This Week in the CCHA: Dec. 1, 2005

The Reason for the Season

The weather has finally turned nippy, the Thanksgiving turkey is a carcass, the days shorten, and several local radio stations are playing Christmas music round the clock.

This can only signal one thing: it’s time to shop.

While the day after Thanksgiving, a.k.a. “Black Friday,” is touted as the single biggest retail day of the year in the U.S., the first weekend in December is usually the busiest shopping weekend before Christmas.

According to the National Retail Foundation, consumer spending last weekend was up 21.9 percent over 2004’s immediate post-Thanksgiving rush, but only 35.6 percent of us have finished our holiday shopping, a figure that NRF says is “slightly down” from this time last year.

Well, what are you waiting for? For the sake of our nation’s well-being, we should all be out there fighting the crowds, bending the plastic, driving the economy. To that end, here’s a list of what you can get me for Christmas. Most of these are, technically speaking, not commercial items, and you may have to search a little wider and dig a little deeper, but I know from personal experience that CCHA fans are among the most resourceful in college hockey.

Don’t worry. It’s a short list.

The College Hockey Showcase

Yes, that’s what I want for Christmas. Okay, so I’m asking way in advance, but I think now is the time to start thinking about the 2006 College Hockey Showcase, especially since it will take place outside of the formerly friendly confines of Munn and Yost Arenas.

For the third consecutive year, the Big Ten titans of the WCHA flexed their collective muscle and stole the collective lunch money from two of the CCHA’s three Big Ten members. This year, Minnesota and Wisconsin combined for a 3-0-1 record against Michigan and Michigan State at the annual event, having swept the Wolverines and defeated and tied the Spartans.

Yes, I hear the loud protests of the Green and White, the at-least-we-got-a-point rebuttal, and it’s true that only the Spartans have been even remotely effective against the Gophers and Badgers for the past three Showcases. In fact, the Wolverines are 0-for-6 in Showcase action for the past three seasons, their last Showcase win coming against Wisconsin Nov. 30, 2002 (they tied Minnesota the night before).

But the Spartans have fared only a little better, having earned a 2-2 tie last week against the Gophers and a 4-0 win over Wisconsin last year.

Worst still is that for two of these three past years, Michigan and Michigan State have hosted.

The Spartans were leading the Badgers 1-0 on Drew Miller’s goal last Friday going into the third period before giving up two even-strength goals and the lead after the 10-minute mark in the final stanza of the 3-1 loss.

“Once they got the first one,” said MSU head coach Rick Comley, “you can tell that we got worried.”

All four goals in Michigan State’s 2-2 tie with Minnesota Saturday came in the first period, with Tyler Howells knotting the score for the Spartans 21 seconds after Danny Irmen scored his second of the game to give the Gophers their second lead.

Given how bruised, battered, tired, and young the Spartans are, their showing in the Showcase this year was respectable, and their coach is pleased with the way in which his team performed. Comley told the Lansing State Journal that he’s “encouraged” that MSU “played two really good teams, with different styles, and played well.”

After Saturday’s 6-3 loss to Minnesota, in which the Gophers scored five power-play tallies, Wolverine head coach Red Berenson said that Michigan would have to “do better tomorrow night.”

“The only thing we can do is control how we play,” said the coach of the former No. 1 team. “And we know we can play better than we played.”

After coming from behind to tie the Badgers 2-2 in the third period Saturday only to lose on Adam Burish’s goal with less than two minutes remaining in regulation — in Yost Arena — Michigan captain Andrew Ebbett said that it’s time for the Wolverine players to “start owning up.”

“We had a good first 11 games, but now we see what it’s like in the rest of the country, and those are two top-five teams right there. It’s time to wake up and get back to the basics.”

With 11 freshmen on the Michigan roster, perhaps outings like the one against Minnesota with its five opponent power-play goals are not so shocking. Maybe we CCHA fans have been spoiled by Berenson’s and Michigan’s consistent excellence. But nothing screams youth more than that sort of loss and the captain’s appropriate postgame comments.

All reasons aside — MSU’s battered start and brutal schedule and Michigan’s youth — I just can’t shake the feeling that I’ve been set up for a big night of romance only to find that the gent in question still lives with his mother and insists on saying hija instead of “yes” even when he’s not at MARCON.

Worse yet is Ebbett’s canny remark. Now we know what it’s like “in the rest of the country,” or at least in the WCHA, which has owned the rest of the country for a significant period of time.

Oh, the season began so well, with Lake Superior State taking three points from Colgate, Michigan beating Boston College, the Spartans beating North Dakota and splitting with Cornell in Ithaca, Nebraska-Omaha beating New Hampshire, and Ohio State splitting with Colorado College in Colorado Springs. It all looked so good at the start, as though the CCHA might be more competitive in nonconference play this season, a barometer of what may come in postseason.

But I fear that this year’s College Hockey Showcase may be an even better indicator of what may happen in April. Sure, the Wolverines beat Minnesota in the Showcase in both 2001 and 2002 and lost to the Gophers each of the following Aprils in the Frozen Four, so you can make the argument that none of this matters.

I can’t, however, shake the feeling that this is a sign of things to come.

A Perennially Competitive Team Not from the Big Ten or Indiana

One of my favorite scenes from When Harry Met Sally … has Billy Crystal’s “Harry” discussing a failed date with Meg Ryan’s “Sally.” Harry tells Sally that he was making small talk with his date, who tells him that she went to Michigan State, and this in turn reminds him of his ex-wife, Helen.

“Helen went to Michigan State?” asks Sally?

“No, she went to Northwestern, but they’re both Big Ten schools,” replies Harry.

