The National Collegiate Hockey Conference is now 20 days away from dropping the puck on the 2020-21 season in an eight-team pod on Dec. 1 at Baxter Arena in Omaha, Nebraska.
NCHC commissioner Josh Fenton met with the league’s beat writers from Duluth, Grand Forks, North Dakota and Colorado Springs, Colorado, on Wednesday to discuss the league’s progress on pulling off such an event during a global pandemic.
Here are the News Tribune’s top takeaways from the half hour question-and-answer session Wednesday.
Thanksgiving will have to be a team holiday
The NCHC is requiring teams to quarantine for seven days prior to leaving for the pod in Omaha. Those dropping the puck on Dec. 1 — Colorado College, St. Cloud State, Western Michigan and Nebraska-Omaha — will be checking into the pod on Nov. 28 while the other four who start on Dec. 2 — Minnesota Duluth, Denver, North Dakota and Miami — will arrive on Nov. 29.
That means teams will be spending Thanksgiving with each other instead of their families this year.
“We understand that teams will be around each other — practice, meetings, that type of thing — but we're asking them to severely limit their movement and interaction with the general public during that time,” Fenton said.
During that quarantine period, teams will test three times on nonconsecutive days with the final test happening 24 hours from their departure time. Those results will be certified by the conference medical director in Omaha.
Upon arrival, teams will be tested again and everyone will quarantine in their hotel room that first night while awaiting a hopefully negative test result the following day.
League taking a three-tiered approach
Each team is allowed a maximum travel party of 42 personnel. Everyone will be staying at one of four hotels in Omaha’s Aksarben Village, which is within walking distance of Baxter Arena.
“We’re asking teams to be very careful with their movements in and around the arena, and then certainly outside the arena,” Fenton said. “We've gotten the setup to the point with hotels where it's very limited public interaction in the hotels and, in fact, two of the hotels are completely shut down to teams only. We're kind of working on measures with a couple other ones that only have one team in them.”
Everyone at the pod in Omaha will be defined into three tiers, with those in Tier I — players, coaches, officials and certain team staff — being tested every game day, or prior depending on game times (the league will be playing noon games on Saturdays and Sundays).
Tier II personnel — some event level staff, media statistical workers, off-ice officials — who may potentially come in contact with Tier I personnel will be tested weekly. Those in Tier III — people who should have no contact, like media and non-event level workers — won’t be tested by the league.
“The main thing is everybody understanding their responsibility to adhere to the protocol, so that we can be successful with the overall event,” Fenton said.
COVID-19 remains a concern
The COVID-19 pandemic in the United States is showing no signs of slowing down in the United States and only getting worse every day with the country setting records for cases and hospitalizations.
“It's certainly a very real thing. It's a concern for all of us across society, separate from what the NCHC is trying to do,” Fenton said when asked about the state of the pandemic in the U.S. “We believe with support from the University of Nebraska Medical Center and putting together the protocol everybody's going to follow, that we've got a great plan that can allow us to be successful. We understand that case counts, increased hospitalizations and then, unfortunately, maybe increased deaths that may be seen across the country are something that we have to be very much aware of, and we talk about that with our athletic directors every week when we meet with them. I actually have a board of directors call with our presidents and chancellors next week and I know just the general case counts across various areas of our conferences will be a part of that discussion.”
Every school in the league resides in a county where the outbreak is considered a hotspot, including the host of the pod, Nebraska-Omaha, where Douglas County, Nebraska, is averaging 95 cases per 100,000 people every day.
Here is how the rest of the league ranks according to the New York Times:
Grand Forks County, North Dakota (North Dakota) — 207 cases per 100,000 people
Stearns Country, Minnesota (St. Cloud State) — 136
Douglas County, Nebraska (Nebraska-Omaha) — 95
Denver County, Colorado (Denver) — 75
St. Louis County, Minnesota (Minnesota Duluth) — 68
El Paso County, Colorado (Colorado College) — 65
Kalamazoo County, Michigan (Western Michigan) — 58
Butler County, Ohio (Miami) — 48
Will there be fans?
Fenton said the NCHC will not be selling tickets to the games in Omaha, but discussions are underway about pass lists for teams, that could include family members.
The league is also discussing allowing NHL scouts into the building to watch games, though NHL teams would be limited to one per organization.
The members of the teams themselves will be allowed to stick around and watch games, with portions of the arena sectioned off for each team.
As for atmosphere, those precious few bodies won’t be the ones responsible for providing some crowd noise. Fenton said the team at Baxter Arena is planning to pipe in some crowd reactions along with playing videos and music to provide as close to a game day experience as possible for those on the ice.
TV still TBD
The NCHC announced its 2020-21 NCHC.tv streaming package on Tuesday, including a ‘Pod Pass’ that will allow you to stream all 40 games in Omaha for $44.95.
As for watching games on CBS Sports Network or locally on My 9 Sports in Duluth, that is still a work in progress, Fenton said.
“We're working on some plans where all games will be produced at a high level, but what the distribution outlets are — whether it's through our partner CBS Sports Network or school’s local partners — is a little to be determined," Fenton said. “We hope to have that wrapped up here in the next few days.”
Nonconference games not off the table
Fenton said the NCHC has not ruled out nonconference games in 2020-21 for its teams, however, the league isn’t allowing its members to play any prior to the pod in Omaha.
“Nonconference games before the pod, a decision was made to not allow purely for protecting the health and safety of the pod as we went into it,” Fenton said. “As we get into the second portion of the season, the membership has said, ‘Hey, let's revisit potential nonconference opportunities at that time later on.’”