3 weeks in an Omaha bubble: Miami University hockey prepares for most unusual season

Chris Bergeron leaned back in his chair and laughed heartily when he heard the question.

The second-year Miami ice hockey coach was participating in a recent Zoom media session before the RedHawks left for Omaha, Neb., to spend three weeks in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference season-opening pod when a media member had one more question.

“Coach, I’m not being flippant,” it started. “I really want to know. How do you pack for three weeks?”

“Well, I have to tell you, we’re bringing everything except the electric skate sharpener attached to the wall,” Bergeron said after collecting himself.

Miami and the other seven NCHC teams were due to converge on Omaha to each play 10 conference games from Tuesday through Dec. 20. The RedHawks, like their men’s basketball peers on Nov. 25, were scheduled to open their 2020-2021 season today at 4:35 p.m. against the University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks.

One key difference is, unlike the UND basketball team, the ice hockey Fighting Hawks are ranked No. 1 in the country in both the USCHO.com and USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine polls, but Bergeron probably would have welcomed playing the National Hockey League-champion Tampa Bay Lightning if it meant getting his team on the ice against a team wearing another uniform.

Miami is scheduled to meet Omaha, which was ranked sixth in the NCHC media poll, on Saturday, followed by a matchup on Sunday against Minnesota-Duluth, which was ranked third in the nation in the USCHO.com poll and fourth in the USAToday/USA Hockey Magazine poll.

After the Omaha pod experience, Miami is scheduled to resume what is expected to be a 26-game regular-season schedule with home games against Western Michigan on Jan. 2-3.

“We’re excited to get the season going,” Bergeron said. “For the players’ sake, we’re ready to see where we’re at.

“I think they’ve gotten used to going with the flow and figuring things out. We’ll do the best we can. We’re excited to play somebody else.”

Coming off an 8-21-5 season that was cut short during the conference tournament by the COVID-19 pandemic, Miami was picked in the NCHC media poll to finish last in the eight-team conference this season. Senior forward Casey Gilling is the top returning scorer with 31 points last season, including nine goals, and he tied for the team in assists with 22 assists. Sophomore forwards Ryan Savage and Chase Pletzke are back after each scoring 14 points as freshmen last man,

Bergeron is working with a lot of new faces. Miami’s roster features three transfers and seven freshmen, including goalkeeper Ludvig Persson, a native of Sweden who finished in the top five in the North American Hockey League in goals-against average and save percentage last season.

“We’re happy with where the guys are at in comparison to last year,” Bergeron said. “We’re more comfortable with each other. They know our expectations. It’s hard to tell where we are in comparison to last year, but I can you that, as a group, they’re so much more comfortable with what’s expected and the role they’re in from where we were a year ago.”

Besides putting names together with faces, Bergeron has faced the challenge of preparing his team for three weeks in a pod modeled after those used by the NHL and National Basketball Association to finish their seasons in quarantine.

“We have to get the team ready for all that,” he said. “We watched the NBA on the court and the NHL on the ice, but you don’t know what it’s going to be like to be in a hotel room for three weeks. On the ice, we’ve kind of been giving them ideas of what their days will look like on game day, but when it’s not game day, we’ll be trying other things. It’s different for college kids. You’re normally preparing to play next Friday and Saturday. Now, we have to cut that last game loose and focus on the next game, and you can’t really prepare them for that.”

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