The National Collegiate Hockey Conference started its season by bringing all eight member schools to Omaha to play 38 games in the span of three weeks in a bubble-type setup, hoping to escape coronavirus cases.
Before those three weeks in December ended as a resounding success, commissioner Josh Fenton's mind began wandering to the league's next big decision: How will the NCHC end the season?
Will it hold the conference's postseason tournament like normal, playing best-of-three quarterfinal series on campuses of the higher seeds, followed by single-elimination semifinals and finals at St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center a week later? Or will it return to another bubble-style setup, bringing everyone to one centralized campus location for the playoffs?
As the league pondered those questions, the first series in the second half of the season was postponed due to a coronavirus outbreak with Omaha's team. A week later, Denver had to shut down because of a positive test. Minnesota Duluth and Colorado College soon followed.
The contrast between the success of the Pod -- where there were no postponements or cancellations -- and the second half of the season's normal travel became clear. Logistical and financial questions about holding the NCHC Frozen Faceoff in the Xcel Energy Center also lingered.
"As time passed by, it led us to believe that probably wasn't a format and location -- in particular with St. Paul and the Xcel Energy Center -- that we could really feasibly accomplish, so we started to think about different models," Fenton said.
The idea of scrapping the playoffs entirely was brought up, but quickly squashed. So was any idea of limiting the number of participants, considering the conference awards its automatic bid to the NCAA tournament to the league's playoff champion.
"It was important we had a conference tournament for all teams," Fenton said. "There was very little to no discussion about limiting the field."
The idea of a neutral site was completely out the window, because NCHC schools already had effective coronavirus testing protocols on their campuses, making it easier to implement for the tournament.
So, the debate turned to three potential Pod-style setups.
No. 1: The league discussed bringing all eight teams to one site -- Grand Forks or Omaha -- and maintaining the same playoff format as previous years. They'd play best-of-three quarterfinal series on one weekend. The four winners would stay in town until the next weekend for the semifinals and championship game.
No. 2: The league discussed splitting the best-of-three quarterfinals into two sites. Grand Forks would host two quarterfinal series; Omaha would host the other two. The four winners would converge on the same site, Grand Forks or Omaha, for the semifinals and championship a week later.
No. 3: The league talked about bringing all eight teams to one location -- Grand Forks or Omaha -- for a single-elimination tournament over the course of five days.
Eventually, the league settled on the third option.
"I think there was real consideration for the student-athlete physical and mental fatigue, kind of continuing to be at one site for an extended period of time," Fenton said. "We know that firsthand, because we went through that experience -- for the right reasons -- when we started the season successfully in the Pod.
"But we were mindful about not creating an exhaustive environment for all the teams participating, especially the teams that go all the way until the end, and then potentially impacting them for the NCAA tournament the following week."
That format also allowed for an 11-day break before the NCAA regionals.
Choosing a site
Next, the league had to pick the site.
It came down to Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks and Baxter Arena in Omaha, the same two venues that competed for the NCHC Pod in December.
"Ultimately, we had two great sites to choose from," Fenton said. "We had a great experience in Omaha. We think we're going to have a great experience in Ralph Engelstad Arena and the city of Grand Forks. We certainly could have gone to either location and it would have been an excellent experience. We felt with the tournament championship, Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks was the right spot."
Fenton said there were numerous considerations.
First, Ralph Engelstad Arena could accommodate all eight teams. The arena is able give every school its own locker room and feed the players at the arena. It also has a second ice sheet attached for practice purposes.
"Grand Forks has done this before as far as these types of events, whether it be IIHF events or otherwise," Fenton said, referring to The Ralph hosting the 10-team World Junior Championship in 2004-05 and the 10-team World Under-18 Tournament in 2016. "I think the NCHC tournament and Frozen Faceoff will have great success in their community."
Another factor was revenue the conference could generate from not only ticket sales -- a limited number of fans are expected to be allowed in Ralph Engelstad Arena for the event -- but also through sponsorships. The league largely supports its operation through revenue generated at the postseason tournament. That revenue is extra critical this season considering the NCHC didn't receive any from last year's tournament, which was wiped out because of the coronavirus outbreak.
Another factor, though a small one, was the fact that UND is very likely going to finish in the top four of the league standings, which would normally be a home-ice position for the quarterfinals. Omaha currently is on track to finish in the top four, but the possibility exists that Denver passes Omaha in the standings for the final top-half spot. It would be problematic to allow a team, that should be on the road, to host the playoffs.
"I don't know how much it really factored into site selection," Fenton said. "But it was of consideration."
The improving COVID-19 situation in the state didn't hurt, either.
On the day the NCHC awarded the Pod to Omaha in October, North Dakota had a daily average (seven-day span) of 537 COVID-19 cases and 8.1 deaths per 100,000 people according to the New York Times. On the day it was awarded the NCHC Frozen Faceoff to Grand Forks, the state's daily average was 10 cases and 0.11 deaths per 100,000.
That means the COVID-19 situation in North Dakota was more than 50 times worse when the NCHC Pod was awarded to Omaha.
There are still several items left to be decided.
Fenton is currently working on setting up testing cadences. He said both the in-depth PCR tests as well as the instant-result antigen tests will be used, just as they were during the NCHC Pod.
CBS Sports Network will broadcast the semifinals and championship game, but the league is working on production details for the quarterfinal games, which will be broadcast on NCHC.tv. Midco Sports Network produced all 38 games in the Pod for NCHC.tv, as well as for its network. That is again a possibility.
The NCHC also is working on protocols for how it would handle a situation if a team is unable to play due to positive COVID-19 tests. Fenton said if a team has to pull out because of that, the NCHC would attempt to re-seed teams.
"If discovered early enough, we'd probably look at re-seeding," Fenton said. "If not discovered until very late, we may have to make an adjustment to where the team that would be playing the (forfeiting) team would move on. It's all depending on circumstances, but we've definitely had that discussion."
The NCHC plans to go back to St. Paul and the Xcel Energy Center for the 2022 NCHC Frozen Faceoff, but for this year, it will be in Grand Forks.
"We knew we had a couple of sites that were excellent sites," Fenton said. "As it relates to Ralph Engelstad Arena, it's a world-class hockey facility in our country, one of the best, certainly, in college hockey. The facility is set up to manage all eight teams. The community of Grand Forks, certainly led by the University of North Dakota and their athletic department, Bill Chaves, their president Andy Armacost, were much behind this effort to bring the NCHC tournament to their city and their community.
"We have a great, passionate fan base that follows UND hockey closely, but will also embrace and welcome all eight NCHC teams in their market for what will be a really unique event."