The Twin City Thunder of Auburn will spend the first month-and-a-half of 2021 wintering in Tampa, Fla. with the creation of the United States Premier Hockey League’s “Hub City”

Both of the Twin City Thunder teams — the Tier II National Collegiate Development Conference team and Tier III Premier League team — will participate in Hub City, with each team playing 20 games in a 45-day span starting on Jan. 5 and lasting into the middle of February.

The USPHL created Hub City in a partnership Saddlebrook Resort and the AdventHealth Center Ice.

The NCDC Team has only played eight games (3-5-0, 6 points) this season while the Premier League team 12 games (7-5-0, 14 points) this season. The NCDC team will have 19 games remaining on its schedule after the Hub City event ends. The Premier League team will have 10 games remaining on the schedule. Where those games for both team will be played after the Hub City event has not been decided.

According to Twin City Thunder co-owner and NCDC head coach Dan Hodge, Hub City is something the league has been working on for a while with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“The league office, they kind of put it out to us the last 10 days or so and we kind of discussed it,” Hodge said. “It just seems with all the starts and stops this season this was the best chance to get the players playing on a consistent basis. It’s exciting. It’s a great idea after watching how successful the NHL was doing it.”

The USPHL footprint, specifically at the NCDC level, has been hit hard by states who have tightened regulations on amateur hockey in the Northeast. New England stats and New Jersey agreed to shut down interstate youth and school hockey until Jan. 1, but junior hockey wasn’t directly mentioned in the agreement.

States such as Maine have their own guidelines whereby hockey-related activities have been shut down since early November. The Maine Department of Health and Human Services updated the Community Sports requirements on Friday saying the requirements applies to venues that host community sports such as ice rinks and municipal buildings. The requirements allow skilled based drills and skills to begin Dec. 7, practices beginning on Jan. 4 and games on Jan. 11.

DHHS said junior hockey is a part of those guidelines, but both the Thunder and the Lewiston-based Maine Nordiques of the North American Hockey League  have played home and away games since the order was sent out to stop all hockey-related activities in November.

Hodge said he has heard positive feedback from college coaches on the bubble plan. With technology schools will still be able to recruit the players.

“HockeyTV is a great tool and a lot of these colleges have a thing called InStat where they can breakdown player’s shifts, shift-by-shift,” Hodge said. “It’s a great tool to have and this year we are living in a virtual world. It’s one of those things where people can access the games online and watch them live.”

Saddlebrook Resort is a gated community and, Hodge said, once the teams arrive no one will be allowed in or out of the resort. It has training facilities for athletes and features two adjacent fitness centers that total over 6,000 square feet, multiple volleyball and basketball courts, and a FieldTurf training field, along with three swimming pools, two Arnold Palmer golf courses and a tennis complex.

The arena has four rinks as part of the complex where each team will be able to practice two or three times a week, according Hodge.

All current USPHL COVID-19 protocols will be followed regarding travel, facility management and any hockey and sport-related policies will remain in effect. The USPHL will have trained medical staff on site throughout the duration of the event.

“The great thing about it, they are going to have on-site testing (and) they are going to follow the protocols that we have been following all year long, with the masks and on-site testing,” Hodge said. “If a player does track COVID, they will have a separate area where that player will quarantine. They are taking all the steps to be as safe as you can be while being down there.”

Hodge said if the players get the virus, they will be quarantined for two weeks.

There will be no additional cost to players. The NCDC is a tuition-free league, but players pay a billet fee to the billet familes that they stay with. The Premier League is a full pay-to-play league.

“I don’t consider it pay-to-play, I look at it as pay for their lodging,” Hodge said. “Their billet fees that they would be paying here (in Auburn) will be going towards what they are paying (down in Tampa). That’s the thing, I’ve seen ‘Now they are a pay-to-play league.’ No, we aren’t a pay-to-play league. The players are paying for their accommodations, basically, doing what they would do here, and they are going to pay for their food and stuff. I’ve heard it’s pay-to-play. No, it’s pay-to-stay.”

Hodge said the final cost for players and the teams is still being calculated.

The players are excited to be going down to Tampa, according to Hodge.

“They are excited. They are college-aged kids, they hear Florida ‘Oh, Florida, great!’ but you have to nail down on the particulars,” Hodge said. “Yeah, we are going to Florida, that’s where we are headed. You are going to be busy. There’s going to be rules and regulations that they’ve got to follow. They are going to enjoy their time, but they are down there for a purpose.”

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