Bigger (And Better?)

Expansion to 16 teams. The college hockey world clamored for it for years. Many thought it would never happen.

But last offseason it became a reality, and this tournament saw for the first time four regional sites, each with a champion that advanced to the Frozen Four.

“It’s been a long time coming to finally get to the four regions,” said Mark Mazzoleni, head coach at Harvard, one of this year’s participants in the NCAA tournament. “You had to be a pretty knowledgeable fan to figure out the East-West regions, two byes and four teams play.

“Now having it set up where you crown a regional champ that will advance to the Frozen Four, I think it will clean it up a lot. Now you get two great games, with the winners advancing. College hockey is continuing to grow and this movement to four regional sites will only help the growth.”

Minnesota became the first regional champion in NCAA ice hockey history with a 7-4 win over Ferris State in the West Regional, and was quickly followed by New Hampshire in the Northeast, Michigan in the Midwest and Cornell in the East.

Even though Minnesota, with its No. 1 seed in the tournament, lost out on the bye this year in the first round, coach Don Lucia had nothing but positives in discussing the situation.

“I think it’s a real positive. You even things out in the regionals because it really was an advantage when the top two seeds in the East and West had a bye,” Lucia said. “It’s no question it’s a huge advantage when you got to sit there and be rested. You could play a real short bench in that second game, and depending on how difficult that first game was, that first team could be a little bit tired.”

Elimination of the bye was seen as one of the greatest benefits of expansion. Many people thought the bye was a big advantage for the top seeds, although that was not the opinion across the board.

“I’ve always said the bye was not as good as it looked,” said Jack Parker, head coach of Boston University, which holds the record for most NCAA appearances of any team in the nation. “In the old 12-game tournament, if you could guarantee me the win, I’d rather play than be the team sitting and watching. They haven’t had a big win, and gotten some emotions going with a win in an NCAA hockey game.”

Nevertheless, like most, Parker is on board with expansion, and the opportunity for more teams to have a chance to play for a national title.

“There’s no question in my mind that it’s a much more viable tournament this way,” Parker said. “It appears more even. I think we’ve shown that college hockey can produce 16 great teams to compete in this tournament. So if we only had 12, a lot of teams would have been left out that shouldn’t have been.”

“I think it’s terrific for college hockey,” said Troy Jutting, whose Minnesota State-Mankato Mavericks benefited directly from the expansion. Under the 12-team format, the team would not made the tournament instead of being a fourth seed.

“It gives the programs more spots to shoot for, and it might give some other universities the thought that they could make it on the college level as well.”

The feeling was summed up by Tom Jacobs, NCAA liaison to the ice hockey committee, who said the NCAA is pleased with the move “from the standpoint of having over 120 more student-athletes having the opportunity to participate. From a competitive standpoint, it gives us a chance to fill out the brackets so that the top four teams do not have a bye directly into the regional final.”

It was fitting that in this, the first year of expansion, each of the established four conferences had one team participating in the Frozen Four, and for the first time ever, the four conference playoff champions went on to be the final four teams left standing.

It’s not surprising that expansion to 16 teams has been met with almost universal approval. Nearly everyone, from college hockey fans to coaches to NCAA officials, thinks expansion was the right thing. It was time.

But it’s also not surprising that there were some controversies in the first year. Some teams felt slighted that they didn’t get in. Some fans felt the seeding system was unfair.

No one blames expansion for any of these perceived wrongs, but there was a decided lack of appreciation over the victory that was won when going from 12 to 16 teams. After all, should fans of team No. 17 in a 16-team tournament be any happier about this system than fans of team 13 were under the old one? Or for the teams selected, where and whom they play can be an object of hot discussion.

“The seeding process is not an exact science,” said Phil Buttafuoco, commissioner of the ECAC and former NCAA liaison to the ice hockey committee. “The committee members are not robots. I give the committee a lot of credit for the job they did.”

Even coaches that advised revisiting rules and procedures were careful to point out that the expansion was not the cause of the problem.

“There is something to be said about the seedings, but I think it’s a great concept,” said Ohio State John Markell.

“Obviously, I like the idea of having a 16-team tournament with four regions,” echoed Dick Umile, head coach of New Hampshire, one of this year’s Frozen Four participants. “This is the first year, so they are still working out a few kinks.”

One of those kinks involved Michigan hosting a regional tournament at Yost Arena, its home rink. For the second year in a row, the Wolverines advanced over a higher-seeded WCHA team to reach the Frozen Four in front of a hometown crowd.

Some of the more paranoid fans suggest the decision to allow Michigan to play on its home rink is due to NCAA manipulation to improve the Wolverines’ chances. (Where are the black helicopters?) More rational people have suggested that the NCAA has chosen campus sites in order to ensure packed houses and maximize revenue.

That’s not true, says Jacobs. The NCAA awards regional sites to the most attractive arena that makes a bid, where “attractive” is defined by a complicated mixture including ice conditions, hotel accommodations for traveling players and fans, accessibility to local businesses like restaurants and hotels, facility capacity, and, yes, anticipated revenue.

In the West, there are few arenas willing to make bids for regional events. While Frozen Fours have proven to be full with fans from across the country, there is no such proven track record for regionals. And after a particularly poorly attended regional at the Dane County Coliseum in Madison, Wis., in 1999, no hosting facilities bid for the 2002 or 2003 regionals except Yost.

Having neutral host arenas is a nice thought, but it can’t always be achieved in reality.

“In a perfect world that would be a good situation,” said Jacobs. “But you’ve got to take the bids that you have and evaluate those bids and make decisions that are going to be in the best interest overall for the tournament.”

The Madison turnout in 1999 came about when no team in the direct vicinity made the tournament that year. The participating schools were Colorado College, St. Lawrence, Michigan State, Boston College, Northern Michigan and North Dakota.

And in future years, we’ll see more of the same dilemma; when CC’s World Arena hosts next year’s West Regional, either local teams like Denver or Colorado College will receive a home-ice advantage. Or, if neither team makes the tournament, we’ll see dwindling attendance. The same when Grand Forks’ Engelstad Arena hosts in 2006. But what’s the alternative?

One hope is that college hockey will continue to grow in popularity, and will become less dependent on a local team being in a particular site. The Frozen Four venue has sold out for several years in a row, regardless of which teams make the cut.

With the Frozen Four selling out year after year, eager college hockey fans may turn their eyes toward the regional games, where tickets are much easier to come by. Another necessity is to continue to build the appeal of college hockey throughout the non-college hockey world.

This year, while the NCAA held broadcast rights for the televising of the regional semifinal games and shopped them around to the typical venues like NESN in New England and Fox Sports Net North in Minnesota, the regional finals were owned and distributed by ESPN, which was much more aggressive and influential in getting the games shown in non-standard hockey environments.

Hence, if you were in New Orleans or Portland, Ore., for example, you could have flipped on a regional sports network and seen Boston University squaring off against New Hampshire, or Colorado College taking on Michigan. Time will tell if those broadcasts will convert new fans to college hockey, but having an overtime game like Boston College vs. Cornell can’t hurt.

And having a system in place that is easy for the typical fan to understand is a commonly cited attribute of the new 16-team format.

“There were byes, the regions did not produce a regional winner,” said Joe Bertagna, Hockey East commissioner and former chairman of the NCAA Ice Hockey Rules Committee. “Now there is a system the average fan can understand.”