There will be no easing into the 2020-21 season for the third-ranked Minnesota Duluth men’s hockey team, which will open play Dec. 2 against fifth-ranked Denver in the NCHC pod in Omaha, Nebraska.

The opener between the Bulldogs and Pioneers is the first of seven games in 12 days for UMD at Baxter Arena — where all eight NCHC teams are opening the season amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic — with the first five games being played every other day before back-to-back contests on Dec. 12-13. UMD’s 10-game, three-week, first-half schedule wraps up with three games in the final five days.

Junior wing Cole Koepke of Hermantown, who had been on the ice with his Bulldogs teammates all afternoon, got his first look at the schedule when the News Tribune screenshared it with him on Zoom after practice. His first reaction to playing every other day for almost two weeks was a ‘Jeez!’ before cracking a wide smile.

“At this point in time, I’m just excited to play,” Koepke said. “I don’t think I’ve ever played every other day for that long of a stretch, so that’ll be definitely something different. It’s just something we’re going to have to battle through. It’s the same for every player. Our team is working hard to get ready for it.”

UMD OmaPod Schedule

At Baxter Arena, Omaha, Nebraska

Wednesday, Dec. 2 — vs. Denver

Friday, Dec. 4 — vs. Miami

Sunday, Dec. 6 — vs. Colorado College

Tuesday, Dec. 8 — vs. Miami

Thursday, Dec. 10 — vs. North Dakota

Saturday, Dec. 12 — vs. Denver

Sunday, Dec. 13 — vs. Colorado College

Wednesday, Dec. 16 — vs. Omaha

Saturday, Dec. 19 — vs. North Dakota

Sunday, Dec. 20 — vs. Omaha

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

The University of Nebraska-Omaha’s Baxter Arena will host a total of 40 games between Dec. 1-20, with up to two games per day played Tuesday-Friday and up to three games on Saturdays and Sundays. Mondays are off.

Teams will only play back-to-back games twice and the schedule takes into account each school’s busy end of the academic semester — hence why the Bulldogs’ schedule in Omaha is front-loaded.

“I told the guys, ‘You’re going to be playing a lot,’ ” Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin said. “It’s going to be a good experience for our guys. We’re going on nine months without a game for everybody, so getting back into it we’re all in the same boat.

“The hockey will get better as it goes. I like it. It’s something that once we knew we were going to do it, we knew it was going to be a lot of hockey.”

Minnesota Duluth coach Scott Sandelin, center, talks with Wyatt Kaiser, left, and Connor Kelley, right, during a late October practice at Amsoil Arena in Duluth. (Clint Austin/caustin@duluthnews.com)
Minnesota Duluth coach Scott Sandelin, center, talks with Wyatt Kaiser, left, and Connor Kelley, right, during a late October practice at Amsoil Arena in Duluth. (Clint Austin/caustin@duluthnews.com)

The first home game for the Bulldogs back at Amsoil Arena in Duluth is Saturday, Jan. 2 against St. Cloud State as teams play their final 16 games of the regular season back on campus sites.

To limit travel due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the league’s eight teams are divided into two divisions this season with UMD, SCSU, Miami and Western Michigan in the East Division. All of the Bulldogs’ second-half games will be against East Division foes after mostly facing the West Division in Omaha.

UMD plays the Huskies in three home-and-home series (six total games), starting with the first two weekends of January. Their final meeting is the end of February. Everyone in the league is playing their travel partner on the first two weekends of January and at the end of the regular season.

Another oddity to the schedule compared to normal seasons — meant to limit travel — is a pair of three-game series with Western Michigan that will be played Thursday-Sunday, with Saturday being an off day. The Broncos come to Duluth Jan. 21-24 and the Bulldogs visit Kalamazoo, Michigan, Feb. 11-14.

Bye weekends come after both sets of three-game series in order to give the league some flexibility in case scheduling changes need to be made because of coronavirus outbreaks. They’re also there to hopefully give teams a rest — physically and mentally.

“Playing the same team three times in four days, that third game is going to kind of be a bloodbath,” Koepke said. “We’re going to have to keep our cool and just keep playing. And we always have close games with St. Cloud as well, so we’re going to get pretty used to those teams. We’ll have some close ones for sure.”

UMD second half schedule

On campus (Home games in bold)

Friday, Jan. 1 — at St. Cloud State

Saturday, Jan. 2 — vs. St. Cloud State

Friday, Jan. 8 — vs. St. Cloud State

Saturday, Jan. 9 — at St. Cloud State

Friday, Jan. 15 — at Miami

Saturday, Jan. 16 — at Miami

Thursday, Jan. 21 — vs. Western Michigan

Friday, Jan. 22 — vs. Western Michigan

Sunday, Jan. 24 — vs. Western Michigan

Friday, Feb. 5 — vs. Miami

Saturday, Feb. 6 — vs. Miami

Thursday, Feb. 11 — at Western Michigan

Friday, Feb. 12 — at Western Michigan

Sunday, Feb. 14 — at Western Michigan

Friday, Feb. 26 — at St. Cloud State

Saturday, Feb. 27 — vs. St. Cloud State

Game times will be announced at a later date. The conference will determine times in Omaha while individual schools determine their home game start times.

The NCHC said in Monday’s schedule announcement the league’s return to play protocols and COVID-19 testing plans also will be released in the “coming weeks.”

“The ingenuity of our membership to think creatively about how to construct a schedule that focuses on the health and safety of people associated with our programs has been impressive,” NCHC Commissioner Josh Fenton said in a statement. “The geography of the conference makes it nearly impossible to truly regionalize the schedule, but through this unique approach, we were able to build something that provides deserving student-athletes the competitive experiences they’ve earned, while prioritizing their health and safety.”

There are currently no changes being made to the NCHC postseason, which is scheduled to begin March 12-14 with best-of-three series on campus sites, followed by the NCHC Frozen Faceoff on March 19-20 at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.

No decision has been made by the league as it pertains to teams playing nonconference games, which would have to be played after Jan. 1, the league said.

In its release, the UMD athletic department said season-ticket holders will be contacted in the “coming days.” The state of Minnesota currently limits any large gatherings to 250 people. Just like the upcoming UMD women’s games at Amsoil Arena, athletic director Josh Berlo said the university is working with local and state officials, as well as medical experts, to determine what is feasible.

This story was updated at 5:12 p.m. Nov. 9, 2020 with additional details and comments from UMD's Cole Koepke and Scott Sandelin and the NCHC's Josh Fenton. It was originally posted at 1:33 p.m. Nov. 9, 2020.