GRAND FORKS -- For the last few weeks, the National Collegiate Hockey Conference has worked toward starting its season with all eight member schools convening in one location and reeling off games between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
The league has made considerable progress on turning the hub city plan into reality, but plenty of work remains.
At the top of the to-do list is picking the site.
According to multiple sources, Grand Forks and Omaha have emerged as the frontrunners.
Both UND and Omaha have been providing the NCHC information about amenities they'd be able to offer if their site is used, including coronavirus testing capacity and turnaround time, arena availability, hotel options and more. UND and Ralph Engelstad Arena officials have been engaging with business leaders in the city to learn what types of support they could offer such an event.
A final decision is expected to be made sometime in the next two weeks by vote of member institutions.
Although the schedule and format has not been finalized, it is believed that each team would play about 10 games in a three-week span between Thanksgiving and Christmas. It would involve games on both weekdays and weekends.
Along with UND and Omaha, the NCHC consists of Colorado College, Minnesota Duluth, St. Cloud State, Denver, Western Michigan and Miami.
There are several reasons why the NCHC has decided to pursue a hub city concept.
First of all, it allows the league to streamline and standardize coronavirus testing.
Last month, league commissioner Josh Fenton said: "It gives you an opportunity to control variables that aren't controlled in a normal scheduled travel environment. We know the success the NBA had, the NHL has had. If you're able to control some variables, it does give you an opportunity."
Second, it could be financially advantageous. The matchups would primarily feature opponents that need an airplane flight to play against each other. That's designed to cut down on airline travel during the second half of the season, because they're getting a number of them out of the way in one trip.
It also comes at a time when most schools are on break or are offering online opportunities. Fenton previously said that figuring out academics would be a priority if the hub concept is pursued.
"We have to be cognizant that we have academic calendars," Fenton said last month. "Although classes, for the most part, are moving online, the academic calendar is vitally important when we talk about schedules and about grouping concepts."
It is unlikely fans would be allowed to attend games in the hub. Games would all be broadcasted on NCHC.tv. They could potentially be on Midco Sports Network, too.
The post-Christmas part of the schedule would be played at home sites. Details have yet to emerge on that.
The NCHC had conversations with Arizona State about the Sun Devils, who are not a member of any college hockey conference, paying to be part of the NCHC hub to get games for the 2020-21 season. Arizona State ultimately created a scheduling alliance with the Big Ten.
Last month, the NCHC announced its intention to start the season "on or after Nov. 20." The Big Ten and Hockey East have both said they intend to start in November.
It appears the timeline is pretty close to that for the NCHC.
Coronavirus testing and turnaround times will be a major factor in choosing the site -- Fenton has referenced testing protocols being vital in nearly every interview during the pandemic.
Facilities will play a role, too.
Omaha plays at Baxter Arena, which has two sheets of ice. The Mavericks share the venue with their men's and women's basketball team.s
UND plays at Ralph Engelstad Arena, which also has two sheets of ice. The Ralph has previously hosted a pair of high-profile, 10-team tournaments in the IIHF World Junior Championship and the IIHF World Under-18 Championship.
No college hockey games have been played since last season abruptly ended March 12 due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Since then, officials have been exploring different ideas of how to re-start the sport.
Commissioners across the six conferences have been in frequent contact during this summer and fall, holding conference calls at least once a week. Intent on aligning college hockey season with college basketball season, hockey officials also have been in contact with their basketball counterparts.
"I think the collective work of those in college hockey gives us the best opportunity to have a season that we all want to have for our student-athletes," Fenton said last month.