The NCHC Pod is off and running. . . and it might not be the last time we see a college hockey Pod
League members have discussed the possibility of holding another one for the playoffs.
OMAHA, Neb. -- Josh Fenton knows a lot of people are watching.
The National Collegiate Hockey Conference is attempting to do something unprecedented in college athletics by bringing all league members to a centralized location for more than three weeks in an attempt to play a large number of games safely during a global pandemic.
No other college entity has tried this.
Not college football. Not college basketball. Not college hockey.
If there are any playbooks for an experience like the NCHC Pod -- which opened Tuesday and is expected to go until Dec. 21 in Omaha's Baxter Arena -- it would be the NHL or NBA, which played its 2020 playoffs in bubbles.
But the NCHC is a college conference without the major television revenue of pro leagues and its athletes have academic obligations. It also can't shut down city blocks and completely close off its coaches and staff to the outside world. So, the comparisons to the NHL or NBA aren't exactly the same.
The strategy is similar, though.
League members came to the conclusion that their conference, which is spread out over three time zones and requires airplane flights for a large percentage of their games, is best suited to start this way because of safety and financial concerns.
"We believed that a controlled environment, although not a perfect bubble, was the best opportunity to get us off the ground and start successfully," said Fenton, the NCHC's commissioner. "We've got to execute it and get through the three weeks. Certainly, there are issues that could and likely will come up that we'll likely have to address."
The NCHC Pod is up and running.
Seven of the eight teams have arrived in Omaha. They went through the league's COVID-19 testing protocols -- which were developed in coordination with the University of Nebraska Medical Center, one of the country's top infectious disease hospitals -- and were cleared for action.
Colorado College, which had one positive COVID-19 test two weeks before the opening of the Pod, traveled to Omaha on Friday and is expected to begin play Tuesday.
Successfully opening the Pod was no small feat. It meant the week-long quarantine players and staff members did before their departure date worked.
"Getting all members of teams cleared through the initial testing protocol was significant," Fenton said in a text Friday. "That's what we were hoping for and believed if it happened it would get us off to a great start. We have a LONG ways to go. The virus is very prevalent and everyone involved must stay diligent in following protocol. If people can stay disciplined, we have a great chance to have success overall."
Since making minor adjustments to the schedule to accommodate Colorado College's late arrival, the NCHC has had six games on the docket. All six have been played as expected.
That's also no small feat.
Since the 2020-21 college hockey season opened three weeks ago, roughly a third of the games outside the NCHC have been postponed or canceled due to coronavirus issues, according to Herald research. Only one day has passed without an announcement of a schedule change -- Thanksgiving Day.
If the NCHC is able to get through the final 32 scheduled games in the Pod as planned, it could be a model used later in the season, both in other college sports and in the NCHC itself.
"I would expect there will be some eyeballs on our operation," Fenton said.
A Pod for the playoffs?
The NCHC has not yet decided what it will do for the league's playoffs.
In a normal year, it holds best-of-three quarterfinal series at the home site of the higher seed. The winners of those series go to St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center for single-game semifinals and a championship.
But the league has discussed the idea of doing another Pod for the playoffs.
"I think anything is on the table for the postseason at this point," Fenton said. "I've stayed in close contact with Jack Larson at the Xcel Energy Center. We would obviously love to be in their venue with all the great NCHC fans at the end of the third weekend of March. Whether that's feasible or realistic, I suppose maybe it's a little early to tell. We have discussed any and all options, including a Pod type of scenario for the postseason.
"Our focus is starting the season and getting through the Pod successfully. I do believe my mind will probably wander more about what the postseason will entail (during the Pod). We believe as we get early in the new year, we're going to have to have some discussions and make some decisions on what the postseason model will look like."
Those discussion also would include the location of a potential postseason Pod.
A similar setup could be possible to hold NCAA tournaments, too.
The NCAA men's basketball tournament is expected to be held entirely in the city of Indianapolis. Usually, regionals are held across the country leading up to the Final Four.
Fenton has talked with Dan Gavitt, the NCAA's senior vice president of basketball.
"Dan and I have stayed in touch throughout the fall, because we wanted to understand what was going on in the basketball world -- when they felt it was going to be safe to start, how they were going to start, that type of thing," Fenton said. "Dan and I had a text exchange (recently). I anticipate having conversations with him. He said, 'Good luck in Omaha. I'd love to catch up with you after to understand what you learned, what went well and what didn't go well.'"
The NCAA committee that runs the men's hockey postseason has not yet settled on how it will be handled.
Omaha associate athletic director Mike Kemp is on the committee and will get a close-up look at the NCHC Pod and will know more about its feasibility for an NCAA event.
"It is a logistical puzzle," Fenton said. "There are a lot of little things that come up every single day that we're having to think about and having to address."
While it is an unprecedented operation for college athletics, Fenton said he was able to glean some tips from talking to those who worked in the NHL bubbles in Edmonton and Toronto. Most of those were little items that people may not think of. Fenton said one example is the problem of supplying towels.
"The NHL said, 'Hey, listen, you're not going to be able to have towels constantly turned over and laundry managed in and out of the arena. You need to have some level of towel service or laundry service to manage the towels,'" Fenton said. "It was simple things like that they helped us understand. . . the timing to clean locker rooms and to transition locker rooms, the testing model they had, testing locations. . . a lot of little logistical details that they helped us understand."
And if things go well in the next two weeks, the NCHC may be able to provide the road maps to others.