For the first time since March, when the season was cut short on a lonely stretch of Minnesota highway, those in and around the Colorado College hockey program can officially say something like this:
“We’re excited to get after it,” CC athletic director Lesley Irvine said Friday.
After an uncertain summer and a delay to the start of the 2020-21 season, the National Collegiate Hockey Conference has finalized a plan for a 26-game conference schedule, which will begin with “pod” play in order to limit COVID-19 exposure and travel. All eight teams will convene in Omaha, Neb., and begin play Dec. 1.
The University of Nebraska Omaha’s Baxter Arena will host the pod. Teams will play 10 games during the first three weeks of December.
“We’ve been talking about the pod for quite some time as an idea to really just give ourselves the best chance at having a strong start,” Irvine said.
Similar to what Atlantic Hockey described Thursday, the league has been divided into divisions. Colorado College is in the West Division with Denver, North Dakota and Omaha. Miami, St. Cloud State, Western Michigan and two-time defending national champion Minnesota Duluth are in the East Division.
CC will play each West Division team six times and each East Division team twice. All eight East Division games will take place in the pod.
“I think it’s something that is unique. Playing that many games, and having all eight teams in the conference be in one spot, I think it’s going to be outstanding,” Tigers coach Mike Haviland said. “It’ll almost look like playoff hockey. They’re going to come fast and furious.”
NCHC commissioner Josh Fenton used a metaphor fitting the Springs-based conference to temper expectations.
“There’s certainly a little bit of satisfaction, and kudos to our membership for the work they’ve put in to get us here, but I feel like maybe it’s a little bit of a false summit,” Fenton said. “In order for us to truly reach the actual summit, we have a lot of work that’s yet to be done.”
Fenton said testing and medical support were the top priorities while honing the concept and determining the pod location, which reportedly came down to Grand Forks, North Dakota and Omaha. The University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Global Center for Health Security, which has developed resource and training materials for the pandemic, has helped guide the NCHC for months.
As part of the partnership, the organization will help with medical and testing protocols.
Teams will likely arrive a “couple” of days before the Dec. 1 start and stay at hotels a short walking distance from Baxter Arena.
“We certainly want the environment to be fairly restrictive,” Fenton said. “It’s important for us to create an environment that keeps the student athletes, the coaches, the supporting staff members as safe as we can have them.”
There hasn’t been an official decision on fan attendance for any part of the season. Fenton said he’d had conversations with the league’s national television partner CBS Sports Network but expects NCHC.tv will be the “biggest component.”
In a league release, the NCHC acknowledged the pod play would fall during final exams and referenced limiting competition around those days. On weekdays, Fenton said there would be no more than two games per day, one in the mid-to-late afternoon and one at night.
Colorado College has moved most classes this semester online, which Irvine said adds flexibility. The school, as usual, remains “absolutely committed” to academics.
On weekends, the plan calls for no more than three games.
The remaining West Division schedule - eight games at home and eight away - is set to take place at the schools. Play is scheduled to begin the first weekend in January and wrap up at the same time as usual in early March. No changes have been made at this point to the Frozen Faceoff.
Multiple bye weekends will provide flexibility, if needed.
“You’re going to see an awful lot of North Dakota and Denver in the second half,” Haviland said.