It’s appropriate that the NCHC has a team nicknamed the Pioneers, because that’s what all eight members of the conference will be in December.
Due to the pandemic, the league will set up a unique pod during a three-week period in which all eight teams will play 10 games in Omaha under medical supervision.
This is a big deal for college sports, and specifically D-I hockey, which generates a fraction of the revenue of football and basketball.
The NHL successfully completed the Stanley Cup playoffs over a two-month period with zero positive COVID cases within its dual bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton.
But this is a college league, a hockey-only league, and the NCAA – the governing body for U.S. college sports – is maintaining its hands-off approach to this pandemic and leaving some of the most important decisions teams and leagues will ever make to the teams and leagues, and in this case a conference that employs a staff of four.
It sounds like liability – and God forbid a major outbreak happens inside the bubble – would lie with the league, which obviously doesn’t perspire currency like the Big Ten.
Fortunately, the heads of the NCHC are commissioner Josh Fenton and director of communications Michael Weisman, both of whom were hired from Miami when the conference formed in 2013, and both have done a phenomenal job in their respective capacities, as the league has produced the last four NCAA champions.
Fenton and Weisman have proven themselves exemplary organizationally, seeing to every detail of the league’s major events.
Fenton was also a pioneer in introducing 3-on-3 to college hockey, which will now be used in overtime of all NCAA games, and a three-point system (three for a regulation/OT win, two for a shootout win, one for a shootout loss, zero for a regulation/OT loss) that has been widely considered very successful.
He has secured the XCel Energy Center – home of the Minnesota Wild – for the league’s championship each season, and he played a role in Miami’s participation in 2013 and 2015 outdoor games at Soldier Field in Chicago that netted over 70,000 in attendance.
North Dakota also made a major pitch to host the bubble, as Grand Forks’ Sanford and Edgewood Healthcare offered $50,000 to offset testing costs if UND was chosen as the hub, according to the Grand Forks Herald.
UND also has ample locker rooms to accommodate all eight teams, having previous hosted World Juniors and NCAA Regionals, and Ralph Engelstad Arena even has a fully-staffed kitchen accustomed to preparing player meals each day and would’ve been equipped to handle the demand of all eight NCHC teams descending on Grand Forks.
Two Grand Forks city groups were set to donate $125,000 for this event, and the Greater Grand Forks Visitors Bureau had secured a $70 hotel rate for the duration of the bubble.
This will be the first time Omaha has hosted a major hockey event. The NCHC admitted Baxter Arena – where UNO plays its home games – does not have adequate locker rooms for all member teams, but it insists it will be able to maintain sanitary conditions for eight teams.
The decision to play in Omaha came down to the health care at nearby University of Nebraska Medical Center, one of the top medical facilities in the midwest. Allegedly part of the allure was UNMC would help member schools set up their own on-campus testing for games played after the December bubble.
Fenton obviously decided that the UNMC factor outweighed the big event-ready setup and off-setting costs of North Dakota. It’s hard to argue with someone who heads the most successful league in college hockey by far, especially with the job he’s done in seven years heading the conference.
While the NCHC will start its season in five weeks, major juniors leagues in Canada may not start until late January or not at all. Some Division I teams likely will not play in 2020-21, and no other major NCAA league has implemented such a sophisticated bubble system.
Much of the hockey world will be watching in December. The NCHC will be under a significant amount of pressure after making such a major commitment.
But the smart money is on Fenton and Weisman, who have always delivered when it comes to the conference’s biggest events.
— Miami season ticket holders were recently contacted and given three options regarding their payments for 2020-21: Refund, donate or hold for next year.
With almost no talk about having fans at college hockey games this season, it’s not surprising that MU holds out little hope even its biggest financial supports will be able to attend the eight contests slated for Cady Arena this winter.
The ticket office did say that should COVID 19 subside significantly and having fans was an option later in the season, tickets would be made available to STHs at that point.
— With the RedHawks playing North Dakota, Colorado College and Denver in the bubble, they may not have to fly anywhere all season, which will significantly help a budget that is seeing zero revenue come in this season from tickets and merchandise.
Other than traveling to the bubble, Miami would have just four road trips this regular season vs. Duluth, St. Cloud State and Western Michigan, and Coach Chris Bergeron said last week that the team would likely bus to the Minnesota schools.
That just leaves the NCHC Tournament, with a potential road series to start, and a 12-hour drive to St. Paul for the Frozen Faceoff, should the RedHawks advance.
— It’s unclear how much having an entire team and staff stay in an Omaha hotel for three weeks will cost, but the NCHC likely negotiated a rate similar to the $70 per night figure offered in Grand Forks. If that’s the case, a group of 40 (28 players and ~12 coaches and other staff) at 21 nights would cost $58,800. Obviously there are plenty of other costs associated with travel, especially with testing protocol this season, but that figure is pretty attractive considering a single weekend series involving a flight alone for such a group can run well into into five figures.
With fans unable to attend games, the league will hopefully recuperate more money than usual with its NCHC.tv package, which will broadcast all pod games.