Six notable things NCHC commissioner Josh Fenton said about attempting to start the 2020-21 season
Every college hockey conference rolled out a coordinated announcement Thursday morning that the 2020-21 season will be delayed because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. That was expected.
The unexpected part is that, along with it, came nationwide optimism that a season is going to happen, and the National Collegiate Hockey Conference even listed a projected start date as "on or after" Nov. 20.
After the announcement, NCHC commissioner Josh Fenton chatted with the Herald and offered a few more details about the league's attempt to start up the season.
Here are six things to know.
1. How did the NCHC land on Nov. 20?
Fenton listed off numerous reasons why the league settled on Nov. 20 as a soft target.
First of all, that allows campuses to fully re-open and make any adjustments needed before re-introducing athletic competition. It allows the league and schools more time to implement safety protocols, ones that many football teams found impossible to meet by late August or early September.
"It's going to give our institutions ample time to have the ability to meet return-to-play protocols and follow NCAA guidelines," Fenton said.
Fenton also said the NCHC has numerous scheduling models right now, but most are centered around that time. Nov. 20 is six days before Thanksgiving, when campuses begin to thin out with students returning home for the holidays. With fewer students on campus, the coronavirus has less of a chance to spread.
Also, this is about the time other winter sports are projected to start -- specifically basketball -- and college hockey has been hoping to align its season with college basketball.
2. How many games will be on the league schedule?
The NCHC has a 24-game conference schedule in a normal season. Each team plays six of the other seven NCHC squads at home and six on the road.
Fenton said the league wants "to maximize the number of competitions."
The NCHC spoke with team captains recently about returning to play.
"One thing we heard loud and clear is that they want to play games," Fenton said. "This is what they've done their whole life. They've been training for this. They want competitive playing experiences. We want to maximize that."
The number of league games will depend on when the season starts.
"If we can return somewhere around when we indicated, we would maximize the number (of league games)," Fenton said. "If we're not able to return then, the number will go down."
The NCHC's scheduling models leave open dates during the season on purpose, too, in case there's a coronavirus outbreak that forces a temporary shutdown. Then, there will be built-in windows to make up games.
3. Will NCHC teams be allowed to play nonconference games?
UND had several nonconference games lined up this season.
The U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Game in Nashville against Penn State has already been postponed until Oct. 2021. An October series at Cornell was canceled when the Ivy League announced it won't play any games until at least Jan. 1.
UND still had other nonconference games on the schedule against Bemidji State, rival Minnesota, Northern Michigan and Niagara. Is there any chance NCHC teams will be allowed to pursue nonconference games?
"At this point, yes," Fenton said. "We've had discussions about doing conference only or allowing nonconference. There's been no decision. At this point, (nonconference games) are still on the table."
4. Will the NCAA tournament be backed up?
If college hockey coaches get their wish, the NCAA tournament will be backed up, giving the season a longer runway.
College hockey commissioners and coaches are talking at least once a week, and this is a hot topic.
"We're well aware that our community would like to explore options to alter (the NCAA tournament), but we're realistic to know that the logistics can be pretty significant," Fenton said. "Many of us have conference tournament schedules that would potentially need to be adjusted. It's a topic that's absolutely being discussed, it's been discussed for probably a month now, but the ability to quickly move on that is easier said than done."
5. Will fans be allowed at NCHC games?
The NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball are not allowing fans at games. The NFL opened Thursday night with a limited number of fans at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City.
Some college football programs are allowing limited fans, too. North Dakota State is planning to have slightly over 50 percent capacity for its lone fall football game in the Fargodome.
Will fans be allowed at NCHC games this season?
"That's going to be determined by local public health authorities," Fenton said. "What is a safe capacity for games? Each school will work with local officials determining that."
6. Why so much optimism?
One thing that's clear is there's a resounding optimism among college hockey leaders across the country -- both publicly and in private -- that they're going to be able to play a 2020-21 season.
What's leading to such optimism?
"I think a couple things," Fenton said. "No. 1, we owe it to the group of student-athletes to provide them the college experience they expect and work so hard for, and one that was taken away last year. We in the conference office and our ADs aren't going to rest until we exhaust all options to provide them that experience.
"No. 2, you've seen athletic competition -- whether it be pro, college or amateur -- get going. Certainly, there are challenges. But we are optimistic that we can get there. I can't give you the exact date of when we're going to get there, but I can tell you that we're optimistic that we will get there. Having said all that, we're going to do it in a safe and responsible manner, and if the science or the data, or the leadership at our institutions deem that it's not safe to do that for campus communities — in particular our student-athletes — certainly we will make decisions to alter course."
Was there a time this summer or fall when Fenton started to become optimistic that a 2020-21 season would happen?
"I've felt that way all along, even in July when we were seeing some bad surges (of the coronavirus)," Fenton said. "Maybe it was my mindset that we're going to do whatever it takes to provide the experience these guys deserve. Now, we're not going to be irresponsible, but I've been optimistic we're going to find a way to get this done for this group of young men and women. They deserve it."