Inside the Bubble: How did the NCHC manage to staff game officials for three weeks?

Director of officiating Don Adam said it was like putting together a puzzle.

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Officials Joe Sullivan (21) (left) and Troy Marrett (42) (right) during a game between St. Cloud State and Denver Saturday, Dec. 5, at Baxter Arena in the NCHC Pod in Omaha. Tyler Schank / Forum News Service

OMAHA, Neb. -- Don Adam's first email this summer was straightforward.

The National Collegiate Hockey Conference's director of officials asked the league's referees and linesmen if they would be willing to work the 2020-21 season amid the coronavirus pandemic. Figuring some officials had high-risk family members, he let them know they could opt out. Eight of them did.

His next email was a much different ask.

Adam told the officials of an ambitious idea that was being discussed among the NCHC's athletic directors and commissioner Josh Fenton: They wanted to bring all eight teams to one destination for three weeks in December to play a total of 40 games in a bubble, or as the NCHC termed it, a Pod.

But in order to pull it off, the league needed officials.


Adam asked them to fill out a survey detailing whether they could work such a scenario, and if so, how long they could spend in the Pod. Could they do all three weeks? Two weeks? One week? Just a few days? And if so, which weeks and what days?

"The response was pretty overwhelming about guys who wanted to do it," Adam said. "But they wanted answers for how it was going to work and everything first."

As logistics about the Pod came into view, so did the availability of its officials. Then, Adam began the process of piecing together a work schedule to make sure every game was covered and had a backup plan in case of positive COVID-19 tests.

In order to cut down on the number of officials entering and leaving the Pod, he only used those who could spend at least a full week in Omaha. Anyone who could only come for a weekend got cut.

Officials were asked to arrive on Mondays, which is the day the league held its more thorough COVID-19 PCR tests for all players, coaches, staff members and league officials -- a necessary step for anyone looking to enter the Pod.

By the the time he was done, Adam penciled in 12 referees, 16 linesmen and three supervisors to work the NCHC Pod. He had seven referees and seven linesmen scheduled per week.

Three of them -- Joe Sullivan, Ryan Hersey and Grand Forks Red River graduate Nick Krebsbach -- were scheduled for all three weeks. Ten were scheduled for two-week stays, including East Grand Forks Senior High graduate Bobby Lukkason, Minot High grad Brandon Schmitt and Williston High grad Tyler Liffrig.

Others, like Grafton High grad Justin Hills, spent one week in Omaha.


"I almost quit three times putting the schedule together," Adam joked. "It was fitting a puzzle together."

It wasn't an easy process for the officials to commit.

Referees and linesmen work as part-time independent contractors. They all have full-time day jobs to navigate.

"When Josh and I first talked about this, we knew the only chance we had at getting this covered was that so many people are working remotely this day and age," Adam said. "That ended up being the case for our officials. That's what kind of saved this from an officiating standpoint."

Adam estimated that 75 percent of the leagues officials were working remotely during the pandemic and could do so in Omaha. Others took vacation time to be at the Pod.

Some of them, like Sullivan, did both.

"We want to be on the ice as much as the players want to, especially getting the playoffs taken away last year and the season cut short," Sullivan said. "As October started getting closer and closer, you're feeling the season starting to get chipped away at.

"Once we heard rumors about the Pod, I talked to Donny a couple times and I told him, 'I'll be ready, willing and available for it. And if I have to drive all over God's green earth to get to the Pod, I will.'"


Working from Omaha

Sullivan's day starts around 8 a.m.

He leaves his fifth-floor hotel room at the Hilton Garden Inn and walks to a conference room, where coffee and breakfast is provided by the league for the officials.

Then, he returns to his room, opens his laptop, turns on a second monitor he hauled to Omaha, connects to the internet through a secure WiFi his employer asked him to bring. That's when his work day starts.

Sullivan works in sales for a technology leasing company out of St. Louis. He spends most of the day making phone calls and responding to emails.

"I told them about this and they were completely supportive," Sullivan said of his company.

If Sullivan works an afternoon weekday game, as he did Dec. 8-9, he takes a full vacation day from work. If he's scheduled for a weeknight game, he'll work until lunch and take a half day of vacation.

"The first week, I had a night game and tried to work through the day," Sullivan said. "But then I decided to take the afternoon off work if I had a night game. I feel like you need that little bit of break in between the two. You work until lunch, then you go into hockey mode when the afternoon hits and get mentally prepared for the game."

Sullivan uses his lunch hour to walk to Baxter Arena to take COVID-19 tests.


Sullivan said working remotely wasn't the biggest hurdle in getting to Omaha. It was leaving his 6-year-old daughter Gracie and 3-year-old son Leo at home with his wife, Kristie.

"That's a big commitment on her part," Sullivan said. "She's dealt with it. We started dating when I was in junior hockey. That's 17 years ago. It's been a long time since I've been on a trip this long, though. It was probably when I was in the Coast League, a decade ago."

Down the hall on the fifth floor, Krebsbach has spent his time in the Pod studying, working on group projects in Excel and joining Zoom lectures for his online accounting class at the University of Mary.

On Friday, he took a final test at 8 a.m., then officiated Omaha's 6-5 win over Western Michigan in the afternoon.

Krebsbach, who lives in Marquette, Mich., said he's going to visit Florida with his wife, Kate, after the Pod ends.

Hersey works as a boat captain in San Diego.

He is an independent contractor, so he does not have paid vacation. He informed clients before he left that he was going to be out of town, but let them know he would soon be back and looking for work, so they shouldn't take him out of their rotation.

"I certainly could be making more money if I was at home, but ultimately, this is what I love doing," Hersey said. "I look forward to this. We were robbed of the end of our season last year. Every year, we look forward to March. We look forward to getting those assignments to work those big games, those high-pressure games. That's what we want to be a part of, and that was taken away from us."


