NCHC to Start 2020-2021 Season in Grand Forks or Omaha Bubble

In a decision that had been discussed for months, the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) will officially be opening the 2020-2021 season in a ‘bubble,’ similar to the ones that the NHL employed for its postseason in Toronto and Edmonton, according to Brad Schlossman of the Grand Forks Herald. Grand Forks, North Dakota and Omaha, Nebraska, homes of the North Dakota Fighting Hawks and Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks, respectively, have emerged as frontrunners to host the weeks-long event. The bubble/hub would take place between Thanksgiving and Christmas while campuses are already closed and school is out.

Over the past few months, NCHC members had been discussing options on how to play the 2020-2021 season in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic with no vaccine in the offing. Given the overwhelming success, both on the ice and off of it with zero positive COVID tests, of the NHL’s bubbles – the Eastern Conference played its postseason in Toronto while the West played theirs in Edmonton before the conference finals and Stanley Cup Final were played in Edmonton – a similar bubble became the favorite idea among member athletic directors.

While most of the details still need to be ironed out, Grand Forks and Omaha very quickly emerged as the most logical locations for the bubble. Suitable hockey facilities (i.e., enough accessible sheets of ice for games and practices), hotel accommodations, dining options, ease of travel, and, most importantly, accessible medical facilities and virus testing abilities are among the key criteria for selecting the host. Grand Forks and Omaha checked the most boxes among all of the potential NCHC host cities and, at least for now, Omaha likely has the edge due to its medical facilities and access to rapid testing – the University of Nebraska Medical Center is located in Omaha. Add the fact that Grand Forks and North Dakota are current hotbeds for the spread of the virus and Omaha seems like a no-brainer of a host.

The prevailing thought, according to Schlossman, is that teams would be able to knock out 10 games in the three-week span of the bubble with games played both on weekends and weekdays. Teams would then return to campus and play out the remaining schedule on campuses starting in January. 10 games in the bubble would amount to a bit less than half of a normal conference slate of 24 games which would allow for much more flexibility to play the remaining portion of the conference schedule between January and March. In other words, given a likely continued spread of the virus, planning for seven more weekends of hockey over the course of the final two-and-a-half to three months which amounts to about 10-12 total weekends) of the season would provide the necessary scheduling infrastructure for schedule changes (looking at you, NFL).

Among the remaining details that still need to be ironed out is the sheer cost of hosting such a bubble. The costs for the NHL were extremely high and the costs to the NBA for its own bubble in Orlando were astronomical, comparatively speaking. The NCHC, by contrast, is operating essentially on a shoestring budget for this event. While the conference has operated at a surplus in each of its first six seasons (it’s expected that FY 2020 will be its first year operating at a deficit with the pandemic and all), undertaking a massive effort such as this one will undoubtedly exhaust most, if not all of the conference’s reserves and then some.

All of this is to say that there are still many hurdles that the NCHC still needs to clear before officially announcing the final decision on which city will host the hub concept. That said, it is all but assured that one way or another, the conference will be employing some form of a bubble to start the season in late November and early December. So for fans that need their Denver Hockey fix, be sure to subscribe to and keep an eye on this situation as it continues to evolve. We will continue to keep you posted here at LetsGoDU on news related to the bubble as it breaks as well.

Photo of Omaha’s Baxter Arena courtesy of the University of Nebraska-Omaha

2 thoughts on “NCHC to Start 2020-2021 Season in Grand Forks or Omaha Bubble”

  1. Dunker appreciates your update Nick. We fans simply want a safe meaningful season. Costs are naturally an issue, but no fan ticket sales revenues are almost a given anyway. All 8 teams have to be fed and housed during the Thanksgiving to Christmas break under normal circumstances. No plane flights for maybe half the season is a huge savings. Time to accentuate the positives. Games 4 days a week on NCHC tv would be a blast for hockey junkies like myself.

  2. This makes some sense from a medical and competitive standpoint. Getting 10 games in three weeks is little different from the kinds of schedules played in junior hockey, and I’m sure this the safer option vs flying teams in and out weekly.

    One big question in my mind is the academic side of it. DU normally would be all done by Thanksgiving, but this year, classes end Nov 20, with reading period/thanksgiving until Dec.1, when online finals begin until Dec. 4, so that time in the bubble will be very tough on the DU players with the new extra games in midweek during finals.

    The other big question is the financial side of it. Each team has a travel party of about 30-35 people (players, coaches, team staff, etc) So figure 15 rooms per team x 8 teams. Throw in 30 more rooms for the league staff (refs, medical, etc), so that’s 150 rooms + three meals daily just for room and board for everyone. Say they need 20 total room days in the bubble and the room and board cost comes in at very reasonable $125 per person for food and room, so that’s $375K just to house and feed people at a basic level for three weeks. Then there has got to be medical testing for everyone, and the transportation costs to get to and from there – it at least an outlay of $500k at a bare bones level – and probably could be at least $1 million at a realistic level, depending on the medical needs, which are not as easy to cost out.

    Each team is probably saving at least 3 RT plane/hotel trips, so that savings is probably close to $100K per team, but since each team will lose at least 50% (and probably closer to 90 or 100%) of projected ticket game revenue this year, this will still cost more than it saves…

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