be released in a week or two.
Who will UND play in the second half of the season?
UND's second-half schedule will begin in January.
It will feature:
- Six games against Omaha.
- Ten games against Colorado College/Denver. UND will play six against whichever one it does not play in the Pod and four against whichever one it plays in the Pod.
- The 16 games will feature eight at home and eight on the road.
Fenton said there is a possibility for a three-game series. Bye weekends will likely follow any three-game series.
"The aspect of potentially playing a three-game series is definitely being discussed," Fenton said. "We're also factoring in numerous bye weekends. If we were moving toward three-game series, those bye weekends would be positioned appropriately to allow for additional rest after those weekends."
The bye weekends also would serve as an opportunity to make up any coronavirus cancelations.
Will this be a bubble like the NHL and NBA?
The NHL and NBA were closed off to the rest of the world. That type of a setup won't be possible in Omaha, however, expect there to be significant restrictions on what the players and coaches will be allowed to do.
All of the teams are expected to stay in hotels in the Aksarben Village area that's located adjacent to Baxter Arena.
"We certainly want the environment to be fairly restrictive, because if the environment isn't restrictive, then we have chance for virus transmission within it," Fenton said. "It's important for us to create an environment that keeps the student-athletes, coaches and the supporting staff as safe as we can have them.
"There are going to be things they can do and things they can't do. But the overall protocol is still being developed and will come out in the next few weeks."
What happens if someone tests positive for COVID-19?
Sporting events in tight bubbles, like the NBA and NHL, didn't see any positive coronavirus tests. Those not operating in a bubble, like the NFL or Major League Baseball, have had issues with positive tests.
What happens if there's an outbreak or if a player or coach tests positive at the NCHC Pod?
"That's part of the protocol that's being developed with the UNMC staff and people from the Global Center for Health Security," Fenton said. "Certainly, those are discussions we've already had. Obviously, there are guidelines based on local health that we'll have to follow as it relates to quarantine and isolation if someone were to become infected with the virus, then certainly, close contacts as it relates to the quarantining.
"I think some of that is unknown until you're actually within the moment, but we will have very specific protocol as it relates to testing to start, and then what happens if one of those test results returns positive. That's still, somewhat, being developed."
Does Baxter Arena have enough locker rooms for everyone?
No. Equipment managers are going to be MVPs in Omaha as teams will have to move in and out of locker rooms frequently.
"We were assured by the UNO staff that the locker room situation would be one where teams can do what they need to do," Fenton said. "Do we anticipate some moving around? We do. The process and what that looks like is still to be defined."
When teams move out of locker rooms, they will be disinfected.
"The staff at UNO has already stated their ability to clean and disinfect will certainly be there and that will happen on a regular basis, because, obviously, that is part of the process in keeping the environment as safe as possible," Fenton said.
Will they use other Omaha rinks for practice?
While Omaha does have other rinks like Ralston Arena, home of the United States Hockey League's Omaha Lancers, it is not expected to use them.
The NCHC doesn't have control over outside arenas, who comes in and out, and COVID-19 protocols inside.
"(Using) facilities that aren't under our purview was something that we were a little hesitant about," Fenton said.
Baxter Arena has two ice sheets that are available for use. Last year, UND practiced on the second sheet the day before the series.
When will the games occur?
The plan is to play no more than two games per day on weekdays and three per day on weekends (Saturday, Sunday).
The league also has discussed the possibility of leaving Mondays open each week.
The weekday games would begin "mid-to-late afternoon," Fenton said. "Then, we'd have an evening game."
On Saturdays and Sundays, "obviously, we have a little more flexibility without having the academic responsibilities there," Fenton said. "We'll play no more than three games per day. The first game would start more mid-day. The second game would be mid-to-late afternoon. The third game would be later in the evening."
Will fans or family members be allowed in Omaha?
While it seems unlikely that fans will be allowed to attend games, no official decisions have been made yet.
"I guess, at this time, no official decisions have been made regarding fans for any part of the season," Fenton said. "The collective membership and the local county health department, which is Douglas County, where Omaha exists, would make any decisions for fans in Baxter Arena during the Pod."
How can fans watch games?
The plan is to stream all Pod games on NCHC.tv.
The league also is looking into TV opportunities.
Midco Sports Network, UND's television partner, has produced games from Baxter Arena in each of the last two seasons and is looking into the possibility of doing games in the Pod.
Fenton also said he's spoken with CBS Sports Network.
"We haven't finalized any sort of either distribution or production agreements," Fenton said. "We've had some conversations with entities. First and foremost, we want to make sure as many games as we can will be distributed over our digital platform, NCHC.tv. But I know we're going to look at some unique linear opportunities. I've already had some conversations with CBS Sports Network, our national partner, about their desire and interest in potentially broadcasting some games from the Pod. I think there's maybe some possibilities there, still yet to be determined on what that looks like."
Will NCHC.tv be able to handle an expected higher number of people watching?
With presumably no fans attending the games, an increase in traffic is expected on NCHC.tv.
Fenton said he's been in a lot of conversations with the league's communications director, Michael Weisman, and the platform partner, Sidearm Sports, about handling potential traffic spikes.
"We had (a conversation) yesterday," Fenton said Friday. "One of the other things that's going to be released is enhancements to the browser, to the mobile and to the tablet apps. . . pretty significant enhancements that will eventually come to (over-the-top) apps (ex. Roku, FireTV, AppleTV, Chromecast). That's coming over the next few weeks, certainly in time for the start of the Pod.
"So, yes, we're anticipating a lot of activity and a lot of viewers on any given day. Sidearm is aware of that. We've been ensured by them that they'll be ready to handle the traffic."
Will the league be able to find referees?
NCHC referees and linesmen are not full-time employees. They all have jobs outside of hockey.
But some are already working remotely and league officials are confident that staffing the games won't be a problem.
"(Director of officials) Don Adam went out with an email probably a week or two ago to all of our staff members, referees and linesmen, just kind of generally indicating what was being discussed and asked for some information on whether they'd be able to work and how long potentially they'd be able to work," Fenton said. "We're certainly not anticipating just a pool of referees that will stay for the entire time. There's going to be some moving in and out.
"The initial response we've gotten has been overly positive. Our guys want to get back on the ice and work games, because that's what they love to do. They also want to get back on the ice, because they know it helps student-athletes get back on the ice for experiences they love. We're fairly confident we'll be able to staff the games appropriately."
Will teams play nonconference or exhibition games before the Pod?
The NCHC Pod won't begin until Dec. 1, but could teams play nonconference games before going into the Pod?
"I know coaches would like to get some games in, or maybe even at least a game in, prior to the Pod, just from a preparation standpoint," Fenton said. "But as you can appreciate, we're asking for limited or no contact with others for some type of quarantine period prior to departing. There's a risk a little bit there in terms of allowing nonconference games, even if it were two weekends before they were coming into the Pod. Because if someone were to contract the virus and test positive, now we're starting to get even closer to the point when they'd be traveling.
"We're still talking about that. It's No. 1 on the agenda for (the) next athletic directors' call, so I'm hoping we can get to an answer."
Another thing that's being discussed is the possibility of playing exhibition or nonconference games against fellow NCHC teams.
"There's been a little bit of discussion around that," Fenton said. "I suppose that may make it a little more palatable, because it's within the conference, but it's still something we're trying to figure out."