Most teams know that success doesn’t begin when the puck is dropped: it starts with the preparation beforehand. The art of devising the perfect college hockey schedule has taken this adage to the extreme, however. Conference calls and faxes between coaches has grabbed equal footing with practice passes between teammates.
In college hockey who and where you play has become almost as important as how you play. The ratings percentage index puts a premium not only on the talent of your opponent, but that of your opponent’s opponents. Trekking to the North Country to face Clarkson or down south to skate with Alabama-Huntsville becomes an immediate headache not only because of your adversary’s skill but the sheer logistics of the trip itself.
Murmurs across the NCAA hint at an even greater impact of scheduling, however. Some question whether the home-centered ideologies of a few big-market teams not only hurt their opponents’ chances at victory, but the chances of college hockey to grow as well. Stirring the pot brings accusations and defenses bubbling to the top, exposing the actual importance of the scheduling process which takes place years before games are even played.
When teams devise their upcoming schedules, they must account for league games, tournaments, and traditional rivalries which swallow up a vast majority of their allotted matches for the season. Some teams, who prefer to take part in multiple tournaments every year, may only need to fill two to four empty slots. Most do so through two-year reciprocal deals, agreeing to travel to an opponent’s building one year and host the next. Big market clubs with large buildings and large wallets often opt to offer monetary guarantees to opponents in lieu of reciprocating, however. Herein lies the controversy.
“My philosophy is that I won’t play anyone who won’t reciprocate,” said Cornell head coach Mark Schafer. “Unless you can play a program both home and away, you’re giving up something. Every school faces the same problem of wanting to face good schools to improve their own program. So they all want to get as many games at home as possible. Teams that do reciprocate help college hockey.”
There exists a general consensus that playing at home gives a team a distinct advantage. Some schools, especially large universities with stadiums often double or triple the size of most rinks in the NCAA, prove more adept at facilitating this advantage than others.
“It’s not hard to figure out,” said Schafer. “Look at the teams that don’t play a non-conference team outside of their own building. Those teams are able to do that with big budgets and big buildings. I try not to schedule games with them.”
“Personally I don’t think it’s healthy for college hockey,” added Colgate head coach Don Vaughan. “I don’t think it’s good that some teams can buy a home schedule. Overall it creates an imbalance, because you’re not getting a chance to face some of those better teams in your own building.”
Both Vaughan and Schafer head up clubs in the ECACHL, a league with only three rinks with capacities over 4,000. One of those arenas, Gutterson Fieldhouse, will become a Hockey East facility next year when the Vermont Catamounts switch conferences. Many ECACHL teams are located in remote cities which are difficult to reach and offer a small local fan base.
Conditions in the CHA and Atlantic Hockey conferences are even worse. Many teams in these leagues must rent local rinks, which are often cramped. Only five of the 15 teams in these emerging conferences skate in buildings which support over 2000 fans.
Meanwhile, big market schools fill stadiums like Michigan’s Yost Arena, seating 6,637, and Minnesota’s Mariucci Arena, which holds 9,700 Gopher supporters. Often these teams are content to offer large guarantees, sometimes approaching $20,000 for a two-game series, in order to secure a schedule that’s heavy in home games.
“If you have the revenue coming in, you then have the ability to go out and pay a good guarantee and not have to worry about reciprocating,” explained Vaughan. “That money could be attractive. As cost of travel goes up, a lot of times budgets have not gone up at the same rate. So there’s pressure on all of us to balance and maintain our budgets.
“I don’t suspect that Minnesota would come back and play us at Colgate. I don’t suspect that we could get Michigan to come in here. We’ve tried in the past to get some of those teams, and for one reason or another it just doesn’t happen.”
In the past seven years including games scheduled for this season, Minnesota has played 28 non-conference games at home, dwarfing their 16 road games in the same category. Michigan shows an even greater contrast. The Wolverines have played in only eight road non-conference games in seven years, and all eight were part of the College Hockey Showcase, in which Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, and Wisconsin alternate hosting each other every other year. This means that in three of the last seven seasons, Michigan’s only non-conference games away from friendly rinks have been at tournaments.
As a result, some argue that smaller teams from conferences already considered “weak” are forced to travel to measure themselves up with big name schools, and therefore are at a disadvantage when it comes to making a name for themselves in the NCAA.
“A lot of people throw us under the bus, but they have to look at where we’re playing,” said Brown coach Roger Grillo. “It’s not easy to play on the road, especially in some places. So our non-league record often gets skewed. But our league is continually getting better, and we’re getting better recruits in here every year. I think the ECAC is unrealistically given a bad reputation.”
The ECAC coach, whose league generated a disheartening 18-48-14 record against teams in the CCHA, Hockey East, and WCHA, but a more respectable 10-13-8 record against those same leagues at home, spoke on the positives that a big school might gain from playing more games on the road.
