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This Week in Hockey East

College Hockey:
Scheduling flexibility allows Hockey East teams big-game opportunities

In recent years, the Hockey East schedule has opened slowly with few league games and then built to a climax. The Ice Breaker kicked off the season with a Hockey East team typically playing other elite teams from around the country, but the league schedule saved its bullets. Heavyweights like Boston College and New Hampshire faced off for the title with a home-and-home series in the final weekend.

So it was a surprise to see Boston University hosting UNH last Saturday. Was this a calculated departure from the norm, presumably to kick the season off with a bang? And was that experiment a dud given the 5-0 final score?

No and no.

The matchup of the two perennial powers (which was, in truth, considerably closer than the final score indicated) had nothing to do with league intentions. Neither did Massachusetts at Northeastern or Merrimack at Maine or Northeastern at Maine.

The way the league drew up the schedule back in June 2010, there wasn’t a single league game for last weekend. Only Boston College’s entry in the Ice Breaker was on the docket.

“Our policy allows schools to move games if they have mutual consent and it doesn’t negatively affect a third party,” Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna says. (An example of such a negative side effect is a team moving a game and, as a result, another team plays two games on a weekend against opponents who only play one.)

So why the musical chairs that resulted in not one or two league games but four? To facilitate scheduling of attractive programs outside the conference.

“What happens in October and sometimes November is that [dates in those months] are the only chance to play some non-league opponent,” Bertagna says. “The schools have limited options. So they put in these requests primarily so that they can open a weekend for non-league play.

“All those league games this weekend were not designed by the league. In every case, the schools moved those games to accommodate some non-league opportunities.”

A look at the schedule of the three home teams involved illustrates the point. On Saturday, BU hosts third-ranked Denver, which comes to town to also play BC the night before. Was a switch necessary to make this highly desirable matchup work? Perhaps.

And you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to connect the dots between Maine’s rescheduled games against Merrimack and Northeastern and the Black Bears visiting sixth-ranked North Dakota this weekend. Or Northeastern’s trip to South Bend in early December to play second-ranked Notre Dame.

All of which doesn’t mean that next year will play out the same way. Hockey East schedules go in cycles such that the second year is a mirror image of the first. For example, if Merrimack and Northeastern play a home-and-home series on a given weekend this year, next year they’ll also play a home-and-home series on the same weekend, but with the home games reversed.

“Going forward next year,” Bertagna says, “the schedule that I have out for 2012-2013 is a flip flop of the original schedule that I made. It’s not a flip flop of the current schedule.”

Schools can, and almost certainly will, make similar changes to that schedule. A few will also adjust the Friday-Saturday night splits to their liking.

“[We design the schedule] so everybody gets an equal chance of playing on Friday or Saturday,” Bertagna says. “Most schools prefer Saturday, but we have some that prefer Friday.

“A school like Northeastern has so many alumni and employees in Boston already on a Friday, they find that a lot of them will stay in for a Friday game in greater numbers than will come back in for a Saturday.

“So they’ll go to their opponent and ask for Friday both years [of the cycle]. A lot of times the opponent will agree because they like the Saturday games.”

Notre Dame and the 11-team dilemma

All the talk around the rinks this past weekend was, “Who’s going to be the 12th team?” There’s considerable excitement about Notre Dame joining Hockey East and bringing the strength and allure of its program.

Many observers, however, are waiting for the other shoe to drop, recalling the scheduling awkwardness of the nine-team Hockey East during the time between Massachusetts joining the league and Vermont rounding it out to 10 members. Down the stretch, a team would be off or multiple teams would play only a single contest.

So as Bertagna conceded last week, an even number of teams is ideal. But it’s not a requirement.

Twelve would be very nice indeed. Eleven less so. Not knowing which one it will be, however, is the worst situation of all.

“You can do an 11-team schedule or you can do a 12-team schedule,” Bertagna says. “There are ways to do both.

“The point we’ve been trying to make all along is that as nice and tidy as 12 is so that on a given Saturday everyone is playing, our approach is not going to be that we’ve got to get to 12.

“Our approach is let’s see who’s interested. If we hear from schools that the league feels are a good fit for us and we solve the odd-even problem, then we’ve got it. But in the absence of finding that school, we’re not going to make getting to 12 the determining factor.

“I’ve read different things in print that claim it’s a done deal and it’s this school or that school. It’s somewhat comical when you’re on the inside and you know there are no done deals. If anything, there have been casual conversations, but that’s about it.

