NCAA, college hockey stakeholders discuss the state of the game

BOSTON — Representatives from different areas of the college hockey universe met with the media on Friday afternoon to discuss the current status of the game.

For about an hour, they fielded questions on a wide range of topics, including how to improve the NCAA tournament’s regional selection process, the impact of a competitive and challenging recruiting landscape and the continued growth of what’s become an emerging marketplace for athletic competition.

Standing in for college hockey were: Michigan State head coach and head of the NCAA rules committee Tom Anastos; College Hockey Inc. executive director Mike Snee; NCAA director of championships Kristin Fasbender; and member of the NCAA Division I men’s ice hockey committee Tom McGinnis of Minnesota.

Here are some of the topics they discussed:

Regionals take center stage at Frozen Four

The most passionate area of inquiry centered on thoughts surrounding the selection of regional sites, which are now placed at neutral, predetermined sites.

The discussion about where to play the NCAA tournament’s first rounds veered toward a “campus site or not campus site” tone.

“Our goal is to maximize the experience for all of our student-athletes,” said Fasbender. “With the current setup, we know we cannot always guarantee that a host school will play at the predetermined sites. There are multiple options on the table that we want to discuss, and we’re going to continue to work with the NCAA body, the institutions and our television partners.”

“I was an advocate of the move to neutral sites,” said Anastos. “I’m also an advocate of constantly reviewing. Attendance is always discussed, and we always have lots of inputs. It’s not a simple solution, and there are different models we want to look at and discuss.”

Regional sites for 2016 are already in place, meaning change would not happen before the 2017 season.

Along with the site, the panel discussed the slotting of times of each game.

“We have a great partner in ESPN,” said McGinnis, “but we only have limited hours when we’re scheduling 12 games over a three-day period. But we’re continuing to look at models and see how we can discuss and evaluate.”

NCAA vs. major juniors

Increasingly this season, the battle between college hockey and the major juniors became more public with the higher-profile signings of players like Sonny Milano.

Milano, who chose to sign a professional contract and play this season with the Plymouth Whalers, made his decision after originally committing to Boston College.

“We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing [to market college hockey],” said Snee. “We’re focusing on all aspects of marketing, from electronic to social media to traditional marketing. We have a partnership this year with TSN, and we’re making a slow acquisition of people who were rooted in information that might be a little bit older. We’ve really found a sweet spot in social media and on Twitter.”

Per Snee, one-third of all NHL players come from the NCAA system, with the New York Rangers topping the list of teams with college athletes. The Rangers recently sealed up the Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL team with the best regular season record.

“We’ve been really good at chipping away [at the older school of thought],” said Anastos, “and we’re strengthening our relationships [with the hockey community].”

Watering the beanstalk

Despite all the questions about the regionals and the “battle” with the juniors circuit, college hockey continues to focus on the growth of its game. Arizona State joins Division I as the 60th member, and more than once there were lighthearted references to the 61st, 62nd and even the 63rd team to join college hockey.

“We are going to follow the interest,” said Snee. “You look at Arizona State and Penn State, and if there’s a situation where someone with resources and interest in hockey exists, that’s where we’ll go. We are targeting the schools we feel will be most likely to want hockey while focusing on places where growth can have the most impact.

“Arizona State is allowing us to have the conversations about other Pac-12 schools who maybe are thinking, ‘If they can do it in Tempe, maybe we can do it here.’ I’m really excited to see what impact Arizona State will have when you look 25 years down the road.”

At the same time, Snee touched upon the strengthening of the nontraditional college or hockey market. He referenced the flourishing youth hockey community of Huntsville, Ala., as an example of how an area can use college hockey as a centering piece to the construction of a tradition.

Parity reigns supreme

With a fourth-seeded team back in the national championship game, there is more parity than ever in college hockey. Even with an ever-changing atmosphere, the competition on the ice remains as competitive as ever.

In regards to the recent autonomy vote granting powers to schools within “power conferences,” Anastos, himself impacted in the Big Ten with Michigan State, said: “We really don’t know how everything will be different. We know it will be different, but we really don’t know and can’t determine the impact.”

McGinnis made the worthwhile point that there are already fundamental differences between some of the schools. In the 59-team Division I, not all schools offer the same amount of athletic scholarships, and some don’t offer any at all.

The last two national champions — Union and Yale — are among the schools that don’t offer athletic scholarship. Even with that scenario, there’s still substantial parity.