The coronavirus pandemic has brought an addition to the sports lexicon — the “bubble.”

After seeing how successful the NHL bubble was, the Division I National Collegiate Hockey Conference decided to host its own bubble, or what the conference is calling the NCHC pod, which began on Dec. 1 and runs through Dec. 21.

The pod is where two former Maine prep hockey standouts, Luke Grainger and Jared Cockrell have begun their college hockey season.

Grainger, a Montreal native who played at Hebron Academy 2016-18 is now a freshman forward at Western Michigan University (Kalamazoo, Michigan). Cockrell, also a forward, played for his hometown school of Kents Hill 2011-13 and is now a graduate transfer at St. Cloud State University (St. Cloud, Minnesota).

Grainger has one goal and one assist so far in eight games while Cockrell has one goal in six games.

The two never crossed paths in their prep hockey career and didn’t realize there was another player in the pod that played prep school hockey in Maine.

Jared Cockrell of St. Cloud State dives at the puck in a game against Western Michigan earlier this month in Omaha, Nebraska. Cockrell played at Kents Hill from 2011-13 Mark Kuhlmann

“That’s awesome to hear,” Grainger said. “It’s pretty cool to see kids who succeed in playing prep school hockey in Maine. We just played against St. Cloud twice the past two weeks, we went 1-1 against them. (Cockrell) is a good player as well. It’s always good to see players come from those types of schools and Kents Hill is our rival, so it’s cool to see that.”

Cockrell hopes to catch up with Grainger in the final week in Omaha.

“I actually had no idea about that,” Cockrell said. “It’s really cool to hear, obviously it’s a rare thing to find other hockey players who are still playing at high-level who (played) in Maine. That’s cool to hear. I hope to connect with him in the pod.”

POD LIFE

Grainger didn’t expect his college hockey career to begin in a pod nor did Cockrell expect to start his final college hockey season in the pod.

Both players are grateful for being able to play 10 games in 20 days. Some schools, such as the University of Maine are just starting their season last weekend, while other schools are not going to have a season at all.

“So far so good,” Grainger said. “We are in a bubble (and) we are kind of locked and stuck in a hotel room the last two weeks, going on week three now. It’s been pretty good. This is the first college hockey experience I have had so it’s pretty unusual. But it’s pretty awesome that we get to play right now; playing against the best teams in the country every second day is pretty awesome. It’s been pretty tiring on the body but it’s pretty awesome so I can’t complain about it.”

After seeing what the NHL did this summer with its bubble, it gave both players the confidence that the NCHC can pull off something similar.

“I think that’s why our league was able to do (it) because how successful the NHL bubble was… The league felt it was kind of the best and safest protocol to take in trying to figure out a way to play this year,” Grainger said.

Jared Cockrell of St. Cloud State skates up the ice in a game against the University of Denver earlier this month in Omaha, Nebraska. Mark Kuhlmann

The teams are playing at Baxter Arena on the campus of University of Nebraska-Omaha, which is a member of the NCHC. The league chose Omaha not because of the central location for teams from as far east as Ohio (Miami University) and as far west as Colorado (Colorado College and Denver), but because UNO has the University of Nebraska Medical Center on campus which has been one of the leading research centers in the nation on the virus.

“The University of Nebraska-Omaha is utilizing their medical center to make testing available to us, that’s a key part of it” Cockrell said. “I think it makes sense (given) how far spread out our league is to limit travel for now which is great. It’s a good way to get as many games in as possible in a safe way.”

The players are tested up to four times a week.

Both players are getting used to playing three or four times a week in one of the nation’s toughest conferences. The NCHC is home to the past four NCAA champions (University of North Dakota, 2016; University of Denver 2017; University of Minnesota-Duluth 2018 and 2019)

“It’s good it gives you less time to think. You’ve just got to get out there and play,” Cockrell said. “You really have to have a short memory. There’s not much time to dwell, but on the other hand, it’s hard on the body and you have to take your rest serious. You don’t have a week in between games to recover, so you have to make sure you are staying on top of the nutrition.”

