OMAHA, Neb. -- The first thing out of the ordinary was the hotel parking lot.
When I arrived in Aksarben Village in Omaha last week to cover the National Collegiate Hockey Conference Pod for the Herald, I was struck at the emptiness of it at 10 p.m. There's only been one other time I've seen such a thing. It was in 2008, when I stayed at a hotel in Daytona Beach, Fla., as Hurricane Hanna arrived.
But it made sense. The hotel was filled with players, coaches and staff members participating in the unique event to kick off the NCHC season, and none of them drove cars here. The team also occupied twice as much space as usual. In order to eliminate close contacts in the coronavirus pandemic era, they each got their own room.
The front doors, which were locked, had a sign notifying visitors that masks are required in all common areas of the hotel. I buzzed for a staff member to let me in, then I checked into the fourth-floor room where I'll spend most of December. Conveniently, it overlooks Baxter Arena, my other home here.
The games have started, but the question I hear most often is not about the games.
What's it like in the Pod?
Being one of four writers here -- the others are Mick Hatten of The Rink Live, Jordan McAlpine of the Gateway (Omaha's student paper) and Mike Patterson of the Omaha World Herald -- I will begin a series, giving readers a behind-the-scenes look at what's going on in the Pod from different perspectives.
We'll start with my own experience as a member of the print media.
Entering the building
The NCHC has classified people as Tier 1, Tier 2 or Tier 3.
The 42-person travel roster for each team -- coaches, players, staff -- are considered Tier 1. That means they're being tested three or four times per week.
Tier 2 includes the TV broadcasters, some of the stat crew and some Baxter Arena workers. They are tested once a week.
Print media and NHL scouts (each team is allowed to have one) are Tier 3. We are not being tested.
The NCHC separates the tiers, so we do not interact in person. Each tier has its own entrance to the building.
The writers and scouts enter the building on the northeast side. We all have to download apps on our phone, where we do daily wellness checks. When we walk in, we are greeted by a hand-sanitizing station and a security guard, who sits behind a pane of glass. That security guard checks the app on our phone and our credential before letting us through.
Once we get through, we have signs guiding us to the press box through the Tier 3 pathway. There are portions of the concourse and suite level that are Tier 1. They are blocked off with a black curtain and guarded by security, so nobody mistakenly gets through to a Tier 1 area that's not supposed to be there.
After walking up two more flights of stairs, you arrive in the press box. Both Tier 2 and 3 people are in the press box, but they have the Tier 2 part curtained off, and they have separate bathrooms for the tiers.
We are all seated at least six feet away and we wear our masks. My spot is in between Hatten and McAlpine. Most press boxes are tightly packed. It has been kind of nice being able to have a little more space to place line charts and other notes.
In order to make sure social distancing guidelines are met, the NCHC rejected more media credential requests than it would have in normal circumstances.
Another measure to reduce surface contact is the league is not printing stat packets. Usually, we get one at the end of each period. In the Pod, they're not printing any stats. We access them all online.
The feel of the games
When the games begin, things feel fairly normal.
The pregame video plays for whichever team is considered the "home team" for that game. So, yes, Ralph Engelstad Arena's pregame video for this season has been shown in Baxter.
The national anthem is sung, via video, by the home team's singer. When UND is designated the home team, a video of Lacey Schuler signing the national anthem in Ralph Engelstad Arena is played. It appears Schuler sang it in an empty REA, with the lights dimmed and spotlight on her, specifically for the Pod.
After goals are scored, the team's fight song plays in the arena.
The public address announcer makes his regular announcements -- for goals, penalties and anything in between -- with his usual exuberance.
Music plays in the arena during warmups, in-game stoppages and pregame introductions like usual.
There is, obviously, a difference with no crowd in the building. The cardboard cutouts of fans don't cheer. The cutouts of dogs (the number of which seems to be increasing as the Pod continues) don't bark.
Baxter Arena filters in a light buzzing crowd noise. Sometimes, they seem to forget to turn it on, and then all of the sudden, it's back. The volume does not change with the crowd noise based on what's happening in the game. It's the same after a goal as it is before a faceoff.
When you're covering games, sometimes, you look down to type a note on your computer. The crescendo of the crowd as a scoring chance develops serves as a tip to look up because some action is on the way. There is no such luxury here, unless you can hear the benches yelling, as a three-on-two develops, "Three!"
After a goal, there's not the usual roar of the crowd, but you can clearly hear the benches yelling. It's interesting to hear how loud the benches get after goals.
