Behind the scenes, work rarely stopped for the 'MVPs' of the NCHC Pod
UND equipment manager Dan Johansson spent late nights and early mornings at Baxter Arena, working through difficult circumstances.
OMAHA, Neb. -- It’s 11:40 p.m. on a Wednesday evening.
All is quiet in Baxter Arena.
The final hockey game of the night ended an hour and a half ago.
Players and coaches of all eight National Collegiate Hockey Conference teams are back in their Aksarben Village hotel rooms, free to relax, watch TV, break down game video or connect with their families. Some choose sleep.
Fans had long turned away from television sets and chalked up another successful day at the NCHC Pod.
Underneath the dark, empty Baxter Arena stands, Dan Johansson paces in the hallway.
UND’s equipment manager stacks a few hockey bags just outside the home locker room, then peers in to survey the progress of two masked maintenance workers, who walk stall-by-stall, spraying each with disinfectant.
Omaha just finished using the room during a 6-1 win over Colorado College. But because Baxter Arena doesn’t have enough locker rooms to accommodate all eight NCHC teams for the three-week Pod, moving in-and-out of locker rooms is necessary.
When part of the room is clean, Johansson and his two student workers, Nate Bordson and Kobie Zgonc, carry bags in, drop them on the vacuumed floor and unpack.
Once the cleaners completely finish, Johansson surveys the room, one he’s never used.
Usually, Johansson knows exactly where he’s going to set everything up in each NCHC arena -- from the players’ sticks to the spread of nutritional food to the glove dryer to stick tape to coffee and even chewing gum. But on this trip, he's continually in rooms he's never worked.
Johansson wants everything to be easy to find. So, he wonders, if he was a player, where would he first look for these items?
Then, work begins on making the room feel like home for the players.
Equipment staff members place each individual’s name plate on a stall. The defensemen are placed on one side of the room, the forwards on the other. The goaltenders go on the ends of the room to give them extra space.
Johansson covers Omaha’s logo in the center of the room with 18 skate mats that say, ‘North Dakota hockey.’
Bordson and Zgonc hang the gear in the lockers, some of which had been sitting in hockey bags since the team’s afternoon practice.
It’s now 1:27 a.m.
They decide to end their work day, which began 14 hours earlier for UND’s practice.
They jump in their university-owned car, drive two blocks back to Aloft Hotel and go to their third-floor rooms.
Johansson, covered in sweat from the night’s work, showers and gets ready for bed.
It’s now 2 a.m.
Johansson's next goal is getting as much sleep as possible, because another full day is ahead.
He knows his alarm will ring at 7:15 a.m., that he needs to be in the lobby eating breakfast when the caterers arrive at 8 a.m. -- before any of the players show up -- and to the arena by 8:15 a.m. in order to get the room ready for morning skate.
Johansson knows he has at least three hours of skate sharpening to do, because it will be a game day and he sharpens every player’s skates before a game.
He knows he can’t forget to grab takeout between 2-3 p.m., because that will be his last chance to eat before 11:30 p.m.
He knows it will be another late night with heavy lifting, because UND has to be out of Omaha's locker room immediately after the game.
But Johansson doesn’t fret.
It’s just another day in the NCHC Pod for an equipment manager.
‘MVPs of the bubble’
The NCHC’s Pod concept -- bringing all eight teams to Omaha to play 38 games in 21 days amid the global coronavirus pandemic -- proved to be a big success.
All 38 games were played as scheduled. The quality of play was terrific. The league’s streaming platform, NCHC TV, set viewership records. The big gamble to attempt something that had never been done in college athletics paid off.
But it was not easy to execute.
In order to do it, it required grueling shifts day after day by the league’s equipment managers.
Baxter Arena is not equipped to handle eight teams. It only had six locker rooms, including the team store, which was turned into one for the Pod.
Equipment managers were constantly moving in and out of locker rooms, packing and unpacking gear. They shuffled between dressing rooms and a storage space that was converted into two make-shift zones where teams could hang and dry their gear, an idea conjured up by Johansson and St. Cloud State equipment manager Jeremiah Minkel during the Pod’s first week.
Days off didn't exist for the equipment managers. Early wake-up calls followed late nights day after day for three weeks.
“We’d be going to bed, and they’d be getting their coats on and going to the rink to move some equipment,” UND forward Gavin Hain said.
Although Omaha was allowed to use its home locker room for every game, it did have to move out to the storage area a handful of times on non game days so others could move in.
UND moved about 10 times during the Pod, including one four-day stretch where it moved four times.
“You never really got set up,” Johansson said. “Everything was day by day.”
The players noticed.
UND forward Jasper Weatherby said: “Dan, Nate and Kobie were our MVPs of the bubble. To every equipment staff in the NCHC, thank you guys so much.”
Johansson said other schools had it even tougher than UND, because not everyone was allowed to bring students to help.
“I’m thankful Erik Martinson and Bill Chaves let me travel with them, because it would have been a mess without them,” Johansson said, referring to UND’s athletic directors. “Some teams didn’t have that.”
