Uncertainty looms but light remains for 2020-2021 hockey season


Jordan McAlpine

With a capacity of 7,898, Baxter Arena has been the perfect-sized home for Omaha hockey. The Mavericks welcomed 102,302 fans through the gates in 2019-20, an average of 5,683 a game and the ninth most in the country. What will that look like going forward? Photo courtesy of OMavs.com.

Months ago, the National Collegiate Hockey Conference announced that the playoffs and year-end tournament had been canceled.

In the nearly six months that have followed, there have been many questions and few answers.

With so much still unknown heading into 2020-21, it’s set up to be an offseason like no other for seven-year commissioner Josh Fenton.

“It’s been pretty surreal because it’s been like any other offseason,” Fenton said. “I would say initially we were hyper focused on what it meant that we had just canceled the tournament and the impact that was having on student-athletes whose seasons were ended abruptly. Then there was the financial aspect that had to get figured out regarding not having a tournament.”

Fenton, who joked during a zoom meeting late last week that he’s been confined to a spare basement bedroom turned office, remains optimistic games will be played. The question that remains is when.

“We are optimistic and hopeful that we will be playing hockey during the 2020-21 season,” Fenton said. “We are working on plans to determine what that start date is, we’ve been meeting for months now on it, but we don’t have anything definitive as of yet.”

A lot has happened around the globe since that announcement was made on March 12th. Overcrowded hospitals, mask mandates, transition to online learning, and the world of sports has changed as we once knew it.

At the collegiate level, many spring seasons were cut short and several fall sports have already been postponed to next spring, if not canceled altogether. Budget cuts and furloughs are happening everywhere you look. In some unfortunate situations, programs are even being cut completely.

It begs the question going forward, how much will this pandemic affect the landscape of college athletics?

“I definitely think there will be a lasting impact,” said Omaha Athletic Director Trev Alberts. “I do think it’s too early to tell, but one of the big things I worry about is if we don’t get back to having fans involved in games. When your life changes suddenly it becomes a new normal, and it becomes comfortable.”

Alberts worries that if people become too comfortable in their new normal, they may fail to come back to the hobbies that once brought them joy.

“If you’re used to being a hockey season ticket holder and that opportunity is taken away for a year or two, perhaps something else fills your interest,” he said. “I do worry about getting all of our fans back. Now you could also say they’re going to be hungry to get back, which I hope that’s the case, but nobody really knows at this point.”

For Omaha specifically, there are reasons to be concerned if fans aren’t allowed in the seats this season. The Summit League has already brought down the axe on fall sports, pushing cross country, soccer and volleyball to the spring.

Last year, the athletic department recorded a net profit just shy of $500,000 from concerts and other events at Baxter Arena. A large portion of that comes from club seats and suites, some of which cost $50,000 per year. To have 18 hockey home games taken away this winter alone would make a massive impact.

“I truly worry about what the future looks like in terms of capacity going forward,” Alberts said. “Baxter Arena is the perfect size for us and we were really kind of entering our sweet spot in terms of hosting concerts and events outside of athletics. If the consistent rules suddenly change and you can only have 2,000 people at a venue our size, that’s a significant impact on the total revenue and our athletic department.”

That impact will certainly be felt. According to Omaha Senior Associate Athletic Director Mike Kemp, who is in charge of athletic facilities including the Baxter Arena, the building was firing on all cylinders just before the shutdown.

“The arena is obviously a huge source of revenue for the athletic department,” Kemp said. “We were in a situation back in March where we were looking at the most successful three month period in the building’s history. We had seven concerts, all the graduations and several other events booked in the building in April and May, and all of that revenue was gone which is a disadvantage to the athletic department.”

With that lost income, there’s a lot weighing on this winter and the impending decision. For a school like Omaha that depends upon hockey for a large portion of their yearly athletic revenue, it will be crucial to give student athletes the opportunity to play and potentially get some fans in seats. If not, there’s sure to be some type of ripple effect in the coming years.

The school already sits near the NCAA minimum in terms of sports, so cutting a program is not an option. Alberts maintains that has never been part of their thinking throughout this pandemic. He wants to give every athlete that opportunity they’ve earned.

“Sure, some of these kids might turn into the next Jake Guentzel,” Alberts said. “But as we know, 99% of them don’t. So we’ve got to fight for their opportunity to experience life as a student athlete while they have it.”

However, it’s especially frustrating for Alberts when he wants to fight for his athletes but, the same can’t be said everywhere. Competitive equity, a lack of communication and testing protocols were cited as some of the contributing factors.

“I will tell you there has been a lack of consistent messaging and thinking from everybody across college athletics,” Alberts said. “I understand financial impacts, but there have been other things that have impacted the decision-making process. There are some who have not been consistent in their approach and it’s also appeared a certain sport or sports has been more important than others. So you’re arbitrarily deciding what student athletes you’re willing to spend money on to test, and which ones you’re willing to go and fight for. I have a real problem with that.”