“We do feel that we’d like to get it resolved sooner rather than later because people are on hold and coaches are getting opportunities to pursue non-league schedules. Those opportunities will not be there forever. So hopefully we can do this, but it really depends on hearing from schools.

“Our position has never been to go after schools sitting in existing conferences. Anything we’ve done since I’ve been here has been after schools have contacted us and we’ve responded to them.

“That’s all I can say at this point.”

More non-league games and the uneven playing field effect

As part of Notre Dame and potentially another school joining Hockey East in 2013-14, the league’s teams will drop from 27 league games (playing nine opponents three times each) to 22 (assuming a 12-team league in which each school plays the other 11 twice). Finding those extra five non-league opponents means different things for different programs. It’s a wealth of options for the top schools and a mixed bag for others.

Every program can get games. But it’s a question of not only who but where.

“Some of our schools who perhaps can’t dictate this as much as they’d like, find themselves having great opportunities to play any number of places on the road, but when they ask the schools to reciprocate, a lot of them won’t return to their facility,” Bertagna says. “They pay a guarantee and they make it attractive that way, but from a competitive point of view our schools want to have games in their buildings.”

As an example, Merrimack traveled to Michigan to play two games in 2002 and then another in 2005, but the perennial powerhouse never made a return trip back to North Andover. The Warriors program benefited from adding an opponent like that to its schedule (and also from the financial guarantee), but faced a competitive disadvantage from playing all of those non-league games on the road.

This is why the NCAA has attempted in past years to add “good road wins” to the tournament selection criteria. Powerhouse programs who can use their clout and large arenas to play a disproportionate share of nonconference games at home shouldn’t have that advantage extended to the NCAA tournament.

With an extra five such games to schedule, the effect becomes more pronounced. Programs like Boston College, Boston University, New Hampshire and Maine likely will benefit based on their prestige and large facilities. As for those teams on the lower rungs of the ladder …

“We’re looking into any way the league can help with that, but it does appear to be one of those things where the schools are on their own,” Bertagna says. “If we’re looking at 12 to 14 non-league games, it will be easier for some schools to sculpt that schedule in their buildings than others.”

Of course, not every Hockey East program is looking to add the Michigans of the college hockey world to their schedule, at least not if it’s a one-way deal.

“Different schools have different philosophies on non-league scheduling,” Bertagna says. “It may depend on where their program is competitively at a given point in time on who they want to schedule and who they feel they can match up well against. If you just look at the non-league schedules from year to year, you’ll see that different schools attack it differently.

“You’ve got top-10 teams like Denver this weekend coming in to play BC and BU. Other schools will play a lot of Atlantic Hockey teams or ECAC teams. Some of them are nothing more than just that the coaches have a great relationship and they like to play each other. Some of them are just tradition; they’ve always played a certain opponent.

“But it’s not an even playing field when it comes to tackling a 12- or 14-game non-league schedule.”

And finally, not that it has anything to do with anything but …

I sure hope Theo stays. (OK, journalistic practice dictates that I refer to him as Boston Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein, but in baseball circles Theo is as much a one-word name as Kobe is in basketball.)

Think of where the Sox were when he took over. Think of where they are now plus the two world championships. Yes, there have been free agent disasters, but there are always free agent disasters. It’s the nature of the beast. Compare the talent that has been home grown and acquired through trades with what was there before Theo took over.

There are things to fix. Theo is the best guy to fix them.

USCHO covers Hockey East all week long on the Hockey East Blog, with weekend recaps on Monday, picks on Friday, and updates during the week.


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  • 94eagle

    Glad to see college hockey back and this column!  Go Eagles! see you in Tampa in April
    PS:  leave that baseball crap to the globe and herald

    • Dave Hendrickson

      Good to hear your enthusiasm for the sport and this column.  As for the baseball crap, I’ll continue with the “And finally” segment off and on.  Some people like it.  Heck, I’ve had some people tell me it’s the first thing they read.  (I’m not sure if that’s good or bad.) The people that don’t can easily skip it.  Consider “And finally” to be equivalent to “THE END.”

