Playing sports during the middle of a global pandemic has been challenging.
But one method, so far, has yielded the most success: bringing teams together in one location and playing in a "bubble."
The NHL did it in Edmonton and Toronto. The NBA and Major League Soccer pulled it off in the Orlando area. The U.S. Open tennis tournament did it in New York City. And now, Major League Baseball is discussing moving to a bubble for the playoffs.
Not surprisingly, the bubble or "hub city" concept has trickled down to the college level.
The college basketball world began discussing models last month, and now college hockey officials are exploring the idea, too.
The National Collegiate Hockey Conference has discussed numerous options for kicking off the 2020-21 season, and one of them involves bringing all eight member schools to one location and reeling off a number of games between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
"Those types of concepts are generally being discussed," said NCHC commissioner Josh Fenton, who announced last week the league's intent to start on or after Nov. 20. "Those are being discussed because it gives you an opportunity to control variables that aren't controlled in a normal scheduled travel environment. We know the success the NBA had, the NHL has had. If you're able to control some variables, it does give you an opportunity.
"We're considering any and all options."
While the idea is still in a preliminary stage, there's quite a bit of momentum behind exploring it in depth.
Bringing teams to one site could allow the league to streamline consistent testing and safety procedures. The timing would coincide with winter break, when most students are not on campuses, and the risk for coronavirus transmission decreases.
The idea could be viable financially, too.
The pandemic has put colleges across the country in difficult financial shape, and that will be exacerbated in athletic departments without much, if any, ticket revenue this season. Going to a hub city would allow NCHC schools to make one road trip and knock out several games against longer-distance opponents.
Fenton acknowledged there are still plenty of challenges with the idea of a hub city, including the fact that hockey players may still have class requirements and finals to take after Thanksgiving.
"We have to be cognizant that we have academic calendars," Fenton said. "Although classes, for the most part, are moving online, the academic calendar is vitally important when we talk about schedules and about grouping concepts."
If the league continues to pursue the idea, it needs to pick a city, find a scheduling model, select the exact number of games each team will play, set the length of time they'll spend in the hub city and, most important, it needs to have health, testing and safety procedures set up.
Would Grand Forks be a viable option?
When the NHL settled on a hub city or bubble option to hold the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman reported that Grand Forks was discussed as an option.
The NHL didn't end up coming to Grand Forks, of course.
But all the reasons why Grand Forks was even mentioned in the first place still exist and would make it an extremely strong candidate if the NCHC goes to a hub city model.
Ralph Engelstad Arena has previously hosted two high-profile hockey tournaments housing 10 teams at once -- the 2004-05 World Junior Championship and the 2016 World Under-18 Championship. The arena has the physical capacity to give each NCHC squad its own locker room for the duration of the event and arena officials have the knowledge of how to pull off large-scale events.
There are other logistical advantages with Ralph Engelstad Arena.
Its two ice sheets make it easy to schedule daily practices and games for a large number of teams, and it employs a full-time kitchen staff that would allow teams to have pre-game and postgame meals inside the arena.
Buses are able to pull into the basement of the arena, which would help teams minimize contact with outsiders.
If the hub city format is selected, the expectation is that games will be streamed on NCHC.tv for fans. All NCHC arenas are equipped for that, but there's potential for Midco Sports Network, UND's TV partner, to produce all games if the hub city concept wins out and Grand Forks is picked as the site.
Getting a season started
No college hockey games have been played since last season abruptly ended March 12 due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Since then, officials have been exploring different ideas of how to re-start the sport.
Western-based leagues like the NCHC, Big Ten and Western Collegiate Hockey Association have bigger challenges because of the distance between member institutions. The NCHC, featuring Western Michigan (Kalamazoo, Mich.), Miami (Oxford, Ohio), Minnesota Duluth, St. Cloud State, UND, Omaha, Colorado College (Colorado Springs, Colo.) and Denver, spans three time zones.
The Eastern-based leagues like Hockey East, the ECAC and Atlantic Hockey are able to plan for day trips.
Commissioners across the six conferences have been in frequent contact during this summer and fall, holding conference calls at least once a week. Intent on aligning college hockey season with college basketball season, hockey officials also have been in contact with their basketball counterparts.
"I think the collective work of those in college hockey gives us the best opportunity to have a season that we all want to have for our student-athletes," Fenton said.