Another potential hurdle this season will be getting all eight NCHC schools to play. The official first day of practice for NCHC schools is Oct. 3, and the first scheduled game for the Mavericks is just six days later. Although the reality is that date will be pushed back, they have to go into this with a business as usual mentality until told otherwise.

“There have been a few of my colleagues who say we might as well cancel the season now,” Alberts said. “Why don’t we wait and let somebody tell us we have to? That’s part of fighting to the end for your student athletes. Now I understand reality. The reality is if you’ve canceled fall sports there’s no way any big institution is going to let schools play hockey in October, but not football. But until that decision is made, let’s find a way to make it happen and play hockey.”

Kemp, who was named the chair of the NCAA Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Committee in July, finds himself in a unique position. With his role, he has the chance to deal with the commissioners from all six conferences, along with the coaches’ association and tournament committee. It’s inevitable that the start of the season will be delayed, but there’s a lot of hope for the sport going into this winter.

“The positive with our sport is we have time on our side,” Kemp said. “We could start in November, December, or even January, so we have a lot of time to allow these things to work out. I think more than anything else, we will see how the fall goes and we really have an opportunity if we do things the right way to have a successful season.”

In addition to his chair position, he’s also on the NCHC’s Health and Safety Committee, which writes all the protocols to ensure player, coach and staff safety. Sure, recent improvements in testing will create further optimism, but with each school and state having their own restrictions, it may also create some potential challenges.

“We don’t know if every program is going to want to or be able to play,” Kemp said. “Those of us who are committed to getting going and getting games in, we need to be able to react. If it means we play the same team multiple times, so be it. We’ve had that conversation as a tournament committee.

“We can’t speculate on the future of this virus though, and we have to deal with what we know today. I think all of the conferences have come to the conclusion that in order to safely put together a season without a start and stop, it’s best to maintain a conference-only schedule.”

With that reality, the NCHC has put together multiple contingency plans and a list of progressions. Ranging from a mid-November start time aligned with college basketball, to a second semester start after the new year, and even a pod city format. No matter what the situation is, creativity is essential.

“The aspect of flexibility is incredibly important,” Fenton said. “What I’ve attempted to continue to communicate to our membership, whether it be AD’s or coaches, is that this is a year unlike any other. When we think about putting a schedule together some of those things like competitive equity and fairness are going to be a lot more challenging than they may be in certain years.”

Fenton admits the league is looking at a delayed -start, but says that the conference does not have a targeted start date in mind. Over the last few months, he has hosted meetings with the NCHC athletic directors and coaches at least once a week, along with student leadership groups from each school. He also talks weekly with the other commissioners across college hockey.

For the conferences in the west such as the NCHC, there’s another added obstacle when putting together a schedule during these times:- logistics and travel. It’s 1,207 miles from CC’s Broadmoor World Arena to Lawson Ice Arena in Kalamazoo, Michigan, the furthest trek in the conference.

The ECAC, which is home to several Ivy League schools and concentrated in a much smaller region in the northeast, has already announced no competition through the end of the first semester.

Regarding schools potentially opting to not play, the commissioner says his conference has gone into this putting together an eight- team schedule. If something changes, they’ll act accordingly. At the end of the day, the primary goal is to get student-athletes on the ice.

“We’re looking at any and all types of models,” Fenton said. “The aspect that the schedule will come out and make a lot of sense from a balance standpoint may not be the case. But at the end of the day it comes back to how can we provide the best experiences for a group of student-athletes that want to play hockey games, and ensure we do it in a safe and responsible manner.”

That sentiment was echoed by the Mavericks’ Athletic Director.

“Now is the time to save our sport,” Alberts said. “This is going to be the most unusual season and quite frankly, I know Coach Gabinet might not like this, but if we have to play North Dakota every single week in order to give our athletes an opportunity to play, help our department financially, and help save our sports nationally, we’ll do it. That’s the kind of thinking we have to have across college hockey right now.”

As the National Hockey League remains bubbled in the cities of Edmonton and Toronto, the league has continued to play , COVID free. North Dakota pushed on for the majority of the summer with skates in Grand Forks. With school starting back up, the Mavericks have been back working out and skating at Baxter Arena this past week. But as we approach the early stages of 2020-21, that early October start date looks to be getting pushed further away.

What are the testing protocols? Will fans be in the stands? What will games look like? At this point, no one knows. Like anything in the world around us right now there are countless questions and very few answers.

Drums will be banging, fish will be flying and U-N-O chants will be echoing throughout Baxter Arena on winter nights, hopefully sooner rather than later. In the meantime, it’s more important than ever that players, coaches and fans alike go into this with an open mind and take this situation one day at a time.

“We are going to fight every single day to not lose one opportunity for any of our student athletes here to compete,” Alberts said.

“There are lots of challenges, but also a lot of opportunities. As a result of the pandemic there are going to be winners, and there are going to be losers. I honestly believe we are in a very rare and unique situation being in Omaha, Nebraska, and I think we are going to emerge extraordinarily strong.”

With so much unknown ahead, that optimism is echoed both here in Omaha and by the conference as a whole. There’s light at the end of the tunnel.