College Hockey:
RIT’s Wilson: Fix home game inequality before adjusting PairWise, looking at on-campus regionals

As the NCAA searches for solutions to poor attendance at regionals and PairWise Rankings volatility, schools wait to see how possible changes will affect them.

In the matter of NCAA regionals possibly returning to on-campus sites and potentially becoming three-game series, it’s easy to predict which leagues and schools would favor such a change. Traditional powers with large facilities and fan bases likely would benefit from a return to on-campus NCAA tournament games, while smaller schools see themselves as having a fighting chance under the current system.

According to Rochester Institute of Technology coach Wayne Wilson, his school and Atlantic Hockey want to keep things as even as possible by continuing to play regionals at neutral sites.

“If it’s really about the student-athlete experience, then you work on increasing attendance at the neutral sites,” he said. “What kind of experience is it for a student-athlete on a higher-seeded team to have to play a lower-seeded team in their rink? Or any team for that matter to have to play a road game in the national tournament? That was a big problem with that format, which is why we turned away from it.”

Before the start of the regional format in 1992, all NCAA tournament games leading into the Frozen Four were played in home rinks. Since 2010, the NCAA regionals have been exclusively at neutral sites after 18 years of mixed campus and off-campus venues.

Wilson said the neutral sites, as well as the current selection criteria, have leveled the playing field and made upsets possible. That’s a good thing, he said.

“We’re building a 4,200-seat arena [the Gene Polisseni Center, set to open at the start of the 2014-15 season] in part because we were able to win two NCAA games [in 2010] and get to the Frozen Four. That was good for us, good for our league and good for college hockey. It grows the sport.

“Without Atlantic Hockey, there wouldn’t be a 16-team tournament. That’s where the growth is coming from.”

For the first time, Atlantic Hockey had two teams in the NCAA tournament last season, with Canisius winning the league’s automatic qualifier and Niagara gaining an at-large bid. Robert Morris finished 17th in the PairWise Rankings as well. This generated some rumblings on possible changes to the formula.

“I think the PairWise has done a pretty good job,” Wilson said. “It was called into question this year because our league got two teams in [the NCAA tournament]. But that’s because our league was better from top to bottom and won our share of non-conference games. And I think Canisius and Niagara did a good job of representing [Atlantic Hockey] in the tournament.”

Atlantic Hockey posted the highest number of non-conference wins (25) and tied for the best non-conference winning percentage (.365) in the league’s history. That was despite AHA teams playing the vast majority of their non-conference games on the road.

And that, according to Wilson, is where change has to happen.

Atlantic Hockey teams hosted 23 non-conference home games (16 with conference-affiliated teams; seven against either Alabama-Huntsville or Penn State) plus three more neutral-ice games where AHA squads were the designated home team (RIT’s game with Penn State at Rochester’s Blue Cross Arena and Robert Morris’ contests with Penn State and Ohio State at Pittsburgh’s Consol Energy Center).

In contrast, the league’s 12 teams played 52 pure road games and another five on neutral ice (not including NCAA tournament games). That’s more than a two-to-one disparity.

Mercyhurst played all seven of its non-conference games on the road. Niagara played six of its seven non-conference contests away from Dwyer Arena, where the Purple Eagles were 15-0-2 last season.

In comparison, teams that will form the National Collegiate Hockey Conference played 35 non-conference home games to just 15 road games and 10 neutral-site games. Denver did not play a road non-conference game; no NCHC school played more than two.

Big Ten teams (not including Penn State) played 20 non-conference home games, eight road games and nine neutral-site games out of league. Wisconsin and Michigan did not play any non-conference road games.

“You have to factor in [non]equality in home games,” Wilson said. “When you see teams not playing any road games outside their league, and some of those same teams are the ones pushing for on-campus NCAA tournament games, that’s a bigger problem than the PairWise.”

Wilson said that he understands the need for big-market teams to maximize their home contests for financial reasons, with most offering to pay upwards of $15,000 to cover the travel of visiting teams for a weekend because that will be more than made up at the gate. And the visiting school shouldn’t expect a return trip in all but the rarest of circumstances.

“You could call that buying home games,” he said. “In football they’re very up-front about it, getting smaller teams to come for a big payday that will benefit both sides. Smaller schools use that money to support their athletic programs. But those teams won’t be playing each other in the NCAA tournament. Everybody has economic pressures. The smaller schools have even bigger pressures. We all are in this together and all have financial reasons to play home games.”

