The Minnesota Duluth men’s hockey team and National Collegiate Hockey Conference announced Friday they will drop the puck on the 2020-21 season on Dec. 1 at Baxter Arena in Omaha, Nebraska, where the league and Bulldogs will play 10 games in three weeks to start the season.

With the COVID-19 pandemic that cut short the 2019-20 season still ongoing in the United States and throughout the globe, the NCHC will begin 2020-21 in a pod at the home of the University of Nebraska Omaha before returning to rinks such as Amsoil Arena in Duluth in the New Year.

Centrally located in a league that spans three time zones — Mountain, Central and Eastern — NCHC commissioner Josh Fenton said starting the season with everyone in Omaha helps alleviate travel and keeps everyone safe.

“We've been focused on the health and safety of everybody associated with our campus and communities from the start,” Fenton said Friday afternoon in a video call with media. “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, and that we can get the season started off on a good foot.”

Baxter Arena in Omaha, Nebraska. Matt Wellens / mwellens@duluthnews.com
Baxter Arena in Omaha, Nebraska. Matt Wellens / mwellens@duluthnews.com

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In addition to the Mavericks hockey program, Omaha is also home to the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) and Nebraska Medicine, which both have extensive experience with infectious diseases.

Americans from the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan were taken to UNMC and Nebraska Medicine during the initial stages of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. In 2014, the hospital treated three Americans who contracted Ebola in West Africa.

UNMC and Nebraska Medicine are home to the Nebraska Biocontainment Unit — commissioned by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2005 after the Sept. 11 attacks — and the National Training, Simulation and Quarantine Center, with is part of UNMC’s Global Center for Health and Security. Experts there have developed playbooks and guidelines during the coronavirus pandemic for everyone from meat processing facilities to court systems to K-12 and higher education.

UNMC will conduct medical support and COVID-19 testing for all eight NCHC teams in the pod. The Global Center for Health and Security is currently developing medical protocols and testing strategies for the entire NCHC season, the league said in its release.

Fenton said testing and medical support was the league’s top priority when considering the concept and ultimate location of a pod to start the season. The league has already been working with the Global Center for Health and Security for two months now, and Fenton said he’s excited for that partnership to continue.

“With the scope and scale of just the medical center there, we certainly have a lot of trust and faith in them that they'll be able to to handle it,” Fenton said.

Baxter Arena will host a total of 40 games in a three-week span, with up to two games per day Monday through Friday and up to three games on Saturdays and Sundays.

According to the league’s FAQ, individual teams will play between 3-4 games per week, but only back-to-back games twice during the three weeks in Omaha. Team schedules during final examination periods will be limited.

Minnesota Duluth players line up as the starting lineup is read for Nebraska Omaha Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, at Baxter Arena in Omaha. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)
Minnesota Duluth players line up as the starting lineup is read for Nebraska Omaha Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, at Baxter Arena in Omaha. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin said it’s good the league now knows what direction it is going in this season, and he’s excited to finally get planning for 2020-21 with a start date on the calendar.

“I’m glad we’ve got a decision on where we’re going so we can move forward,” Sandelin said. “I think it will be great. I want to get there and get going.”

The NCHC has divided the league into two divisions based on geography this season in order to limit travel during the pandemic. The Bulldogs are in the East Division along with St. Cloud State, Miami and Western Michigan. Omaha, North Dakota, Denver and Colorado College are in the West.

Teams will play each of their three divisional opponents six times for 18 games total, plus their cross-division opponents twice for a 26-game league schedule. All cross-divisional games will take place in Omaha to help alleviate travel. Teams will also play two games against one divisional opponent in Omaha.

Fenton said in a typical season, teams throughout the league take anywhere between 20-30 flights, but now the entire league is down to possibly fewer than five in 2020-21. Fewer flights will keep teams safe, and provide some extra funds to help teams pay for relocating to Omaha for three weeks.

"Bulldog athletics is excited for our student-athletes to get back on the ice this season and want to thank the leadership of the NCHC and all member institutions as well as the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha," UMD athletic director Josh Berlo said in a statement. "This concept puts the health and safety of the student-athletes, staff, coaches, campuses and community as our top priority while also enabling the start of competition this season. We look forward to dropping the puck soon in pursuit of a fourth national championship and to hosting games at Amsoil Arena in January."

The NCHC will push the pause button on the season after the three weeks in Omaha before starting the second half of the season the first weekend of January. Those games will be played back in all NCHC venues.

Teams will play 16 games in the second half — eight at home and eight on the road — against just their divisional opponents — for the Bulldogs, that’s the Huskies, RedHawks and Broncos — on weekends over a 10 week span. The regular season will conclude March 5-6.

The league is building in multiple and consistent bye weekends during the second half to allow flexibility with the schedule, which will be released at a later date.

The NCHC postseason schedule remains unchanged at this time. The league also said any decisions about nonconference games will be made at a later date.

Breaking down UMD’s 2020-21 opponents

NCHC 2020 Divisions

EAST

Minnesota Duluth

St. Cloud State

Miami

Western Michigan

WEST

North Dakota

Nebraska-Omaha

Denver

Colorado College

FIRST HALF SCHEDULE

December

At Baxter Arena

Omaha, Nebraska

UMD will play:

  • Two games each against Omaha, North Dakota, Denver and Colorado College.
  • Plus two games against an East division foe.

SECOND HALF

January-March 5-6

UMD will play

  • 16 games total (8 home, 8 road) against St. Cloud State, Miami and Western Michigan.
  • Four games will be against the division foe faced in Omaha.
  • Six games each will be against the other two opponents.