Driving The Meter

Now that we’re heading into the next round of the playoffs, take a minute with me to salute a great group of coaches whom we at CSTV get a chance to spend one weekend per year with: the bench bosses of College Hockey America.

The AHA and the CHA do not get the ink that the “Big Four” conferences do, but as Robert Morris head coach Derek Schooley said Wednesday, “25 percent of college hockey is in Atlantic Hockey or the CHA. To ignore them isn’t good for the industry as a whole.” He’s absolutely right.

The CHA has some quality wins this season, and thanks to my play-by-play partner at CSTV, Matt McConnell, for doing the research. UAH beat Yale. Bemidji State knocked off Minnesota-Duluth and traditionally plays North Dakota pretty tough. Niagara beat CCHA teams in Bowling Green and Western Michigan twice, and also swept Quinnipiac. Robert Morris made news early with a win over BU and also beat Ohio State. Wayne State had four wins in beating Lake Superior, St Lawrence, and Northern Michigan twice.

(The CHA title game is on CSTV Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m. ET. That game is usually a good one.)

However, here is the problem. As Dennis Miller said, I don’t want to go off on a rant here, but fans of Atlantic Hockey and the CHA get their knickers in a snit when their teams or conferences get slighted. I hear you fans, I get it. However, on a national level, what drives ratings is what gets the focus, and there is a reason national radio hosts talk a ton of pro football, golf and baseball, and college football and hoops. Not my rules, folks, but what keeps us in business on the broadcast and print side is covering the stories and teams you overwhelmingly ask for, and Sacred Heart lags a bit behind Michigan State on the depth chart. Even my six-year-old knows the “Go Green, Go White” chant.

In college hockey, the teams that drive the meter are the traditional powerhouses like (but not limited to) Minnesota, BU, BC, UNH, Maine, Wisconsin, Denver, North Dakota, CC, Harvard, Cornell, Michigan, and Michigan State. Former powers like Michigan Tech, enjoying a resurgence, also bring back good memories, as does Lake Superior State. Clarkson has always been good and schools like Yale and Northern Michigan have had their share of success.

You want to talk about Kyle Turris and James VanRiemsdyk, about Kevin Porter and Nathan Gerbe, about rookie goalie sensations like Jordan Pearce, John Muse and Richard Bachman. I admire Luke Flicek and Eric Ehn, Ryan Cruthers and Matt Climie, but first-round draft choices and future NHLers grab headlines.

The point being, while RIT is a good team, and Mercyhurst has a track record of success and a great coach in Rick Gotkin (who also might be the funniest man in college hockey), those schools don’t drive interest on a national level. They are followed passionately on a local level and that is great for them and their loyal fan base. However, I see those schools more at Eastern Junior Hockey League showcases than I do on TV.

The other myth that pervades the psyche is that other than the 1980 U.S. Olympic Team, name me one no-name underdog in hockey that was nationally cared about. Were you fired up about Carolina-Edmonton or Tampa Bay-Calgary in the NHL playoffs? The ratings said you weren’t even though the Hurricanes-Oilers series was just awesome.

Hey, I was very much on the Bemidji State bandwagon three seasons ago and was thrilled when the Beavers took Denver to OT in the Amherst regional, but for marketing and TV purposes, what sells better, a matchup between Bemidji State and UNH or one between the defending champion Pioneers and UNH? I pumped the Beavers’ tires right into their regional semifinal game against Wisconsin two seasons ago, but Wisconsin won that 4-0.

That set up Wisconsin-Cornell, two heavyweights, in a game that ended in a 1-0 triple-overtime marathon, won by the eventual national champs from Madison. Check those two rosters and see how many of the players in that game have already played in the NHL. Stars sell! Also, the game was in Green Bay, Wis., it was packed, and if Wisconsin wasn’t in that game, the TV audience would have been watching a regional final in a half-empty building. That’s just what the NCAA and its TV partners are trying to avoid like the plague.

Like I have said, I’d love to see Army in the national tourney, or Air Force. I think a CHA team in the tourney is terrific. Remember Holy Cross and its upset of Minnesota. How we all cheered the little school from central Massachusetts for KO’ing the mighty Gophers, in OT.

Pick your poison wisely because Minny, if it had won, would have played North Dakota in Grand Forks and those two teams might have played some of the most exciting playoff hockey this side of Colorado College-Michigan. HC and NoDak had all the juice of a Sly and The Family Stone reunion tour because the underdog doesn’t really draw ratings. Thank goodness the game was in Grand Forks and not Grand Rapids. Geroge Mason in the basketball Final Four two years ago had awful ratings for a story America was supposed to be in love with.

I still stand behind my original thought of three years ago in that the CHA and Atlantic champs should play a play-in game to see who is the 16th seed. Right now, those two autobids help eliminate these four teams just outside the bubble in the PairWise: Minnesota Duluth, Notre Dame, Vermont, Harvard. No offense to anyone, but I want Notre Dame in the national tourney with an at-large because they are Notre Dame, they attract interest and they are a good team. Minnesota Duluth was a Frozen Four team a few years back, and lost a late lead to Denver in the semifinals. Denver went on to beat Maine.

Vermont is a name school that would get covered in the Boston market as would Harvard, which has won national championships and produced a ton of NHL players and a couple of Hobey Baker winners. Remember, Stanley Cup winners John LeClair and Martin St. Louis both played at Vermont, as did All Star game-winning goalie Tim Thomas of the Bruins. Take out one of those autobids and one of those four gets in, and I think we established why that is a good thing!

Look at the BCS ratings this past year with the traditional teams not having a presence. They were way down. No Miami, no Florida State, no Alabama, no Notre Dame, no Texas, no Nebraska. Oklahoma wasn’t great, Michigan was average (though it did beat Florida), and Illinois was in the Rose Bowl against a team that everyone knew would blow the Illini out. You’d watch an average Michigan team play USC in the Rose Bowl before you’d watch a really good Illinois or Iowa in that spot. Michigan is national, the others aren’t.

Enjoy the playoffs, the unsung heroes, the great goaltending. Root hard for your team but root smart. The big picture is important for our game on many levels, with continued growth being No. 1. It is with no disrespect that I say the big teams need to be in the national tourney, that Minnesota needs to be in over Bentley. It’s just reality.