Adventures at times
It was a situation like no other.
Players were seldom able to shower at the arena. They’d walk back in their hotel rooms -- all of which were located in a four-block radius of Baxter Arena -- in their sweat-drenched track suits to shower.
They’d leave half of their laundry in the loading dock for a service to come pick it up. Omaha equipment manager Jason Smits did the rest, frequently staying at the rink until the wee hours of the morning to get other teams’ gear washed and dried.
“I give Smitty a lot of credit for all he did,” Johansson said. “He’d be there late at night and then again early in the morning.”
And it wasn’t without adventure.
Once, Miami’s equipment manager misread the schedule and didn’t know he had to be out of a storage space, because Minnesota Duluth needed to move in.
But those who were at the rink jumped in to help. Minnesota Duluth equipment manager Chris Garner, Bulldog players, UND’s equipment staff, Omaha’s strength coach and Smits all made the move happen quickly.
“There were Duluth players carrying Miami players’ bags,” Johansson said, laughing.
Through it all, UND coach Brad Berry said Johansson never complained about the setup, and that his positivity and work ethic rubbed off on the players.
“We’re very fortunate to have a guy like Dan Johansson here,” Berry said. “He’s an every-dayer, just like our players and staff. He’s got the mentality of being open-minded and positive. I think the very first thing you could do as an equipment manager is complain about it or drag your feet a little bit over the course of the Pod. There wasn’t any ambivalence in his work ethic. He was a worker. He was open minded. He was positive. And that kind of just relayed to our group here.
“Our guys are around him all the time. And he was a bright, shining star as far as we’re concerned in the Pod. He had some workers who helped him, too. They were outstanding, too. They had to move a ton of times. They were outstanding. Our success doesn’t happen by chance. You have to have everyone digging in. Him and his staff did that.”
A difficult phone call
Johansson received a crushing phone call on UND’s last off day at the Pod.
His grandfather, Tony Ange, was hospitalized in Rochester, N.Y., and doctors didn’t expect him to make it through the night.
Johansson tried to process the news on Friday afternoon and evening.
He thought about summers at the lake cottage with grandpa and the way his grandpa used to give him grief any time he passed up going fishing with him. Johansson wishes he had never said no.
He remembered the joy his grandfather had any time he was around his grandchildren, his love for the New York Yankees and how much he was enjoying the Buffalo Bills’ return to prominence.
Johansson confided in UND captain Jordan Kawaguchi, who lost his grandfather two years earlier, on a home hockey weekend.
But Johansson still had to work, too.
UND had a noon game against Minnesota Duluth on Saturday, which meant an early wake-up call.
Knowing his grandfather could pass away at any time, he went to work anyway and manned the bench like usual.
The game, between two of the top-five ranked teams in the country, came down to the wire. UND won it when Grant Mismash deflected Jacob Bernard-Docker’s point shot with 48.2 seconds left. It was a big win over a longtime rival, giving UND an opportunity to finish the Pod in first place if it won Sunday’s finale.
The team filed into the locker room to celebrate.
Berry and Kawaguchi grabbed Johansson out of the hallway, where he works after games, and brought him into the locker room.
Kawaguchi gave a speech in front of the team. He mentioned the work Johansson put in during the Pod. He talked about the difficult time Johansson was going through with his grandfather’s health.
Kawaguchi, the team's captain, held up the game-winning goal puck and said, “I want to give this to Dan in honor of his grandpa.”
“I was crying,” Johansson said. “I know Guch went through the same thing. Him doing that, it’s the true definition of family and that’s why this place is so great.”
The next morning, Johansson’s grandfather died. He was 78.
UND still had one last game left in the Pod at 8:05 p.m. that night against Miami.
Johansson stood on the bench, his grandpa’s game puck in his pocket, as UND beat the RedHawks 6-2 to take over first place in the NCHC standings.
The Pod was complete and it was time to go home.
The players and coaches tossed their suitcases on the bus and departed Omaha at 11:30 p.m. But Johansson, Zgonc and Bordson weren’t on it. They had to go back to the rink and pack up as much as they could, so it would be ready to be loaded into the semi truck Monday morning. By the time they completed that and got back to the hotel, it was 1:37 a.m.
They took a moment to unwind in the lobby, but soon turned their attention to another night of incomplete sleep and another far-too-early wakeup call in the morning.
They finally left Omaha the next day after loading the semi, made the seven-hour drive back to Grand Forks and met the hauler in the loading dock at Ralph Engelstad Arena. They unloaded everything, unpacked it and returned it to its normal place. It was past midnight by the time they finished, one last day that bled into the next one for the equipment staff.
Johansson finally walked into his apartment at 12:39 a.m.
He texted Zgonc and Bordson to thank them for their work over the past three weeks and decided unpacking his own clothes could wait another day.
There was just one thing he needed to grab.
Johansson reached into his duffel bag and pulled out his grandpa’s game puck.
He set it on his nightstand and went to bed.