Hersey's wife, Lisa, and 7-year-old son, Ethan, are back home in San Diego.

"It was definitely tough for my son, who gets anxious any time daddy is headed out," Hersey said. "Lisa, on the other hand, has been along for the ride. She understands it and supports it. Being away from my son, that's a different dynamic. It definitely gets harder the longer (the Pod) goes."

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Officials from left: Seth Mukai (44), Stephen Reneau (3), Bobby Lukkason (14), Eric Frank (56) while starting lineups are announced before the start of the game between St. Cloud State and North Dakota Saturday, Dec. 12, at Baxter Arena in the NCHC Pod in Omaha. Tyler Schank / Forum News Service

A physical challenge

The Pod format has been a challenge for officials, especially their first week.

Because most rinks around the country have been closed due to COVID-19 precautions, many of the officials hadn't been on skates since the March shutdown.


The playoffs were canceled in March and April. The NCHC's summer training camps for officials and linesmen were canceled. All NCHC exhibition games were canceled.

So, the officials jumped into league play having touched the ice minimally, if at all, in the last nine months.

"Usually, we get camp and an exhibition game," Krebsbach said. "These teams have been practicing for months and they're ready to go when they hit the ice. It was pent up excitement of finally being able to play when they hit the ice. Here we are, 'OK, it's go time.' It can come a little quick, but I think everyone did a very good job of adjusting quickly and coaches did a good job realizing where we were and what we were going through."

Hersey, who will call 12 of the Pod's 38 games -- most of anybody -- had a stretch where he officiated seven games in nine days.

"Without ice time prior to the season, it was a challenge, I'm not going to lie," Hersey said. "It took a period to get into it and get the flow going. Fortunately, it was like riding a bike. I was able to get right back into it. I will say that at the end of the seventh game in nine days, I was a little tired."

Sullivan felt the fatigue, at times, too.

"It's draining," Sullivan said. "It's draining mentally and it's draining physically. I haven't worked five games in a week in eight or nine years. As much as you prepare in the offseason, doing training, staying in shape throughout the quarantines, nothing can prepare you for being on the ice. I could run five to 10 miles a day, but it's different when you're on the ice."

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Officials from left: Stephen Reneau (3), Eric Frank (56) and Seth Mukai (44) try to break up a scuffle between St. Cloud State and North Dakota players after a play in the second period Saturday, Dec. 12, at Baxter Arena in the NCHC Pod in Omaha. Tyler Schank / Forum News Service

Building schedules

Adam and his supervisors of officials -- Mike Schmitt, Derek Shepherd and Ron Foyt -- had to navigate unusual problems when building their officiating schedules.

During Week 1, one official's COVID-19 results were late to arrive. Fearing that official wouldn't be cleared before the afternoon game, Adam and Schmitt attempted to swap the afternoon crew and the night crew's assignments. But referee Dan Dreger, who works in the tech industry, couldn't do it because he had a work Zoom call scheduled for that afternoon.

The official's COVID-19 test did end up coming back in time and he was cleared, so the problem was averted.

During a normal season, Adam carefully schedules officials so teams don't wind up seeing the same referees repeatedly. He tries to spread out their assignments.

In the Pod, that was a challenge.

"We're trying to keep these guys not seeing the same teams over and over," said Schmitt, who worked his day job remotely from Omaha in Week 1. "But it's a weird year. Donny had to tell the coaches, 'Hey, you might see a guy five or six times in the Pod.' It's the way it is. That was the biggest nightmare for Donny."

Ethan Anderson, who works for the University of Nebraska Omaha, has run on-site logistics for the officials, like getting the officials' locker room ready, making sure their portable microphones work and scheduling ice time so they could play shinny hockey in their free time.

"It wouldn't be running as smoothly without people like Ethan," Hersey said.

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Referee Nick Krebsbach (13) watches a play during a game between St. Cloud State and Denver Saturday, Dec. 5, at Baxter Arena in the NCHC Pod in Omaha. Tyler Schank / Forum News Service

Why do it?

The officials are allowed to order takeout from restaurants, but they're not allowed to dine in or go shopping, even for groceries. They have to get it delivered to the Hilton Garden Inn.

With the restrictions, many of them are spending their evenings at Baxter Arena, in a suite set aside for officials, watching other games.

"I'm sitting there watching the game, and all you hear are these phone calls and FaceTime calls," Schmitt said. "It's all of the kids catching up with their dads in the evening."

So, why did officials agree to come to Omaha for three weeks, when it meant giving up family time, vacation time and, for some, income sacrifices?

"For me personally, it's my connection to the game," Krebsbach said. "I've been involved in the game since I was 3. In order for players to play, you have to have officials. I have the availability and the ability to be here for three weeks. I know not everyone does.

"The players want to play and I want them to be able to play. If you can't find enough officials, they can't play. If I can cover games and allow this to happen to allow players to play games and the league to operate, I'm going to. I was a player a long time ago and it would be pretty devastating not to be able to play if you can't find the resources. For me, it was an easy decision."

The league has discussed going back to a Pod format again for the playoffs. It's unknown whether that could happen back in Omaha again or if it would be in a new location like Grand Forks, a finalist to host the first Pod.

But the officials say, after being through this one, they'd sign up to work it again.

"It's been really great to be back on the ice," Sullivan said. "I'm really happy the league was able to do this and have success doing it. If this is something we have to do again, it's a no-brainer for us to do it again."

Schlossman has covered college hockey for the Grand Forks Herald since 2005. He has been recognized by the Associated Press Sports Editors as the top beat writer for the Herald's circulation division four times and the North Dakota sportswriter of the year once. He resides in Grand Forks. Reach him at
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