Trick or Treat?
One of CCHA Commissioner Tom Anastos’ strengths is his frankness. Anastos won’t dodge an issue, and he doesn’t sugar-coat anything.
And when I aired my concerns for — and dislike of — the CCHA’s new post-season playoff format last week, I thought it only fair to give Anastos a chance to share what’s on his mind about the new system.
“We’ve got to find a way to bring some sizzle back into the CCHA playoffs,” says Anastos. “When we were one of the first leagues to [have a tournament], there was tons of excitement, lots to do. That’s waned.”
The new playoff format has everyone participating in the first round, with the top six teams hosting. Six teams then move on to the Championship Tournament at Joe Louis Arena, where the top two seeds get a bye.
The playoffs will be spread over three days, as opposed to the previous two. Anastos admits that there are both positive and potentially negative aspects to the new plan.
“One of our problems is that people have a certain perception of the city of Detroit, and I think Detroit is making an effort to revitalize,” says Anastos. “We’ve got to do a better job of trying to make this more of a hockey tournament.”
To that end, says the commish, the CCHA spent a good portion of the summer talking with the Detroit convention bureau, with Olympia Entertainment to ensure that fans have a variety of things to do during the three-day weekend. Anastos says he wants “local restaurants and bars … to make a bigger commitment to making it a CCHA weekend.”
When the CCHA played a consolation game, fans of all four teams in attendance stayed for the whole two days. To keep CCHA fans through three days, Anastos says, “We will have to coordinate some entertainment and hospitality.”
Another concern is that of fan attendance. Anastos says that given the geography of the league, transporting large numbers of fans from distant schools may be a problem — especially during the Friday games that pit the No. 6 seed against No. 3, and No. 4 vs. No. 5.
“We know it’s going to be difficult to attract crowds on a Friday. It is now. Why would it be any different?”
Logistical concerns aside, Anastos says that the only real negative is the potential for some teams to take a hit in the Pairwise Rankings.
“Frankly, where this concerns me, now you’re having your top-seeded teams playing lower teams. This may be a problem especially now that each league has only one automatic bid [to the NCAA post-season tournament].”
The pluses, however, outweigh the minuses, according to Anastos, and the new system is better than the 10-team tournament with a play-in game.
“Frankly, I wasn’t particularly fond of it [10-team format]. Logistically, it was very challenging for the teams involved.”
Anastos says the potential for disaster was evident with the 10-team format, and uses last year’s playoffs to illustrate. Western Michigan and Northern Michigan met in Marquette for a first-round series that went to three games, ending on a Sunday. Nebraska-Omaha traveled to Michigan for the Tuesday play-in, but could easily have hosted that match.
“Western Michigan or Northern Michigan could have gone to Omaha. They would’ve had to bus to Green Bay, then jump on a puddle-jumper to get ultimately to Omaha. Their equipment would have been shipped separately.
“We’re just not a league that can travel by bus anywhere. It’s very difficult that time of year to get a charter [plane], because so many sports teams are traveling. It worked out but it was risky.”
Although Anastos says he can’t criticize the way the 10-team format worked because it proved to be financially successful, he’s been pushing for a change since he became commissioner. The new format was just one of many options.
“We considered all things. One proposal was to play the playoffs over two weeks — but that didn’t seem to work because of schedule restraints, and now would be even tougher because the NCAA has passed legislation about the starting date of practice.
“One is that we’ve gone with the schedule format that we’ve wrestled with, and it’s not a perfect world — but it seems to be the best option for us.”
One criticism that Anastos wants to address directly is the idea that the end-of-season drama is over now that teams are no longer fighting simply to make the playoffs.
“I don’t actually agree with that. On a technical basis, you can say that’s absolutely true… but no matter the number, they’re still playing for positions.”
In fact, Anastos says that “he personally wouldn’t support this format” if the CCHA played a 60-game schedule, but because the league plays far fewer games, he says the jockeying for position will be exciting.
“I think the dynamic has changed in a playoff race. Your regular season, and the importance of it, is different. Now it’s a race for home ice and position.”
Another plus, says Anastos, is that teams who have never hosted first-round series now have the potential to do so, which generates fan interest, revenue, and excitement for the teams themselves. “All 12 schools and their fans know that there’s a 50 percent chance that they’re going to go to Joe Louis Arena.”
And excitement, says Anastos, is the primary goal of the new playoff system.
“I do know the downside with what we’re dealing with,” says the Commissioner, “but one of the main reasons for it would be to revitalize our championship.”
The NCAA has amended its bylaws to legislate a common starting date for men’s and women’s ice hockey.
The bylaw amended is 17.13.2, and it pertains to preseason practice. It now reads, “A member institution shall not commence practice sessions in ice hockey prior to the Saturday of the 25th full weekend prior to the first-round of the NCAA championship.”
