When cardboard cutouts replaced hockey fans in the lower bowl at Baxter Arena, it seemed to be a sign of the world we are living in. No fans were allowed in the building due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
For three weeks in December, all eight National Collegiate Hockey Conference teams converged on Omaha and lived in a semi-bubble in order to get the season started. Omaha’s Baxter Arena became the center of the college hockey world.
“We’re super fortunate to have been able to play these games,” said Omaha goaltender Isaiah Saville. “With the pandemic going, we’re just so thankful to everyone who’s been able to put this on and give us the chance to play.”
Baxter Arena played host to 38 games in 21 days. Five days even saw triple headers. There were as many games played in the three weeks as the arena would normally see over two full hockey seasons.
Players were tested every game day and several times throughout the week. The University of Nebraska Medical Center shined, as UNMC oversaw all of the protocols and testing. There was zero active infection amongst Tier 1 personnel throughout the Pod.
Countless people, hours of time, money, and efforts went into pulling the event off. When the Mavericks kicked off the Pod against Minnesota Duluth on Dec. 1, it provided those involved a sense of normalcy, especially considering what has happened over the past nine months.
“It’s a credit to all the teams that participated,” said Omaha Head Coach Mike Gabinet. “Most importantly, Baxter Arena and our university for supporting the student-athletes throughout this.”
On the ice, the surroundings may have changed, but the quality of play never wavered. For most of the Pod, it was hard to tell that these teams hadn’t played since March.
Fan and dog cutouts alike dawned the jerseys and apparel of their favorite NCHC schools. A faint crowd noise was piped into the speakers inside Baxter Arena, and chatter on the ice and benches could be heard clear as day.
There was no roar of the crowd after goals, no buzz in the concourse, and Baxter Arena sat vastly empty. It was anything but ordinary, but at the same time, it means hockey is back.
“I think we’re all very happy to be back playing, so it really didn’t affect us at all,” said senior forward Martin Sundberg. “Especially in Omaha, we have such a big fan base and everyone kind of contributes to the game atmosphere, so we definitely missed them, but I think all the boys came together to push each other and to bring that atmosphere within the group.”
Coaches traded in the normal suit and tie for tracksuits, broadcasters were separated by a pane of glass, and everyone besides those on the ice in the arena wore a mask. The Mavericks even found themselves wearing their black road jerseys and using the opposing bench for five of their 10 games in the Pod.
This all comes on top of players finishing school for the semester and living in a hotel room for three weeks.
At the end of the day though, it’s a sacrifice everyone was willing to make. More than anything, everyone involved is thankful for the opportunity to be playing.