Commentary: Nice Thought, but National Championships Belong in Arenas

A few things to get us started as the national semifinals are behind us and the national title game approaches.

Detroit is a great hockey city. The CCHA has done a tremendous job with the NCAA to put this event together. The celebration of college hockey in Hockeytown has been really well done. Tom Anastos and his staff deserve a lot of credit. The idea to play the Frozen Four at Ford Field was a really good idea.

OK, now the bad.

Thursday was a black eye for college hockey, and I’m not the only one who is saying it. The texts and e-mails from friends, colleagues, scouts, NCAA players, coaches, sports information directors, etc., were pretty numerous. The overwhelming response from the messages I got from people at the game or home watching was that this venue, while a good idea, was an awful place to hold a national championship tournament.

I’d have to agree. The building is awesome, and having been to a few Lions games the place is a great NFL facility. Through no one’s fault, the building is not a good one for hockey.

The place is too big size-wise and not enough seats were filled to have it have any atmosphere. There was no pulse, no vibe, no electricity like there had been in Boston, Columbus, Denver, Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C. It was flat in there. It seemed like a holiday tourney, like the Great Lakes Invitational in late December when Joe Louis Arena is half filled for what is often a good tourney. The fact that both games were not great was also a problem but there is no control over that.

Sight lines were an issue also. I sat in some different sections all around the place to get a feel of what it looked like from different spots. There weren’t many great sight lines, and because the of the way the seats slope backward you had no connection to the rink, to the teams, to the action.

ON TV the game looked bad because of camera angles, lighting and the fact that the building had large chunks of empty seats. Not ESPN’s fault, just a fact. One scout texted me from home and said “on TV this looks like a low class operation” and the scout who said it is a long time supporter of college hockey. The ice looked awful. The participants and many who skated on it this week felt it wasn’t very good, much like they said about the outdoor game at Madison’s Camp Randall Stadium. It’s very rare that ice that is a week old or so is any good. It takes a while to settle in.

This is not to bang on the NCAA, the CCHA, Ford Field or ESPN. This was an interesting idea to have it here, but it just didn’t work. Applaud the idea but take a close look at the results and you will realize that this should never happen again. National championships for college hockey belong in an arena.

There seems to be a feeling among many that college hockey needs to reinvent itself, or needs to reinvent the wheel when it comes to how and where the game is played. Three points for games won in one conference, outdoor games, hockey games in football stadiums covered or uncovered.

What the people with marketing degrees don’t want to hear is that college hockey is a game that is based on intimacy. The fans and their access to the players and coaches. It is small arenas or even the big ones that are designed to make it feel like a small one and do even with 15,000 people in there. Whoever built the Kohl Center had it right — a huge place that feels like it’s a small-town atmosphere. North Dakota has that, as does Minnesota. The fans don’t want a pro hockey feel or pro hockey gimmicks. College hockey fans are a different demographic than pro hockey fans and they should be catered to accordingly if anyone wants to keep them happy and make any money doing so.

Passion for the game and the program fuels college hockey’s success. Go to a mid-January game in Maine and then compare it to the atmosphere Thursday at Ford Field. Alfond is a great atmosphere. We’ve been down this road before in this space so I won’t waste time, but someone needs to speak up and say, “Hey, deep thinkers, the old way wasn’t broken so why are we trying to fix this?”

There is a lot wrong with college hockey, but it isn’t the game, it isn’t the fan support of the game, and it isn’t the programs for the most part. It’s empty regionals, outdoor games, and national title games on football fields in a city which is one of the top three in college hockey (I’d put Minneapolis and Boston right there also).

One idea came up Thursday. Rotate the Frozen Four through four cities. Boston, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Detroit (using The Joe or whatever replaces it), and Denver. However, Columbus and St. Louis did great with it and those were packed buildings so the four-city rotation might not work. Tampa in 2012 is an interesting idea that many feel will be a disaster, but I’d be a hypocrite to say that because I think Tampa/Orlando would be an interesting site for a future World Junior Championship if done right. Tie in with the tourism industry there and have special travel/amusement park packages in place and you should have a gold mine.

I think that the championship game will be a great one. It is the best two teams in the nation. The speed of Boston College and the full scale frontal assault of Wisconsin. It pits two genuine champions behind the benches in Jerry York and Mike Eaves. They are two good friends whose families share a meal together every year at the AHCA convention in April. Both of Eaves’ sons played for York at BC.

I hope Detroit packs the place Saturday. The teams deserve nothing less. More importantly, the fans deserve a great event, a memorable spectacle on and off the ice. It should be electric in there Saturday night. I hope for our game’s sake it is.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t skeptical.