Before the change, the bylaw stated that schools had to wait until September 7 or an individual institution’s first day of classes for the fall term, whichever came first.
What does this mean? Well, had this bylaw been in effect this year, practice would have begun no earlier than September 29. The new rule effectively shaves a little off the season, something that can be a hardship on teams west of Pennsylvania.
CCHA commissioner Tom Anastos says that while a common starting date helps draw attention to the sport, the CCHA was against this legislation.
“We would have liked to have seen 26 weeks. First of all, we can’t travel during weeknights, as many eastern teams can. Two, many of our buildings now are multi- purpose buildings. It ties your hands more about scheduling.”
Anastos says the league can “live with it.”
The bylaw itself, writes the NCAA, “is alternate legislation to current Proposal No. 2000- 82.” That proposal, championed by Rick Ensor and the MAAC, would have legislated the actual number of games played by each Division I team. The opposition to Proposal No. 2000-82 was nearly unanimous.
Treats? A Goody Bag!
As everyone in college hockey knows by now, Michigan State head coach Ron Mason earned his 900th win Oct. 20 with the
Spartans’ 2-0 win over Ferris State, while Michigan head coach Red Berenson notched his 450th with the Wolverines’ 5-3 victory over Western the same night.
Through the years, each coach has seen any number of players go on to success in the National Hockey League. In the Oct. 25 game between the Edmonton Oilers and the Columbus Blue Jackets, four men who played for these two great coaches were in the arena, three on the Oilers’ roster, and one with the Blue Jackets. Each said that his former coach and his experience in the CCHA helped him get to where he is today.
Former Wolverine defenseman and current Blue Jacket Blake Sloan remembered Berenson warmly, and said that his former coach taught him responsibility.
“The biggest thing that Red gave to me was making me accountable every day at the rink, of taking care of business away from the rink as far as academics were concerned, and taking care of extracurricular activities.
“When you came to the rink … you put your best foot forward, you worked hard for the team, and he demanded that every day of you.
“You could see it in his eyes every day, too. He was one of those guys who came to the rink and gave everything he had to support that program throughout the year, and I think it shows with the players that he’s got and the records he’s achieved.”
Another former Wolverine and current Oiler, Mike Comrie, said that he learned much from the Michigan coaching staff. “Coach Berenson helped me out a lot on my defensive game. Up until college hockey, I hadn’t played too much defense … but once you get to college, you realize how important defense is. It transfers to the pro game.”
Comrie’s linemate, former Spartan Anson Carter, echoed Comrie’s thoughts about how important learning defense was while playing in college, as most forwards who eventually make the transition from college to pro must have strong defensive skills to play on the third and fourth lines, where they usually start with a pro team.
“When you make that transition to pro hockey, you might not play on one of the first two lines right away … you pay your dues on the third or fourth line. Being in a program like that [MSU] made it a lot easier to make the transition [to the pros], to have that defensive schooling.”
Carter added that it was playing specifically for Michigan State that helped him build his skills as a two-way player. “When you play there, you have to be accountable to your teammates, and if you’re not going to play defensive hockey, you’re not going to play.”
Like Carter, former Spartan and current Edmonton forward Shawn Horcoff said that it was more than just playing college hockey that helped him get where he is now. “It was going to Michigan State and playing for Coach Mason. He really emphasizes from the get-go that the quickest route to the NHL is through good defense. As long as you can play in your zone, you’re going to get time on the ice.”
As different as Coaches Mason and Berenson are, and as fiercely and notoriously competitive as they are, they have more in common than most fans know, more beyond the loyalty of their former players.
In fact, it’s safe to say that players who go through the Michigan State and Michigan programs learn about tolerance and compassion as well as camaraderie, and here’s proof:
Mike Comrie and Shawn Horcoff are not only teammates, but the two are close friends and roommates on the road.
“Horcoff and I are pretty much best friends,” was Comrie’s shocking admission. “We’re pretty close.
Added Horcoff, “We’re really tight now. We’re roommates on the road and we spend a lot of time together. It just shows you what hockey is all about. We battled through the years there, and I’d never met him before he came to Edmonton, but we clicked from the beginning, and we get along great.”
If that isn’t scary, what is?
Here’s a pleasant surprise: my reports of Notre Dame’s early demise may be slightly exaggerated.
“They played hard every shift,” said Ohio State captain Jason Crain, after the Buckeyes took three of four points from the Irish in Columbus last weekend, skating to a 4-4 tie Saturday and beating Notre Dame 3-2 Sunday.
In fact, the Irish worked through every shift, followed through with every hit, capitalized on Buckeye defensive turnovers, and forechecked aggressively throughout the two contests.
OSU head coach John Markell said that he saw a difference between last year’s Notre Dame squad and this year’s team. “I told Dave Poulin at [CCHA] media day that his team was picked too low. We played a good hockey team out there. They have talent, and they never let up.”