      :)

      • JMBell1964

        Please, you give Theo more credit than he deserves.  I have no pity for the Red Sox or for Theo.  Any team that takes a 9 game slide ought to be “dope slapped” from the club house right up to management.  You wanna give Theo credit for 2 world series, fine.  Those were different times…it was a team that wanted to play and win.  After that, it was all about “fat cats”, mouthing off and drinking.  Where was ”the boy wonder” when all this stuff was going on?  No guts to tell the players sober up or bench them?  I say, let Theo go to Chicago… and don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

        ….and by the way….maybe Theo will do us a favor and take “big Papi” with him…cause the Yankees sure won’t. 

  • Joe C

    Dave

    Excellent article. In 2013-2014, when all the leagues are formed, we probably will see a 12-team Hockey East, playing a balanced 22-game schedule, meaning home-and-home with all schools including Notre Dame.

    Do you see a lot of the non-conference games being held with the BTHC because they only have 6 teams, which means their conference play looks to be a lot of games among just 5 opponents? One would think that BTN and NBC Sports both would like to see home-and-home action between BTHC and NBC Sports (old Versus). Unfortunately, I do not see a lot of room in these proposed matchups for Penn State-Merrimack. I would suspect, instead, Notre Dame, BC, BU, Maine, New Hampshire and maybe whoever is hot/upset a BTHC school in the NCAA as the interleague play.

    The other league that could benefit from the additional games is the ECAC, especially the non-Ivies, since the Ivy League schools like to start play later.

    Finally, if I had my way, a strongly committed UConn would be the 12th Hockey East team, as long as Boston College can get over itself and the wounds of the Big East/ACC battles that linger to this day. UConn’s potential is excellent, but is men’s hockey a priority in the future, since right now it is now. Barring UConn, other bloggers have convinced me that Quinnipiac would be an excellent fit.

    • Dave Hendrickson

      Thanks for the kind words. 

      I’m not sure if the commitment level is there at UConn right now. What I’d love to see, though I doubt it will happen, is RPI making the move.

  • Joe C

    I wonder if Air Force (as far away as it is) might not be a good fit for Hockey East’s 12th team if the Falcons join the Big East. Notre Dame would remain with only five trips east and all the New England schools could schedule road games with Colorado College or Denver when flying out to play the Falcons, along with road games with BTHC/WCHA teams a bus trip away from South Bend.

    If done correctly, one of the “big five” schools (BU, BC, UNH, ME, UVM) could be paired up with a smaller schools for weekend partners. For example, when UHN/UVM go west to play AF, Friday UNH plays AF and UVM plays CC, then Saturday UNH plays CC and UVM plays AF. For the South Bend trip, Friday UNH plays Wisconsin? and UVM plays Notre Dame, then Saturday UVM plays Western Michigan? and UNH plays Notre Dame.

    Maybe the New England travel partners could be:
    UNH/UMass Lowell
    UVM/UMass
    BU/Northeastern
    BC/Providence
    ME/Merrimack 

    I am not saying this are the best pairings, but they might be interesting.

    • Dave Hendrickson

      I see Notre Dame as more the exception to the “every school is in New England” rule than as the case that throws open the floodgates and results in them traveling to Air Force. I can’t see that.

  • jeteye1717

    Some interesting comments from Commissioner Joe here … While I’d agree with him that “it’s not an even playing field when it comes to tackling a 12– or 14-game non-league schedule,” isn’t doing his best to try and rectify that situation part of his job? I’m sure there’ll be no great rush on the part of, say, Wisconsin or NoDak to schedule non-league games with PC and Umass-Lowell, but why can’t Bertagna use his considerable clout to leverage a deal that benefits ALL of HEA, not just the upper echelon teams? And I say this as a fan of one of the Big 4 teams that won’t have any trouble scheduling the additional non-league games needed once the league schedule contracts to just 22 home/home games.You want to play BC? Fine – but you’ll have to schedule Merrimack too.

    That’s what was so great about the old interlocking HEA-WCHA schedule back in the early days of he league. It had its flaws to be sure, but *every* team shared the good/bad. I doubt you’d get the respective league commissioners to count inter-league contests in their respective conference standings as was done previously, but a 12-team HE meshes perfectly with a 6-team BTHC to forge a 2-year agreement where every HE team can participate. Come 2013 every team will have a boat-load of non-league dates to fill – why not be pro-active and simply schedule the hockey equivalent of the ACC/BT Hoops Challenge? Dates filled, compelling TV match-ups, PWR-boosting inter-league games; it’s a win:win for all. Here’s your chance Joe – channel your inner Lamoriello and make it happen!

