Minnesota Duluth senior wing Kobe Roth didn’t mince words Friday when asked what the last seven months have been like for the Bulldogs men’s hockey team since its 2019-20 season — and quest for a third consecutive national championship — was shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic in March.
“It’s been tough, obviously,” Roth said. “The mindset I’ve had personally is just taking it day by day, not trying to look too far forward, just living in the moment. Today getting that news was huge.”
That news was a start date to the 2020-21 season. After a two-month delay due to a coronavirus pandemic that continues to plague the United States, the National Collegiate Hockey Conference announced the Bulldogs and the other seven schools in the league will all converge on Baxter Arena in Omaha, Nebraska, to play 40 total games in three weeks.
Puck drop in the ‘OmaPod’ is scheduled for Dec. 1.
“It’s a breath of fresh air,” UMD junior captain Noah Cates said of finally getting a start date. “We've been working hard for the past 6-7 months, not knowing when we might start. Having a time in mind and knowing when we can compete together is really nice to know. Stepping forward here, we have something to look forward to. We were really excited today.”
The Bulldogs have been practicing at Amsoil Arena since Oct. 3, which was the original scheduled start date of the 2020-21 season. UMD redshirt junior goaltender Ben Patt said after Friday’s practice he could already sense a different energy from the team out on the ice and in the weight room after getting the Dec. 1 start date.
“Guys are ready to go now,” Patt said. “We finally have that date and that extra push that we were all really waiting for.”
Games will be played seven days a week in Omaha, not just on Fridays and Saturdays. Each team will play anywhere from 3-4 games per week for a total of 10 games during the three weeks in Omaha. Teams will only have back-to-back games twice.
Patt said the pod format reminds him of his youth hockey days when he’d play four games in five days in U18s. For Cates, it’s similar to the World Junior Championship when he and Team USA would play at noon one day and then at 8 p.m. another.
“Guys are going to get to play a lot, and they haven’t played in a long time,” said Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin, who was an assistant coach and then the head coach of Team USA at the last two World Junior Championship tournaments. “It will be a different challenge for sure because of that, but I think from a player's side of it and a coach's side of it, it’s great to be able to get 10 games in and get started.”
UMD and the rest of the league will return home after the three weeks in Omaha and resume a somewhat more normal schedule after New Years, playing 16 games — eight home and eight on the road — against NCHC divisional opponents.
Set up just for this season to help limit travel during the pandemic, the Bulldogs are in the East Division with St. Cloud State, Miami and Western Michigan. The West Division includes Omaha, North Dakota, Denver and Colorado College. UMD will play just two games against one of its East Division foes while in Omaha. The other eight games at Baxter will be against West Division opponents.
According to multiple sources, other sites that were considered for the pod in addition to Omaha included St. Cloud and Duluth, with Grand Forks being the runner-up. What put Omaha over the top was its central location within the league’s three-time-zone footprint — Miami has to make an 11-hour bus ride, but everyone else is nine hours or less — and the city’s world renowned University of Nebraska Medical Center, which has extensive experience dealing with highly infectious diseases, from COVID-19 to Ebola. The NCHC will be partnering with UNMC and Nebraska Medicine for testing and medical support while in Omaha.
Patt said Friday he and his teammates didn’t care where the NCHC was playing this season. All they cared about after seven months was that they’ll be playing again shortly.
“We could have played wherever, as long as we were playing,” Patt said. “We’re just relieved to be going somewhere and we’re appreciative of the city of Omaha, the town for bringing us all in. We’re excited to see what it looks like and get out there.”