First, let’s revisit the last topic: realignment. The primary concern seems to be the amount of long-distance travel that the “new” WCHA would suffer, so let’s see if we can tweak it a bit.
Second Iteration: Break Up Minnesota!
Let’s try making things a little easier on North Dakota and Wisconsin – because, of course, those programs are so persecuted already. Let’s re-unite Minnesota with UW and NoDak, for the sake of the rivalry if nothing else. That said, moving one team won’t make a huge difference, so we’ll have to pluck another program from the Land of 10,000 Lakes and sacrifice the Alaskans. How about St. Cloud?
Northern Hockey Conference
Moving on to a new topic: the NCAA tournament.
The Great Debate: National Champ, or Tourney Champ?
I approve of the current 16-team size of the NCAA tournament, so there’s really only one big tweak to make: when it comes to the NCAA’s, only a deluded or thoroughly ignorant individual would mistake the tournament champion for the indisputable best team in the country. That’s not to say that the title-winners aren’t the best, but the system is in no way set up to insure such a result.
It’s not just hockey, either – the other obvious comparison is the squeak-ball (basketball) bracket, which also follows the single-elimination, non-series format.
So what’s the best solution? Let’s consider all the factors.
Series vs. Singles
The obvious drawback to playing single-game rounds is that the better team doesn’t always win. Series wouldn’t promise as much either, but it gives the truly dominant squads a chance to prove as much. Everyone has bad days: just ask the Michigan Wolverines, or Minnesota Gophers.
The big positives are that the tournament can advance much more quickly in its current state, and that upsets are undeniably exciting. (That said, would we have enjoyed at least one competitive game at last year’s Frozen Four if, say, New Hampshire, Denver or Cornell had advanced instead of RIT?)
The biggest problem with a best-of format is that it takes time – a whole weekend for a tightly played three-game set. Risk of injury increases, not to mention the rest and studying time that the student-athletes lose. The diminishing number of upsets might make the tournament less dramatic as well, but that is a secondary concern.
Series would generally give us a more predictable result, but it’s never a sure thing (just see Brown’s improbable tear through the ECAC Hockey playoffs last spring). There would be more fans through the gates per round, and who ever complained about more hockey? At least those in attendance would be guaranteed a minimum of two contests for their troubles.
Proposal: Looking Back, Moving Forward
As recently as 1991, the first round and quarterfinals were played at the higher seed’s home rink; only the Frozen Four site was neutral. I think we should take a cue from the past and reinstate the high seeds’ privilege.
Play a best-of-three (so it would only take one weekend) at the higher seed’s home. It would cut travel expenses and all but guarantee strong attendance figures, which has been a primary concern at recent (neutral) regional sites. We’d be down to four teams after two weeks, which brings us to the Frozen Four. Here’s where things get sticky.
The Frozen Four: Making it Work
In order to keep the championship weekend a true all-encompassing event for NCAA fans, it doesn’t make sense to have it come down to only two teams. By now, the four best (or at the very least, hottest) teams in the nation have qualified, and we’ve taken the same three-week period as we currently have. So let’s admit that three more best-of-three series wouldn’t draw the same attention, even if it seems moderately hypocritical to discard the series when the stakes are greatest.
Question of Width
What’s to be done about Olympic vs. NHL sheets? Of the 58 D-I rinks, 40 sport NHL dimensions (200′ x 85′). Only seven (Alaska, Northern Michigan, UNH, Colorado College, Minnesota, Minnesota State, and St. Cloud) have Olympic sheets, leaving 11 in between (mostly 200′ x 90′, but there are some deviations: Harvard’s rink is 204′ x 87′, for some reason, and RIT and Minnesota-Duluth have smaller-than-NHL sheets).
Should the NCAA insist on NHL ice for the Frozen Four? If so, what’s the trickle-down effect for the regionals? Personally, I like Olympic ice for the wide-open hockey that it breeds… but that said, over two thirds of all D-I programs are played on 200′ x 85′ sheets (or smaller). I don’t think the majority should be punished, but hey, if you don’t want to play on the big ice, maybe you should just secure the home-ice advantage.
What Would Have Been
Here’s how last year’s first round would have looked under the aforementioned proposals, with the actual victors bolded:
Alaska at Boston College
Yale at North Dakota
Alabama-Huntsville at Miami
Michigan at Bemidji State
Vermont at Wisconsin
Northern Michigan at St. Cloud
RIT at Denver
New Hampshire at Cornell
Only four favored teams won; think the field would’ve looked differently had the higher seeds played at home? Me too.