And away we go …

Yes folks, that’s right … the USCHO Hobey Watch is back. This is the point in the season where the race for the most prestigious individual honor in college hockey really starts to heat up, and I will be with you folks all the way to the big finale on April 6 in Tampa, Fla. Last year’s Hobey race was … interesting, to say the least, and there were definitely some harsh words tossed around on several sides of the debate. I’m hoping things will be a little quieter this year, although not too much, since the back-and-forth between fans and pundits is part of the fun. So, let’s dive right in, huh?

As it happens, we’re getting started in the same week as the new season of “American Idol,” which is actually a good place for me to start. It’s not that there’s any great connection between “Idol” and college hockey, although I’m fairly certain that former “Idol” contestant Ayla Brown has sung the national anthem before a Boston College hockey game or two. No, this actually has something to do with a conversation I had last week with a fellow writer.

This writer, a former Hobey voter who covers an ECAC Hockey team, was wondering aloud about the wisdom of having fan voting contribute to the selections for the Hobey, asking if such a prestigious award should be treated like “American Idol” or “Dancing With the Stars.” My initial reaction was to point out how little the voting figures into the actual voting process, as the fan vote counts as much as a single head coach’s vote when determining the top 10, or 1/59th of the total vote (1/60th next year when Penn State starts varsity play and Guy Gadowsky gets a vote). However, that’s still a reasonably big piece of the puzzle, so let’s explore this a bit.

While the Hobey Watch does conclude with one player winning the award, we do spend a fair amount of time focusing on the top 10 finalists, since there are a number of players for whom finalist status or even a spot in the Hobey Hat Trick amounts to a win (Eric Ehn’s spot in the 2007 Hat Trick being a great example). And, as my colleague in ECAC country pointed out, it’s entirely possible that the fan vote can make the difference between two players for that last spot in the Top 10. Would we want that kind of honor to be possibly handed out based on nothing more than pure homerism and ballot-box stuffing? That’s a question that’s worth answering.

It does bear mentioning that fan voting for the Hobey hasn’t always been taken seriously. In 2006, Denver third-string goalie Danny King, who had yet to see a second of ice time in his Pioneers career, was the subject of a huge voting push among Denver fans. At one point, he had received more votes than Phil Kessel, Brian Boyle, Cory Schneider or Drew Stafford. While it’s hard to begrudge King the recognition (go back and read my 2007 story on him if you’re so inclined; it has definite smile-inducing properties), it’s also hard to say he was really worthy of that level of support.

These days, however, the Hobey voting field is much narrower than it used to be. Sports information directors submit candidates — I had one SID ask me about his choices a couple of years ago — and there is a certain seriousness to the proceedings these days, even if there may be a bit of homerism involved. A look at the voting right now has the Top 10 like so:

Spencer Abbott, Maine — 13 percent
Jack Connolly, Minnesota-Duluth — 13 percent
Austin Smith, Colgate — 13 percent
Greg Miller, Cornell — 4 percent
Kyle Flanagan, St. Lawrence — 4 percent
Brian Flynn, Maine — 3 percent
Paul Karpowich, Clarkson — 3 percent
Tim Kirby, Air Force — 3 percent
(Five players tied with 2 percent)

It’s safe to say that this is not what any coach’s Hobey ballot is going to look like at the end of the season, except for the fact that the top three vote-getters — Abbott, Connolly and Smith — are also the top three in the nation in points per game. In fact, while Mercyhurst freshman Nardo Nagtzaam is having a nice freshman campaign for the Lakers, it’s probably not too far off the mark to suggest that part of his 2 percent comes from having such an undeniably awesome name.

So what?

At this point, it’s fair to conclude that the fan vote will only really affect the top 10 if the coaches’ votes are split right down the middle when it comes to the last man in the top 10, and as far as I’m concerned that’s as good a way to decide in that situation.

In that situation, could having a more mobilized fan base make a bigger difference than actual hockey abilities? Sure. but to be considered for one of the top 10 spots, you already have to be one hell of a hockey player, so it’s not like there will ever be an undeserving top 10 finalist because of fan voting.

So rest easy, my friends, and vote away. Now excuse me, I want to see if I can find an MP3 of Phillip Phillips singing “Thriller.”

Or not…