It shouldn’t be surprising that the CCHA’s three schools from the Big Ten have become the three most reliable contenders for the league’s title. We all know about Michigan’s stranglehold on the league, and the 1990s saw the Spartans rise to dominance as well, a position to which they will undoubtedly return.

Under John Markell, Ohio State has become a force to be reckoned with, and now there is hope that Jeff Jackson can do the same at Notre Dame.

It’s easier for schools with high-profile athletic communities and more resources to attract the most desirable recruits. Under Berenson, Michigan has become a dynasty, and that kind of success breeds more success; unless his parents are Spartan fans, few kids in Michigan grow up thinking that playing college hockey in Ann Arbor would be a bad gig.

While the transition from Ron Mason to Comley — and the ensuing post-Ryan Miller era — was difficult at first for the Spartans, anyone who knows Comley knows that the marriage of that coach and those resources has the potential for long-lasting results in East Lansing. The Spartans have a history of producing NHL-caliber players, another recruiting perk.

And every time I walk into the Schottenstein Center, I’m reminded of one of OSU’s biggest recruiting assets. Now that the Buckeyes have established a recent history of capability, they will probably remain a top-tier team for quite some time.

And what school has more storied and fabled athletic traditions than Notre Dame? Jackson plus a new facility will lead to the awakening of a sleeping giant.

This is all well and good for college hockey. In fact, it’s very good in many ways. While the sport has gained in more widespread recognition in the last decade — fueled by better media coverage and a better product, with many former collegians in the NHL — it’s those big-name schools like Michigan and Ohio State that get the attention of the casual hockey fan, one not necessarily familiar with the college game but one whose attention is piqued when he or she hears a recognizable college name.

So I wish the Wolverines, Spartans, and Buckeyes continued success, and I fervently hope for Notre Dame’s improved future. It’s good for the sport.

But it feels so empty. If only a few teams comprise the league’s top tier annually and those teams are the same teams with the same big names and the same big resources, by the time we all get to February, boredom threatens to deaden what should be the most exciting time of the season.

With the same top teams from big schools, every year, the CCHA becomes college basketball in microcosm; sure, occasionally an Arkansas or Maryland emerges to have a singular season, but the same cast of characters dictate each year’s plot.

So I want one non-Big Ten CCHA team other than Notre Dame to emerge as a consistent, perennial powerhouse. Every year. Without question. As in, it’s shocking when they don’t.

Perhaps the league is too young for me to demand this. Perhaps this is just unrealistic, given the nature of college athletics.

Since it’s Christmas and I grew up believing in Santa Claus, I’m asking anyway.

Sure, there have been times when certain “smaller” schools held a few years’ dominance in the league. Lake Superior State had its day, as did Bowling Green, and Northern Michigan certainly threatens. And there are some schools that are competitive every season, like NMU and more recently Miami.

When Ferris State captured the conference title and made its first trip to the NCAA tournament at the end of the 2002-03 season, the Bulldogs breathed new life into an old experience — at least for reporters. We finally had someone else to write about, and by doing so could convey new enthusiasm to college hockey fans.

Just look at the CCHA tournament when someone other than the usual suspects makes an appearance. Nearly everyone is excited when the Nanooks and Mavericks head to Detroit, but I would be thrilled to see Western Michigan or Lake Superior State make the CCHA tourney at Joe Louis Arena, and further thrilled to see either of those teams — or FSU, or BGSU, or Miami, or anyone other than the glamour boys — make it or threaten to make it every single year.

Depth. I want depth. Is it too much to ask for a date that doesn’t speak Klingon and shows up every time he’s invited? Sure, Michigan, MSU, OSU, and Notre Dame are good-looking, but that’s hardly the basis for a long-term relationship.

Blueliner Nominations

One reader wrote in this week to nominate OSU’s Sean Collins for Blueliner of the Week, and said reader admitted that he didn’t see Collins play in person.

As you know, I have nothing against defensemen who score points, and I’m glad that the CCHA finally came clean and gave goaltenders their own, separate POTW honors, since the league favored goalies heavily when there were just two POTW categories.

But there are so many guys who play their defensive positions well without getting press, guys whose stats aren’t as tangible.

As disappointing as it is that few folks write to nominate a worthy player they’ve seen play, in person, what disappoints me most is that their own teams don’t promote them.

Trivia Answers

I lobbed softballs last week, and everyone struck out. Or rather, no one showed up to play.

Maybe I need a new prize. Maybe I need to promise dinner with Todd Milewski. I’ll give this some more thought.

So, folks that’s what this CCHA writer wants for Christmas: a competitive league, one “small school” team to emerge as a reliable competitor, and email from you. Is that too much to ask?

Next Week

Yes, I’m well aware of how short this column is, comparatively speaking. I’ve just finished moving — and I mean just hours ago — and I swear the next time I’ll sell a kidney just to hire a truck if I have to. Of course, I’m never moving again. Ever.

Next week, I’ll try to get you the long-promised chat with UAF’s Kyle Greentree, along with some impressions of Alabama-Huntsville — I’ve never seen the Chargers play, and I’m pretty excited about this — challenging trivia, games of the week, and a Blueliner of the Week, if Santa hears my plea.

One final note, something I wanted to say last week. Congratulations to Nicole Hendrickson on her engagement. I wasn’t sure Pops was going to make it public in his column, so I didn’t say anything in mine.

(What was I thinking? Of course Pops made it public. He and I are cut from frighteningly similar cloth.)

I wish Nicole and her fiance a long and happy life together. I wish Dave an interesting father-of-the-bride experience and several future wee ones to call him Grandpops.