Neutral Corners

In early June, the NCAA Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Committee made its selections for upcoming Frozen Fours and NCAA tournament regionals. Last week’s announcement of those decisions came with little to squabble about.

The most interesting aspect to arise out of the proceedings was the relative absence of any on-campus facilities awarded regional bids. Having regionals on campus has been the focus of much consternation, by players, coaches and fans alike. The committee, however, has always been in somewhat of a Catch-22; to get a regional, a neutral-site facility must make a bid, but many of those facilities are reluctant to make bids because attendance can be sparse unless there’s a local team involved.

A bid must include some sort of revenue guarantee from facility organizers. Without the assurance of a local team being involved, it’s very difficult to guarantee that kind of revenue. This is especially true out West, where hockey-playing schools are much more spread out. In the East, where schools are so closely bunched together, even if you had a regional on campus, you can be sure that fans from plenty of other teams could make it.

As a result, over the years, the committee has been forced to hold regionals in places like Michigan’s Yost Arena in Ann Arbor and Minnesota’s Mariucci Arena.

This year, however, out of the 10 regional bids that were awarded, only one was for an on-campus facility. That one, however, at Massachusetts’ Mullins Center, is in a location that’s very accessible for fans of dozens of teams to make.

The accomplishment of the committee was not so much a concerted effort to avoid the past problems, as it was simply a case of having more quality neutral-site bids to choose from. It was a welcome improvement.

“It wasn’t a conscious decision, but I think from a philosophical standpoint, the most level a playing field you can make it the better,” said Ron Grahame, athletic director at Denver and the soon-to-be chair of the Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Committee.

“We have two dynamics … where East and West are considerably different distances. And the availability of non-neutral sites — Grand Rapids is a great one. They did a good job before and I think they will again. And I’ve heard good things about the Resch Center [in Green Bay, Wis.].

“Looking at it this year, even though it was a little limited for ’05, I think we’ve gotten more [bids]. So there’s more folks out there that have taken a look at this and seen the potential that is there with the growth of college hockey, and see that this is a viable event for their building.”

Grahame’s Denver team, ranked No. 1 at the time, was one of the victims of the on-campus regional in 2002, when the Pioneers lost to Michigan at Yost Arena. By the same token, the questions raised about the fairness of Michigan going to the Frozen Four may also be unfair to the Wolverines; maybe they would have won anyway. The problem is, you just never know.

“The explanation that I got is that Michigan was the only viable choice in the West,” said Grahame of the multiple selections of Yost Arena prior to his arrival on the committee. “And give them credit for stepping up and putting it on the line and guaranteeing [the revenue] they did.

“In my experience, in the three-plus years I’ve been on the committee, folks go out of their way to be as impartial as they can, and make decisions in the best interests of college hockey and everyone involved. That’s not always going to please everybody, but that’s the best way to do it. And I think we try to do it as fairly as we possibly can. In the old days, those folks — I have a lot of respect for the emphasis they put on the game and their attempts to improve the game, but it really was a biased process, and the teams that were the most influential got the nod. But now it’s expanded and it can be more of a fair opportunity.”

One of the neutral sites selected this time around was the Pepsi Center in Denver, an NHL-sized arena that houses the Colorado Avalanche. It’s also the arena that was chosen to host the 2008 Frozen Four. Its selection as the 2007 West Regional host makes it largest arena ever selected to host an NCAA hockey regional.

The fear, of course, is a repeat of a situation similar to the 1999 West Regional at Wisconsin’s Dane County Coliseum. Without a local school involved (Northern Michigan was the closest), the event drew an announced crowd of just over 2,000 people per game, with fewer than that in the building.

But, again, this was more a case of the Pepsi Center being willing to step up and make the revenue guarantee, as much as any conscious philosophical choice by the committee.

“If Denver or CC is not there, it might be a ltitle bit of a struggle,” conceded Grahame. “I think that’s the danger a little bit of the regional, but that’s the facility that’s taking on that responsibility.

“It hurts college hockey a little bit from its revenue and viability standpoint, but I think that overweighs giving the home team an advantage. You can have a bad game on a neutral site and still move through if you’re a little bit better team. But when you’re in a site that’s the home team’s site, they might not do well for a period or so, but then the crowd gets them going because they score a goal, and then before you know it, they score a couple more.”

The committee was originally going to select regional sites through 2008, to coincide with the Frozen Four picks, but decide to hold off until the next round. In 2005, the committee will select the 2009-2011 Frozen Four sites, and the 2008-2011 regional sites.

“I think it was more a continuing idea of, hey, let’s see how things go over the next 3-4 years, and if there’s any tweaking we need to do because of the four sites then we can do that,” Grahame said.

This represents the last season on the committee for current chair Ian McCaw, the athletic director at Massachusetts. Giving the 2005 East Regional to UMass was seen by some as a conflict of interest, but the committee actually had limited choices for that year. There were only six bids from the East all together in for the three years, and the choice for 2005 basically came down to Mullins Center and the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland, Maine, a smaller and much older facility.

“We really didn’t feel like there was [a conflict of interest],” Grahame said. “We felt like it was the best site available in that particular year.”

The selection of Frozen Four sites was difficult for the committee, because all five finalists — including Philadelphia, Detroit and St. Paul — were strong. The committee is reluctant to talk about the particulars of why one city beat out another, but it’s clear that by then, they were splitting hairs.

“It may be a little luck of the draw with Philly,” said Grahame. “It was the first time we had heard from them. They have a great facility, Philadelphia is a wonderful town, the Flyers have done a great job reaching out to the community with all the grass roots programs they’ve been involved in. I can’t necessarily say one was better than another.

“We just hope that Philadelphia, Detroit, St. Paul and Boston keep coming back, and in the next go round, they would get serious consideration again. You’ve gotta kinda pay your dues I guess.”

Omaha, which just built a new 14,000-seat facility downtown that the UNO Mavericks will play in, lost out on a regional bid once again. That facility was perhaps victimized by the sudden emergence of new neutral-site facilities.

“Omaha didn’t kind of stick out for us,” Grahame said. “We had a lot of bids in the West, but a lot of them are home sites.”