A Super Spectacle

For college hockey lovers, the month of March is a special time of year. With six Division I conferences hosting playoff tournaments, hockey action is always fast and furious as teams vie to receive their conference’s automatic bid into the NCAA tournament.

One conference, in particular, has the art of pulling off a postseason tournament down to a science.

The CCHA has turned the ordinary college hockey conference tourney into a five-day event, dubbed a celebration of college hockey. The Super Six, as it was coined in 2002, has elevated what a conference tournament is about to a whole new level.

Prior to 2002, the CCHA tournament was typical. From 1972 until 1984, the first round was a two-game, total-goals series where the team scoring the most goals in the series moved on to the final four. The first-round format was changed in 1985 to a best-of-3 series, but still, only four teams ended up with the chance to play at the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, the home of the CCHA final four, and currently the Super Six, since 1982.

The semifinals and championship games were held on Friday and Saturday nights, and had little fanfare surrounding them.

That changed in the 2001-02 season, thanks to some forward thinking by CCHA commissioner Tom Anastos. He turned the archetypal college hockey conference tournament into an event.

Fred Pletsch, Director of Communications for the CCHA, has been involved with the Super Six since its inception.

“Since Tom [Anastos] became commissioner, one of his priorities was to make [the Super Six] more than just four games or six games at Joe Louis Arena,” said Pletsch. “He wanted to make it an event destination. Hopefully, build it so that even if your team is not in, and you’re an ardent college hockey fan, you’re going to want to go because everything else is going on and it’s still a good time.”

The new-and-improved tourney, in its fourth year of existence, is an action-packed five days of college hockey fervor, spread throughout the city of Detroit.

Hockey action begins on Thursday night with a pair of quarterfinal games. Friday and Saturday you can see the semifinals and championship, along with a third-place game preceding Saturday’s title bout.

One reason for the move to a three-day tournament at Joe Louis Arena was logistics. The CCHA had been using a play-in game to whittle its teams from five down to four for its final four format. The rest of the event simply grew out of the new tournament format.

“It was really difficult to schedule [the tournament] with that play-in game,” said Pletsch. “You’d be left with five teams during that first round, and then you’d still have to whittle one down. For example, Bowling Green, one year, knocks off [Nebraska] Omaha, and then has to go to Northern Michigan on Tuesday night. The logistics were really crazy under the four-teams format.”

“Just think if somebody had to go to Alaska. Imagine if Northern had to go to Fairbanks like they did last year, and then winning, and then having to go to maybe, Miami, another place that’s really tough to get to.”

Moving to a more team-friendly tournament format in Detroit allowed the league to concentrate on putting together a five-day, first-class event.

The Super Six formally kicks off on Wednesday afternoon media luncheon and press conference, where all CCHA head coaches involved in the Super Six are available.

Immediately after the luncheon, the annual media game is played on the ice at Joe Louis Arena. The game has attracted media from all over the country.

“That was something that Tom [Anastos] dreamed up,” said Pletsch. It’s become a real drawing card. It’s purely for fun. We don’t care if anyone has any experience. In fact, we probably prefer that the people don’t have experience, because it reinforces what a difficult game this is to play and how elite the athletes are that are in the CCHA.”

“And the coolest thing,” added Pletsch, “you’re at home on a Sunday afternoon or a Saturday night watching a game from Joe Louis Arena, you can say, ‘Yeah, I skated there.'”

On Wednesday night at 7 p.m., the festivities kick into high gear. The CCHA hosts its annual banquet and awards show at the venerable Fox Theatre in downtown Detroit, followed by the faceoff party across the street at Hockeytown Café.

The awards show is a true highlight of the week. Hosted by FSN Red Wings play-by-play man Ken Daniels, the show is “the Oscars of college hockey,” as dubbed by Pletsch.

“The banquet at the Fox Theatre — that’s an event that no other league has. It’s a pretty impressive deal. I’ve talked to players that have gone on and played professionally, and they’ve talked to players from other college leagues, and they just don’t have anything to compare it to. It’s a fabulous event.

“I think it’s a celebration of everything that’s gone on during the season,” continued Pletsch. “We get great cooperation from our schools as far as video highlights. Now, when they submit somebody for a year-end award, they also have to submit video highlights to document things that player has done during the season. That gets rolled into a package with music. It’s a glitzy, glamorous show.”

The banquet and awards show, lasting approximately 2 1/2 hours, mimics many of the awards ceremonies seen in the music, film, and television industries. The event is complete with award presenters, including NHL players, video highlights, lots of hardware, even players and coaches decked out in tuxedos.

The faceoff party at the Hockeytown Café allows coaches, players, and fans to mingle in an informal setting.

Friday morning sees the first installment of the CCHA Kids College Classic getting underway. The tournament gives a chance for hockey players through the Bantam level to showcase their skills the Super Six.

This year, 24 teams are involved in the Classic; nearly all come from CCHA cities. The championship games at each level are played on Sunday at Joe Louis Arena.

This year, the tournament is spearheaded by CCHA Communications Manager Courtney Welch.

“This year, we have 24 teams from five different divisions,” said Welch. “We try and focus on teams from the CCHA-area schools, but we have other teams that have been interested. Not only do the teams get to play in an NHL arena, but they get to watch six college hockey games that actually mean something.”