A large school subsidizing travel costs for a smaller team to come in for a road series with no thought of reciprocity still doesn’t usually cover all the visitor’s costs and leads to the inequality of home vs. road games that can affect the PairWise.

“That’s an issue I think we should look at instead of possibly changing the formula to keep smaller leagues out, or move to on-campus sites,” Wilson said. “Fix that first.”

Wilson was quick to point out that there are plenty of teams willing to venture into a smaller arena in the interests of fairness and the good of the game.

“When we were a fledgling program everybody wanted to play us, but not [at Ritter Arena],” he said. “But [former St. Lawrence coach] Joe Marsh really helped us out and came here that first season. They were a ranked team and had nothing to benefit from that but it was huge for us. He helped get our program off the ground with those two Division I home games.

“We have Michigan coming in to Blue Cross [Arena] next season. Boston College the year after that. I can’t tell you what that means for a program like ours. The impact to our community is immeasurable. And all we had to do is ask. I’m so grateful to those programs.”

Those David and Goliath meetings mean more when it’s on the smaller program’s ice, according to Wilson, who experienced something similar as a player in the early years of the CCHA, captaining Bowling Green to a national championship in 1984.

“That’s what grows the sport,” he said. “And it’s one of the things that make college hockey special. We need more of that to grow the game. The CCHA started out this way, and it took a few years but having big programs come into our buildings legitimized the league, and that’s what we’re looking for here.”

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  • Joe

    First, let’s put the AHA’s non-con record from last year in perspective. They were the only league with a non-con record below .500. Without the independents, their record was 14-43-12 (.290). All other leagues were over .500 and still would have been over .500 without the independents. Why? Because the AHA had such a good year? No. Because they were all beating up on the AHA. The AHA has come a long way, but there is still a long way to go.

    And part of what would help them on the way is scheduling parity. Do they accept these unequal arrangements to get the cash that can help fund their programs? Or is it the only way they can get enough games to fill their schedules? I would love to see all of these schools that struggle to get scheduling parity band together and yell, “We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it any more!” I would be in favor of an NCAA mandate that no more than 55% of a school’s non-con games can be home games. For all sports.

    • Powers

      What if a team only has 5 non-con games? ;)

      • Joe

        As you know, no DI hockey team will have fewer than 7 next year. Most will have far more. So instead of 55%, make the upper limit the next higher number than 1/2 of non-con games. For 5, that would be 3. For 8, that would be 5.

        • Powers

          Well you did say “for all sports”, not just hockey. =)

  • Joe Crowley

    Where, in this analysis, are the numbers for Hockey East and ECAC? I suspect that you will find a lot of home-and-home series between team, sometimes set up to be home at one school one year and away the next. This is done especially for the schools that might be a long bus ride (by east coast standards) like Maine, Vermont, Clarkson, St Lawrence, etc.

    There are also a lot of neutral site games, like the Beanpot, various tournaments and rivalry games, like BU/Cornell, UNH/Dartmouth, PC/Brown etc.

    Finally, I suspect we will see a lot MORE non-conference games from the new BTHC and NCHC, since BTHC will have just six teams for the foreseeable future. Hockey East also will also have more slots as it goes to a 20-game league schedule (down from 27-games, may go back to 22 when UConn joins)

    It is my hope that the AHA will get more home-and-home series (even if it is split across years) and that the new WCHA will still have partners with NCHC/BTHC. I do worry that a large slice of “non-conference” games will be the Minnesota/North Dakota and Notre Dame/Michigan variety (for obvious gate/TV reasons) and less new matchups. However, this is what happens in Football and Basketball.

    • Jack Ryan

      The question isn’t about the number of non-conference games, but rather the number of non-league home games the larger schools are playing (and where their non-league road games are at). Look at North Dakota – this season, they play road games only at BU (twice) and Bemidji State (1) – they have seven non-league games at home. Or look at Notre Dame – 14 non-league games, and 11 of those are at home.

      But yes, I agree with you as well, that the rise in non-conference games overall is likely to only see a comparable increase in non-league games between “name” schools.

    • bronxbomberz41

      It would be nice if the NonCon home/road splits were more balanced. With many HEA teams, we’re spoiled because big schools from the midwest and west will be more likely to come to the likes of BC, BU, Maine and UNH. Though good luck getting Wisconsin or Minnesota to go to Merrimack (tiny) or Lowell (real nice arena, but not a traditional power program).