“Some of the so-called ‘big market’ teams will buy games now,” said Grillo, “but there are also some teams who are willing to come to our building. I think in the long run that benefits those teams. It’s tough to play on the road and in some ways easy to play at home. I give credit to those teams who try to improve themselves with road games.”
Many believe that the smaller conferences are misrepresented due to their inability to convince large schools to reciprocate, and this, in turn, hurts the conferences reputation and representation in the NCAA tournament. A recent addition to the at-large bid considerations made by the NCAA indicates that its officials might agree.
“I think it’s gotten to the point where the NCAA hockey committee has recognized that teams have been adding to their RPI by hosting more and more non-conference games, which gives them an advantage,” said Vaughan. “They’ve started to add quality points for a win on the road. I think that’s a direct result of trying to balance this out.”
On the other side of the issue exist equally compelling arguments, however. The first, and perhaps most dominant, deals with the always inescapable aspect of every sport at every level: money.
“Typically we’re not going on the road because it’s a financial drain,” explained Red Berenson, head coach at Michigan. “A home game makes a lot of money. I don’t know the exact numbers, but you’re looking at approximately a $100,000 gate at Michigan. We’d have to give that up to go play at Quinnipiac. I’d have to go and justify that to our athletic director.”
Not only would teams with huge stadiums give up tens of thousands of dollars at the ticket window to face schools in lesser conferences, but they’d be forced to spend money to lug players and equipment to often hard-to-reach towns. A school like Mercyhurst, whose stadium in Erie, Pennsylvania seats only 1500, could hardly afford to offer much help in covering the expense of travel for their opponents.
“I frankly feel badly for teams that can’t attract us to go to their arenas,” said Marty Scarano, director of athletics at the University of New Hampshire. “You’ve got to turn serious ticket sales to generate enough revenue to turn around and buy someone or offer a guarantee to cover traveling expenses. Teams with stadiums that hold 2,000 people just aren’t going to do that.”
Finances aside, many big schools feel they assist in the spread of college hockey regardless of their travel schedule. The biggest three conferences each consist of many small market teams. Merrimack, Alaska-Anchorage, and Ferris State each get the opportunity to host large programs every year despite their size and location.
“That’s why the CCHA took in Fairbanks-Alaska,” said Berenson. “I can’t give you one good reason why they’re in our league. They have to pay for our travel expenses when we go out there. The only reason why we took them into the league was to save that program. It’s good for college hockey and good for that school. It was an extreme gesture, I think, for a team that couldn’t get a game. We helped that team from dying.”
By offering teams in supposed weaker conferences the chance to skate against clubs that rank among the best perennially, the bigger programs provide a means by which their opponents can boost their own prestige.
“For a lot of teams it’s good that they get a chance to come out and play Michigan,” added Berenson. “[St. Lawrence coach] Joe Marsh said the other day, ‘We love to come out here and get a chance to play against a team like Michigan.’ It’s not just a one-sided advantage.”
Even Vaughan, who led Colgate into Yost in 2000 and stole a game against the Wolverines in the Ice Breaker Cup, noted the benefits of playing big teams on the road.
“There is a positive side,” he conceded. “We were a team trying to establish ourselves a few years ago. We got a chance to play at Michigan, and we went in there and beat them. That was a pretty important win for our program, and it helped catapult us back onto the national stage.”
Many big market teams see themselves as active in assisting college hockey on its way to expansion despite rarely expanding their own travel schedules.
“We’re trying to help emerging leagues,” said Berenson. “I think all of us have a responsibility to help college hockey. I’m of the old school where I just want to play the best teams and the best schools. But it’s important to try to build up the emerging conferences. That’s why it’s been important to Atlantic Hockey that ECAC teams will play them. Do you think that Harvard would rather play UConn than Yale? It gives these younger leagues credibility. Once these leagues get established, we might go out there.”
Some young programs even acknowledge the process of traveling for nearly every non-conference game as legitimate and necessary.
“It’s just the way it is,” said Paul Pearl, head coach of Atlantic Hockey’s Holy Cross. “We’re looking for home games. I’d love to have a Hockey East team or an ECAC team in here, but it’s not going to happen. It’s the same with every team in our league, except UConn who hosts a yearly tournament. I understand that’s the way it goes.”
The debate over fairness in reciprocation versus guarantees continues behind the closed doors of coaches in every league. The importance of scheduling, however, and a staff’s ability to place their squad in the best position possible to improve itself over time or make a run at the NCAA tournament remains unquestioned. The matter of whether big schools who operate on a policy of accumulating as many home games as possible are good for college hockey may go unsolved. At the end of the years of preparation, the game must be played where it really matters: on the ice.