“[The players] are invited to come to our banquet on that Wednesday night,” continued Welch. “Thursday night, they go to the games. Friday, they play a game in the morning, a game in the afternoon, and then, most of them usually head to the college games at night. Saturday, they’ll play one game. Their championship game is at Joe Louis on Sunday. If they don’t make it to the championship, we’ve worked it in so that the kids can skate in an open skate, which means they’ll skate at Joe Louis no matter what.

“After the championship games, we’ll announce the winners. The kids will skate up, get their medals, we’ll hand over their trophies, and they’ll get a banner. You should see the looks on their faces. It’s so exciting.”

Friday through Sunday also marks the return of the revamped CCHA/USA hockey Advanced Coaches Clinic. The event, held at Compuware World Headquarters brings six division I college hockey coaches and several youth coaches together in an informal setting to talk coaching. Youth coaches can get their advanced certification through the clinic.

“I know that during the first couple of years, the youth hockey coaches that went to the clinic were blown away,” commented Pletsch. “They just don’t experience having six division I coaches sitting down in one place and just talking hockey.”

This year, USA Hockey has stepped up. It’s become an advanced clinic that will be held at Compuware’s world headquarters. This is an opportunity for youth coaches to learn form some of the top guys in amateur hockey.

Budding reporters even get a chance to get into the Super Six act. The CCHA offices have given two kids an opportunity to test out their journalism skills by playing the part of reporter for a day. The winners were selected through a contest.

“We are getting two junior reporters to come in,” said Welch. “We’ll give them a tour of the building, introduce them to some of the beat writers to give them an idea of what these reporters did to get to where they are. We’re also going to let them interview a coach and/or a player after the game and write a story. We post it on CCHA.com, along with photos of their experience. They also get to watch one of the games from the press box.”

After Friday’s semifinal games, the Detroit Marriott adds its flavor to the tournament. Located in the GM Building, the Marriott puts on a party complete with food, drink, and a live band that last year, even attracted legendary singer Rick James. The Super Six party is only one part of the Marriott’s commitment to the weekend.

“Marriott has really raised the bar as far as their commitment to the overall event,” said Pletsch. “For the last couple of years, their employees have been decked out in CCHA jerseys, and Friday night, there is the big gala party in the ballroom. We’re trying to create more atmosphere there, and they’ve cooperated in that way.”

The early afternoon of Saturday brings former CCHA players back to the Joe. The fourth annual CCHA alumni games kick off at noon as the Miami alum battle the grads from Ohio State. At 1:00 p.m., Western Michigan battles Ferris State in an alumni game.

Pletsch thinks the alumni games may have a little more prominence this year.

“This is an exceptional year with the NHL situation, so we expect to have more prominent alumni than ever before.”

And, amidst all of the festivities, there will be some actual college hockey played during the weekend as well.

On Thursday, quarterfinal action of the Super Six gets underway as the No. 3 seed Northern Michigan plays the sixth seed, Alaska Fairbanks, at 4:30 p.m. The No. 4 seed, Nebraska-Omaha, then plays fifth-seeded Michigan State at 8:00 p.m..

No. 1 Michigan will play in the first semifinal on Friday at 4:30 p.m., while Ohio State plays in the second semi at 8:00 p.m.. The championship game is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on Saturday. A third-place game will be played prior to the title game.

Starting on Friday, all of the action can be seen on Fox Sports Net as part of its College Hockey Breakaway Weekend coverage. The brainchild of FSN Detroit executive vice-president and general manager Greg Hammaren, the Breakaway weekend will provide unprecedented tourney coverage of the CCHA and WCHA playoffs, as well as updates from ECACHL and Hockey East.

“Tom is marvelous at forging relationships,” said Pletsch. “And one of the relationships he has developed is with Greg Hammaren, the executive vice-president and general manager of FSN-Detroit. Greg came up with the idea to give college hockey’s big weekend basketball[-type] treatment.

“We’ve gone from FSN-Detroit’s 3.5 million homes to 40 million homes, hooking up with FOX North and FOX Rocky Mountain. There are six hours of coverage Friday and six hours of coverage Saturday. You’ll be able to tune into the CCHA Super Six Semifinals. Then, between periods, they’ll go to a studio in Denver, preview goals and highlights from the CCHA game, goals and highlights from Minneapolis. They’ll be tapped into the ECAC and Hockey East, and be able to see what’s going on. That’s never happened before.

“Between periods, they’ll go to a game live in Minneapolis, much like ESPN would do for the Stanley Cup playoffs,” continued Pletsch. “At the conclusion of the game, they can show the rest of the WCHA game. That’s a big step forward for college hockey. Certainly, it’s never received this tournament-type exposure before. Hopefully, it can be expanded next year to work in Hockey East and the ECAC.”

Pletsch feel the Super Six has evolved tremendously since the concept was born four years ago, but he still feels there is work to do.

“It’s always a work in progress. Something that Tom is real big on is how we continue to evolve a concept. He won’t be satisfied until you can back-sell the tournament so that there is a sellout on Thursday night at 4:30. We’re kind of dependent on matchups, who is involved in the tournament.”

A good sign of the progress being made was two years ago, when Ferris State, from one of the smaller markets in the league, got to the championship game and drew all kinds of fans.

It seemed as though half of Big Rapids was at Joe Louis Arena that year.

The tournament has grown by leaps and bounds in the past five years. Gone are the days where fans must find other entertainment choices throughout the weekend because hockey games are the only activity.

The current Super Six weekend is an exciting, no-holds-barred event that celebrates what the CCHA is all about. Fans are sure never to be bored.

“It’s continuing to evolve. We look to improve each and every year,” said Pletsch.