  • just_bobness

    This is a problem with no easy answers. I hope all sides continue to work on making things fair and equitable for the smaller schools. The only way to grow this sport is to get more schools to start programs and if they can’t get “the big guys” to help build those new hockey homes it will be a challenge to grow past the current 60ish programs.

  • AJ

    In terms of the low attendance at the regionals, here are some ideas:

    First, have 4 regionals but only use 2 venues. In other words, 8 teams playing at one arena, with 2 teams (one from each regional) advancing to Frozen Four. One regional would play Thursday and Saturday, while the other would play Friday and Sunday. The regions are so close together in the both the East and West that it wouldn’t matter. That should certainly assure good attendance, as I’m sure a great many of the fans from each region would cross over on the nights their region wasn’t playing. Also, the Regionals need to be held in major cities so that hotel space isn’t an issue.

    Second, on-campus sites are an option presumably because they would provide smaller venues which could be filled. Okay, then have regionals at on-campus sites. If, for example, BU is a host site, and BU makes the tournament, they have to play at another on-campus regional site. There doesn’t have to be home ice advantage in the tourney – and there shouldn’t be.

    Third, I’m in favor of having the Frozen Four at the same location every year – like the College World Series. If so, I think a great location would be Lake Placid. The site of the greatest hockey/sports feat in American history. Its a great destination, good facility, and it can accomodate the crowd.

    • Jack Ryan

      Lake Placid most certainly cannot accommodate the Frozen Four. The larger of the two arenas holds just 8,000 people – and let’s not forget that the ice surface is Olympic ice, which the NCAA has shown an aversion to playing any games of the Division I championship on.

    • bob

      I agree with your first idea. 2 super regionals would be much better for attendance. However instead of the campus idea, I would prefer having the super regionals in a fixed location each year. Mpls/St. Paul in the West and maybe Boston or Hartford in the East. Nobody wants to go to Green Bay, Toledo, Milwaukee etc. Stop having regionals in crap cities with little hockey interest.

      • AJ

        I’m sorry if it wasn’t clear in my orginal post, but the ideas are separate and independent of each other. Thus, I am proposing that the super regionals would be held at pro arenas, not on-campus. The on-campus idea is an alternative idea for on-campus NCAA tournament games instead of the home team hosting a three game series against one opponent.

    • Joe Crowley

      Please list the appropriate sized on campus rinks in New England/New York that can host regionals. I love Agganis, it is too small. Other than BC’s Conte Forum, I do not know of a suitable facility. I do not think any eastern schools have a gigantic desire to have small rinks on campus host when Manchester, Worcester, Providence, Bridgeport and Albany have all done very well, have great local support and are in large buildings.

      • AJ

        My on-campus idea is for a 4 team regional to be held at an on-campus site, not an 8 team super regional (Please see my reply to Bob’s post below). Since the NCAA is considering going to on-campus sites for the first round, and considering the current low attendance at regionals, it really wouldn’t matter the size of the arena. If the NCAA is okay with possibility of Bentley hosting a first round game in their 3-game series idea (if Bentley were the higher seed), then any arena would suffice. Obviously, the larger the on-campus site the better. An arena like Agannis, Conte, UNH, Matthews, etc. would probably be adequate. There would only be three games, and if the NCAA was worried about over capacity, they could sell tickets for each game separately instead of as a package. I feel my on-campus idea is better than a higher seeded team hosting another for a 3 game series.

        • Joe Crowley

          Perhaps extremely low attendance happens with some Midwest and West regional sites, but I stand by my original statement that almost no eastern school would give up the five excellent rinks I mentioned to host a four-team regional in a much smaller rink, even one as nice as Agganis. Even if Manchester sells 12,000 tickets for a day, that is 6,000 more than BU can host.

          The real issue is finding the correct site or sites for the Midwest regional. In my eastern opinion, XCEL in the Twin Cities and Pepsi Arena in Denver work just fine for the west as off-campus sites.

          This is coming from a BU alum that watched the BU-North Dakota rematch in Walter Brown Arena in 1988. On campus was great back in the day, off campus is the proper path today.

  • http://collegebaseballdaily.com/ Brian Foley

    Northeastern is scheduled to go to Holy Cross this year and Providence is going to Army. Providence, Merrimack, Brown, and Dartmouth have all played against Holy Cross in recent years at the Hart Center.

