Scheduling flexibility allows Hockey East teams big-game opportunities

In recent years, the Hockey East schedule has opened slowly with few league games and then built to a climax. The Ice Breaker kicked off the season with a Hockey East team typically playing other elite teams from around the country, but the league schedule saved its bullets. Heavyweights like Boston College and New Hampshire faced off for the title with a home-and-home series in the final weekend.

So it was a surprise to see Boston University hosting UNH last Saturday. Was this a calculated departure from the norm, presumably to kick the season off with a bang? And was that experiment a dud given the 5-0 final score?

No and no.

The matchup of the two perennial powers (which was, in truth, considerably closer than the final score indicated) had nothing to do with league intentions. Neither did Massachusetts at Northeastern or Merrimack at Maine or Northeastern at Maine.

The way the league drew up the schedule back in June 2010, there wasn’t a single league game for last weekend. Only Boston College’s entry in the Ice Breaker was on the docket.

“Our policy allows schools to move games if they have mutual consent and it doesn’t negatively affect a third party,” Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna says. (An example of such a negative side effect is a team moving a game and, as a result, another team plays two games on a weekend against opponents who only play one.)

So why the musical chairs that resulted in not one or two league games but four? To facilitate scheduling of attractive programs outside the conference.

“What happens in October and sometimes November is that [dates in those months] are the only chance to play some non-league opponent,” Bertagna says. “The schools have limited options. So they put in these requests primarily so that they can open a weekend for non-league play.

“All those league games this weekend were not designed by the league. In every case, the schools moved those games to accommodate some non-league opportunities.”

A look at the schedule of the three home teams involved illustrates the point. On Saturday, BU hosts third-ranked Denver, which comes to town to also play BC the night before. Was a switch necessary to make this highly desirable matchup work? Perhaps.

And you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to connect the dots between Maine’s rescheduled games against Merrimack and Northeastern and the Black Bears visiting sixth-ranked North Dakota this weekend. Or Northeastern’s trip to South Bend in early December to play second-ranked Notre Dame.

All of which doesn’t mean that next year will play out the same way. Hockey East schedules go in cycles such that the second year is a mirror image of the first. For example, if Merrimack and Northeastern play a home-and-home series on a given weekend this year, next year they’ll also play a home-and-home series on the same weekend, but with the home games reversed.

“Going forward next year,” Bertagna says, “the schedule that I have out for 2012-2013 is a flip flop of the original schedule that I made. It’s not a flip flop of the current schedule.”

Schools can, and almost certainly will, make similar changes to that schedule. A few will also adjust the Friday-Saturday night splits to their liking.

“[We design the schedule] so everybody gets an equal chance of playing on Friday or Saturday,” Bertagna says. “Most schools prefer Saturday, but we have some that prefer Friday.

“A school like Northeastern has so many alumni and employees in Boston already on a Friday, they find that a lot of them will stay in for a Friday game in greater numbers than will come back in for a Saturday.

“So they’ll go to their opponent and ask for Friday both years [of the cycle]. A lot of times the opponent will agree because they like the Saturday games.”

Notre Dame and the 11-team dilemma

All the talk around the rinks this past weekend was, “Who’s going to be the 12th team?” There’s considerable excitement about Notre Dame joining Hockey East and bringing the strength and allure of its program.

Many observers, however, are waiting for the other shoe to drop, recalling the scheduling awkwardness of the nine-team Hockey East during the time between Massachusetts joining the league and Vermont rounding it out to 10 members. Down the stretch, a team would be off or multiple teams would play only a single contest.

So as Bertagna conceded last week, an even number of teams is ideal. But it’s not a requirement.

Twelve would be very nice indeed. Eleven less so. Not knowing which one it will be, however, is the worst situation of all.

“You can do an 11-team schedule or you can do a 12-team schedule,” Bertagna says. “There are ways to do both.