A Notre Dame newcomer to watch is left wing Brad Wanchulak (Edson, Alb.), a tenacious, energetic player who pestered Buckeyes any place they were on the ice, during any kind of situation.
“Before he came here, he was given free reign to do whatever he wanted,” said Dave Poulin, Notre Dame head coach. “That shows now. He’s going to be a good player.”
Wanchulak is a solid, big six-footer with speed, agility, good puck-handling skills, and the ability to read the game while on the ice. “He sees the whole game,” said Poulin.
Another bright spot for the Irish was rookie netminder Morgan Cey (Wilkie, Sask.), who made a gazillion saves in the two games.
The challenge now for the Irish is to win those close games, said Poulin. “We’re learning how.”
What remains to be seen, however, is how hard Notre Dame will continue to play if — and I mean if — the Irish don’t start winning those close ones.
Games of the Week
It’s nothing sinister: just two good teams going at it in one great venue.
No. 1 Michigan State (3-0-1, 3-0-1 CCHA) at No. 12 Nebraska-Omaha (3-1-0, 3-1-0 CCHA)
Friday and Saturday, 7:05 p.m., Omaha Civic Auditorium, Omaha, Neb.
These two games will be the 10th and 11th meetings between the Spartans and Mavericks, with Michigan State holding a 7-2-0 edge in the all-time series. MSU was the last team to sweep UNO in the Omaha Civic Auditorium, beating the Mavs 5-2 and 6-2, Oct. 15-16 1999.
But the Mavericks were the last team to beat the Spartans in Munn Ice Arena, winning a 2- 1 decision Oct. 20, 2000.
It’s a love-love kind of thing.
This series pits two of the three teams in the CCHA ranked in the USCHO.com weekly Poll. Through four games this season, the Spartans are outshooting their opponents 149-78, averaging 37.25 shots on goal per game compared to opponents’ 19.5.
The incomparable Ryan Miller has a goals-against average of 0.98 (yes, you read that correctly), with a save percentage of .949 through his first four games. Posting two shutouts (over LSSU and FSU) doesn’t hurt his cause, either.
On the other side of the puck — and playing for a team that is not Michigan State — Jeff Hoggan is on fire. The Maverick forward has five goals and five assists for 10 points in just four games.
It’s awfully early in the season to speculate about special teams, road vs. home, blah blah blah, but it’s safe to say that the combination of the stingy Spartans and the home-ice-loving Mavericks makes for two very good games of hockey.
And just in case you’re wondering, Michigan State is 25-2-6 in October since 1997.
Grudge of the Week
I like to call this one “The First Annual Pitts Bowl.”
No. 6 Michigan (2-2-1, 1-1-1 CCHA) at Northern Michigan (1-0-1, 1-0-1 CCHA)
Friday and Saturday, 7:35 p.m., Yost Ice Arena, Ann Arbor, Mich.
This year the two-game series with Northern Michigan is not quite so scary for Michigan because the Wolverines don’t have to stoop to traveling to Marquette.
In late November of 2000, alert CCHA fans discovered that any trip to the Upper Peninsula, Marquette, Mich., and/or the Berry Events Center is a genuine hardship for the Michigan Wolverine hockey program, according to one columnist for the Ann Arbor News.
The UP-roar was great, the columnist was shocked at the clamor, and the Wolverines took three points from the Wildcats in Marquette, winning 6-2 Dec. 1, and skating to a 2-2 tie the following night.
Even without the melodramatic accompaniment, any meeting between the Wolverines and Wildcats can be considered a grudge match, as Michigan holds a 15-10-3 edge in all-time series, and Michigan head coach Red Berenson owns an 11-3-3 record against Northern Michigan and NMU head coach Rick Comley.
Believe it or not, in this all-time series the Wolverines trail 5-6-0 at home against the Wildcats, but are 5-1-3 in their last nine meetings with the ‘Cats.
Something else to consider: Northern Michigan is the only team in the CCHA whom Michigan has never swept in a two-game series, but the Wildcats have swept the Wolverines once, 4-2 and 7-6, in Ann Arbor, Feb. 24-25, 1984.
The 2001-02 season marks the first time since Northern Michigan rejoined the CCHA in 1997-98 that the Wolverines haven’t had to make that wretched trip to Marquette. Unfortunately for those who think a trip to the Yoop and a smaller school are beneath the dignity of the Wolverine program, Michigan does have to cross the Mackinac Bridge this season, for one single game against Lake Superior State on Jan. 31.
Oh, the humanity.
“I Got a Rock…”
Only one person wrote in last week with the name of the poet from whom I stole shamelessly for my season preview. That person was none other than USCHO’s own Chris Lerch, our resident Division III Supreme Leader.
It’s just Chris’s tough luck that USCHO.com employees are ineligible to win the million-dollar prize from last week’s trivia contest.