  • Bleed Blue and White

    This is simply a continuation of the “big ten doing what is the best interest of the big tens “selfish interests. Tey ruined d1 football they are trying to corrupt the college hockey process by strong arming the process. The big ten elected to form a small 6 team Confernce, they will not and can not be allowed to expect they will place 2,3,4 teams in the 16 field because they have an auroa of unearned greatness about them.
    It is time all none big ten college hockey conferences cripple them. Do NOT schedual any none conference games games with these nit wits. ABSOLUTLY do not schedual any game at their venues. UP YOURS big ten you made your bed now sleep it! Should the NCAA cave to their bs demands, which the weak minded NCAA likely will, remaing schools in all other conferences need to just leave the NCAA all togethere and create the College Hockey National Championship Division and exclude the big ten
    Enough is enough stop the corruption now, here with hockey!

    • Joe

      Dude, lay off the Allen’s.

    • goldy

      do you think any of the fans from wisconsin or minnesota wanted to leave the WCHA?

      In response to the statement of getting 2,3,4 teams in the tourney..yes i do think that will happen. Not every year but it may happen. I believe Michigan has won more titles than anyone, Bucky and Goldy have history of success and Michigan State has won a title in the past 10 years.

    • Joe

      As to whether or not the B1G will place multiple teams in the 16-team national tourney, looking at history will help put it in perspective. In the past 10 years they placed one team in once. They placed two teams, three teams, and four teams in three times each. They never placed all five teams in the national tourney. I think it is safe to say that they will continue to place multiple teams in the tourney.

    • Sean Cosgrove

      It wasn’t really a choice by the Big Ten to form a new conference. According to their agreement in all sports, as soon as 6 teams have an NCAA program, they have to form their own conference. Plus, I’m a big Gopher fan. Looking at their schedule this year, what incentive do they have to play at small venues out of state? They are going to have road series at Bemidji and Mankato every other year. They didn’t even have room to play North Dakota this year, and you think they should pick play a road series out east where 3,000 fans will show up to the games and receive no TV money? That’s pretty ridiculous. Also, most teams like going to Minnesota to play road games. The atmosphere is awesome and the smaller clubs use it as a measuring stick to get some real exposure nationally. Life isn’t really fair, but if they change the power rankings to favor road wins out of conference, the only teams which are going to benefit are cupcakes like Alabama Huntsville, Michigan Tech, the Alaska teams and some of the weaker teams in every conference. Why spend the money to travel to a small market team unless you’re pretty sure you’re going to get 3 points out of the trip?

      • Joe

        You say it wasn’t their choice. And in the next sentence say they had to because of their own rules. I suppose you think the NC$$ stuffed those rules down their throat? Those rules weren’t their own choice??

        • Sean Cosgrove

          The Gophers loved the conference they were in before. North Dakota vs Minnesota is one of the best rivalries in the sport. When the rule was put into place, they certainly didn’t have hockey in mind. At the time only 5 teams had a program and only a few of those make any significant amount of money. Gopher hockey currently makes $5 million/year, the biggest program in the country. I don’t see how this will increase revenue when the Gophers already make money televising almost all of their games. Hardly anyone cares about college hockey across the country. It’s not a big money maker for any school outside of the top 10 programs. It may get a few more eyeballs watching college hockey on a national stage because it’ll be on the Big 10 network rather than just the Fox Sports affiliate. So this can be a net positive for the sport.

  • Mark Komar

    Coach Wilson has a point. However, I think one of the problems in getting home games for the AHA is that many of the facilities are not nearly up to standards of teams from the other conferences. RIT has been fortunate that they can get home games against other teams.

    It is also disappointing that there are calls to change the pairwise simply because the AHA received an at-large. Niagara was a good team – ranked for most of the season. The numbers also bore it out. While the AHA’s non-conference record was not that good, it was an improvement. AHA teams beat some quality opponents as well such as Miami, Quinnipiac, and Michigan.

    This is a league that is on the rise and the quality is much better than it was when Air Force and RIT joined. I would not be surprised to see a time where the AHA gets at-large bids more often,

    • Joe Crowley

      As a BU alum, I can positively state that Niagara deserved its at-large bid ahead of BU, Michigan or any other bubble team even one that got to its league championship game.

      AHA is a league that deserves respect, especially for its role of developing new programs. I know BU is playing Bentley at Agganis this year but I do not know if the back end has been scheduled next year for Waltham. I know that playing at Agganis will be a big deal for Bentley and is another step forward for them.

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