“The point we’ve been trying to make all along is that as nice and tidy as 12 is so that on a given Saturday everyone is playing, our approach is not going to be that we’ve got to get to 12.

“Our approach is let’s see who’s interested. If we hear from schools that the league feels are a good fit for us and we solve the odd-even problem, then we’ve got it. But in the absence of finding that school, we’re not going to make getting to 12 the determining factor.

“I’ve read different things in print that claim it’s a done deal and it’s this school or that school. It’s somewhat comical when you’re on the inside and you know there are no done deals. If anything, there have been casual conversations, but that’s about it.

“We do feel that we’d like to get it resolved sooner rather than later because people are on hold and coaches are getting opportunities to pursue non-league schedules. Those opportunities will not be there forever. So hopefully we can do this, but it really depends on hearing from schools.

“Our position has never been to go after schools sitting in existing conferences. Anything we’ve done since I’ve been here has been after schools have contacted us and we’ve responded to them.

“That’s all I can say at this point.”

More non-league games and the uneven playing field effect

As part of Notre Dame and potentially another school joining Hockey East in 2013-14, the league’s teams will drop from 27 league games (playing nine opponents three times each) to 22 (assuming a 12-team league in which each school plays the other 11 twice). Finding those extra five non-league opponents means different things for different programs. It’s a wealth of options for the top schools and a mixed bag for others.

Every program can get games. But it’s a question of not only who but where.

“Some of our schools who perhaps can’t dictate this as much as they’d like, find themselves having great opportunities to play any number of places on the road, but when they ask the schools to reciprocate, a lot of them won’t return to their facility,” Bertagna says. “They pay a guarantee and they make it attractive that way, but from a competitive point of view our schools want to have games in their buildings.”

As an example, Merrimack traveled to Michigan to play two games in 2002 and then another in 2005, but the perennial powerhouse never made a return trip back to North Andover. The Warriors program benefited from adding an opponent like that to its schedule (and also from the financial guarantee), but faced a competitive disadvantage from playing all of those non-league games on the road.

This is why the NCAA has attempted in past years to add “good road wins” to the tournament selection criteria. Powerhouse programs who can use their clout and large arenas to play a disproportionate share of nonconference games at home shouldn’t have that advantage extended to the NCAA tournament.

With an extra five such games to schedule, the effect becomes more pronounced. Programs like Boston College, Boston University, New Hampshire and Maine likely will benefit based on their prestige and large facilities. As for those teams on the lower rungs of the ladder …

“We’re looking into any way the league can help with that, but it does appear to be one of those things where the schools are on their own,” Bertagna says. “If we’re looking at 12 to 14 non-league games, it will be easier for some schools to sculpt that schedule in their buildings than others.”

Of course, not every Hockey East program is looking to add the Michigans of the college hockey world to their schedule, at least not if it’s a one-way deal.

“Different schools have different philosophies on non-league scheduling,” Bertagna says. “It may depend on where their program is competitively at a given point in time on who they want to schedule and who they feel they can match up well against. If you just look at the non-league schedules from year to year, you’ll see that different schools attack it differently.

“You’ve got top-10 teams like Denver this weekend coming in to play BC and BU. Other schools will play a lot of Atlantic Hockey teams or ECAC teams. Some of them are nothing more than just that the coaches have a great relationship and they like to play each other. Some of them are just tradition; they’ve always played a certain opponent.

“But it’s not an even playing field when it comes to tackling a 12- or 14-game non-league schedule.”

And finally, not that it has anything to do with anything but …

I sure hope Theo stays. (OK, journalistic practice dictates that I refer to him as Boston Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein, but in baseball circles Theo is as much a one-word name as Kobe is in basketball.)

Think of where the Sox were when he took over. Think of where they are now plus the two world championships. Yes, there have been free agent disasters, but there are always free agent disasters. It’s the nature of the beast. Compare the talent that has been home grown and acquired through trades with what was there before Theo took over.

There are things to fix. Theo is the best guy to fix them.