    • Dave Hendrickson

      I can’t agree that Bertagna should be playing “communist” while brokering non-league games. If, for example, BC can get games against North Dakota, it’s not his responsibility to say that they won’t be approved unless Less Attractive Team X also gets games against the Sioux. Each team’s non-league schedule is the responsibility of the team, not the Commissioner. Schools like BC would be livid at having their potential deals squashed.  The league can help try to facilitate, but they certainly can’t dictate.

      • Joe C

        Dave, I completely agree with this. What fits for the “big five”, BU, BC ME, UNH and Notre Dame may not fit for the other programs every year. In the past few years, would PC really want to be scheduling Top Ten games out of conference, as an example?

        Some of the smaller schools with smaller budgets might prefer to play their out of conference games with similar sized programs in ECAC and AHA, with only a bus ride to schedule. If you look at how basketball handles this, refer to the old Big Ten/ACC challenge. North Carolina would play Michigan State, while Florida State would play Penn State and Northwestern would play Georgia Tech. The programs would be able equal size and status.

        I look forward to 2013-2014 schedules!

        Go BU!

      • jeteye1717

        Hmmm … So tell me Dave – would you have been as quick to brand Lou Lamoriello a ‘communist’ commissioner too for having had the audacity to work with his WCHA counterpart and forge the original HEA-WCHA interlocking scheduling agreement? It wasn’t perfect, and more than a few of the HEA light-weights got knocked around pretty good by the generally bigger, more physical Top Tier WCHA teams, but the take-home message was inescapable: to compete regularly with the Big Boys, some (not all) HEA teams had to change their recruiting focus, get bigger/better players, and commit more $$ resources to their respective programs. IMO Conte Forum, the Whitt, HAA, even Tsongas, don’t get built without Lamoriello having had the stones to push the fledgling league – all of it – onto the National Stage. How many new rinks have been built in the ECAC since the split?

        And I’m not suggesting that Bertagna should ‘dictate’ the entirety of every team’s non-conference slate, only that (with potentially 12 NC games/team to schedule) he can – and should – help forge some scheduling alliances with the other leagues. Any league is only as strong as its weakest member, and IMO it’s not a positive for the league if Lowell, UMass, Merrimack, etc. fill their expanded non-league schedule with the likes of AIC, Bentley and Canisius. BC has scheduling clout; Lowell does not. Lamoriello had the vision to see that a rising tide lifts all boats; Bertagna can help ensure that ALL league teams benefit from the added exposure an 11- or 12-team league will promote …

  • Anonymous

    I wonder how the scheduling will work when HEA teams play just 2 games against one another each year.  Seems easy enough for the Boston-area teams to play a home and home.  Not so easy to travel to Orono, Burlington or South Bend for just one game.  Probably what will happen as all teams need to be on the same schedule. 

    I never liked the current 3 games a year schedule, because HEA teams had a tendency to canabalize themselves in the PWR and as we saw last year with BC, UNH and Merrimack, are often unprepared to play WCHA and CCHA teams in the NCAAs.  Hopefully HEA teams will take advantage of the out of conference scheduling opportunities to play the NCHC and Big10 teams on a more consistent basis.

    • Dave Hendrickson

      I’d argue that playing the tough league schedule is what has made Hockey East such a power at NCAA tournament time (last year notwithstanding).

    • Joe C

      For the scheduling, you play one home and one away against every team. For the outliers, like Maine, UNH, UVM and UMass, the remaining schools in MA/RI play the away games in pairs, UNH and Maine as one road trip, UVM and UMass as another road trip. The first is up I-95, the other is I-90/I-81/I-87. All the rest of the schols are a short bus trip away. A school on a “travel” weekend to an outlier pair goes with a travel partner.

      The outlier schools play each other in a home-and-home within their pair and travel as a pair like a “MA/RI” to the other pair. ME/UNH play home and home in one weekend and travel as a pair to UVM/UMass.

      Notre Dame makes five trips east, playing each two of the ten current HE schools each time. When the New England schools go west to South Bend, they can schedule non-conference games within a 6-hour bus ride.

      Depending on the 12th program, there may be a need to tweak the outliers. But it should not be that hard to figure out in the end.

  • RCP

    r u kidding me….making  comments about that red sox gm (ex) and kobe basketball player really sullies your article…c’mon those sports really have no place next to Hockey…