After games, the players stand on the blue lines and tap their sticks at each other instead of shaking hands.
The coaches also do not shake hands. Instead, they wave at each other, and they take it seriously. All three coaches -- the head and two assistants -- go one-by-one, making sure the opposing coaches have individual eye contact, before waving.
Oddity of COVID-era interviews
The postgames are quite a bit different for media.
Because of the separation of tiers, there are no in-person interviews allowed for print media. UND radio announcer Tim Hennessy traveled with the team, is getting tested three times per week and is part of Tier 1, so he can do in-person interviews. Because Hennessy is Tier 1, he is not broadcasting from the press box like usual. He is on concourse level.
After the game, interviews with print media are conducted on Zoom.
The Zoom audience is not just those of us in the building. Reporters who did not make the trip to Omaha will join. TV stations in North Dakota log in, as well as NCHC beat reporters like Matt Wellens from the Duluth News Tribune and Kate Shefte from the Colorado Springs Gazette, who participate in the press conferences from home.
There's a chat function in Zoom where we can request the ability to ask a question during the postgame pressers. We are then called upon by a moderator, usually NCHC PR director Michael Weisman.
When we are called upon, we are unmuted and we ask the question.
It is, no doubt, harder to conduct interviews this way and get information, but it works. And there is one advantage to it. Usually, both teams hold their press availabilities immediately after games at the same time. It's nearly impossible to get quotes from both coaches. You have to choose to go to one team's availability or the other.
But in this format, both teams appear on the same Zoom link after each other, so you can hear from both coaches easily.
During non-game days, I request interviews through UND's sports info director Mitch Wigness. He sets them up by phone. Even though I'm sitting in the same hotel room as the players, we do not do interviews in person to limit players' exposure to non-Tier 1 personnel.
Another way this experience is strange is the communication with the team sports info director. During a normal game, there is constant back-and-forth with this person about notes, records, stats and interviews. Although Wigness is here with the team, I have not seen him, because he is Tier 1.
The other question I'm often asked is what I'm doing during down time in Omaha.
My response: What down time?
There hasn't been much.
My daily routine is pretty simple. I wake up in the morning and check in with work, read the news on my laptop and try to map out my day. Then, I make about a 10-minute walk to my favorite coffee shop in town, Roast. I grab a coffee to go and drink it on my way back (I also brought my coffee pot from home and hooked it up in my hotel room, so I can brew some late-night pots, which I frequently do).
I work until it's lunch time. Then, I try to find something for lunch in Aksarben Village, which is filled with shops and restaurants. It has everything from sandwiches to a cupcake shop to pizza to sushi to barbeque to American to Mexican to Thai to Nepalese to Indian to Chinese. The employees at Mai Thai are going to be very familiar with me by the end of the Pod.
By 1:30 p.m., I'm usually at the rink for the first game (10 a.m. on the weekends). I leave after the last interviews of the last game, which usually is somewhere around 11 p.m.
As you can imagine, that's a long time to go without eating.
Eating can be a challenge in the Pod. Because there are no fans at the game, there are no concession stands open, either.
Usually, you are forbidden from bringing food into arenas. However, in this instance, we are allowed to do it. After Day 1, I learned to pack a few Larabars to hold me over for dinner. If I get a chance to leave between games to eat, I'll do that, but most days, the Larabars are dinner until I get back to the hotel room at 11 p.m.
I also learned Day 1 to bring a water bottle. There are water bottle re-fill stations in the press box, but that's your only avenue to get something to drink. If you don't have a bottle or a cup to put the water in, you're out of luck.
Back at it
Another oddity is the schedule.
In a normal season, my weeks are structured around a pattern. There's a press conference every Monday, travel on Thursday (if it's a road game) and games to cover on Friday and Saturday nights. Then, you repeat it.
But now, I'm understanding why NHL writers so often forget what day of week it is.
At Forum Communications, we started a new version of our UND hockey newsletter this fall. It goes out every Friday morning automatically. The last two Fridays, we accidentally sent out an old newsletter. That happened because I forgot to update it, because I have completely lost track of the day of week. That's my bad. I'll get adjusted to the new schedule (maybe).
There has been no shortage of things to write about. It has been busy, but a fun busy.
When I attended UND's summer skates in July, I wondered to myself if this was going to be the only UND hockey I would cover all year. That, obviously, was not the case.
Here I am in Omaha, adapting to a new life of covering college hockey in a global pandemic and I'm beginning to ponder the next question: What am I going to do when the Pod ends and I'm not covering and watching fantastic college hockey games all day every day?