GETTING TO PREP SCHOOL AND COLLEGE HOCKEY

Western Michigan’s Luke Grainger tries to settle the puck in a game against the University of Nebraska-Omaha earlier this month at Baxter Arena in Omaha Nebraska. Grainger who played at Hebron Academy is one of two players who played prep school hockey in Maine in the NCHC Pod. Mark Kuhlmann

The paths to prep school hockey were different for Grainger and Cockrell, but their paths to college hockey were similar. Grainger was recruited to Hebron while Cockrell’s father — Larry Cockrell, who’s the University of Maine men’s hockey volunteer coach — was the Kents Hill boys varsity hockey coach at the time he played.

James LeBlanc, Hebron’s hockey coach at the time, saw Grainger at a showcase tournament in the Montreal area for prospective players looking to play prep school hockey in New England.

“James LeBlanc approached me and liked the way I played and said Hebron would be a great fit for me,” Grainger said. “I looked into it and came down to visit and I loved it there. I loved Mr. LeBlanc and I applied. I got in.”

Cockrell said playing for his father wasn’t that difficult.

“I was very fortunate to have him there and he coached me growing up. We had a great player-coach relationship,” Cockrell said. “We always kept it separate, kept coaching at the rink and kept the family time at home, I think that worked. Obviously, he’s a big reason why I am the player I am today. I think it was a winning recipe.”

Grainger was a point producer for the Lumberjacks in his two seasons, as he amassed 25 goals and 53 assists in 54 games.

While Hebron wasn’t as successful team record-wise, Grainger was able to develop as a player.

“It was probably the best two years of my life at that time,” Grainger said. “While the hockey was tough at times, we kind of struggled as a team over the course of my career there. We definitely had a losing record, but it was a time and a chance for me to rise to the occasion. I think I was able to do that. I was given the opportunity to play a lot both years there and that situation helped my game a lot.”

Cockrell was also an offensive force in three seasons at Kents Hill with 48 goals, 73 assists in 80 games).

Jared Cockrell of St. Cloud State is one of two players in the NCHC pod in Omaha, Nebraska who played prep school hockey in Maine. He played at Kents Hill while Luke Grainger of Western Michigan played at Hebron Academy. Mark Kuhlmann

One memory Cockrell has at Kents Hill was a game against Hebron.

“It’s an easy memory for me, it was beating Hebron in a home game my junior year,” Cockrell said. “I think that was the year we had our strongest team and the excitement and support throughout the school from all the students made it special.”

Both players weren’t Division I prospects while in prep school, so both headed to play Junior “A” hockey in Canada. There are 10 Junior “A” leagues in Canada which allow players to keep their NCAA eligibility.

Grainger joined the Hawkesbury Hawks of the Central Canadian Hockey League in the Ottawa region of Ontario, while Cockrell played for the Brooks Bandits in the Alberta Junior Hockey League.

Grainer committed to Western Michigan last season and was named to the CCHL All-Star team that faced the University of Massachusetts-Lowell in an exhibition game.

Grainger chose the Mustangs for the fan base.

“Playing in front of the fans is one of the reasons why I chose Western Michigan and why I committed there because they are called the Lawson Lunatics,” Grainger said. “They are pretty special over there.”

At Brooks, Cockrell was on the team that went to the 2015-16 Royal Bank Cup — the  Canadian Junior “A” version of the Memorial Cup — as the AJHL champions and Western Canadian Cup finalist

Cockrell also committed to Colgate University (Hamilton, New York), a Division I school in the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference, where he played four seasons from 2016-20 (23 goals and 29 assists in 112 games. But an injury in his junior season allowed him to play a fifth season this year.

“I missed most of junior year at Colgate due to a pretty bad concussion,” Cockrell said. “I was able to come back my senior year (last season), but had another year to play if I wanted it and Colgate didn’t have too many graduate options. So I thought it was a good opportunity to get another degree somewhere else.”

Cockrell became the first Mainer to play for St. Cloud State, which has been one of the better programs in the NCHC. The Huskies have won  the Penrose Cup — the league’s regular season champion — three times since the league started in 2013-14.

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