TMQ: Discussing the Jan. 16 poll, curmudgeons, underrated Union

 (Tim Brule)
Have college hockey outdoor games lost their shine with the college hockey fan base? (photo: Melissa Wade).

Each week during the season, we look at the big events and big games around Division I men’s college hockey in Tuesday Morning Quarterback.

Jim: We’ve been talking about them for much of this season and Paula, the voters in the poll have given recognition to Penn State, placing the Nittany Lions first in the poll for the first time in the program’s short history.

Does this prove anything? Who knows. Penn State swept a Michigan State team that has been, for the most part, more of a bottom-feeder this season than anything else. But with everyone in front of Penn State losing at least once (and Harvard losing twice), it doesn’t surprise me that Penn State is the nation’s top team.

Now comes the tricky part: handing the pressure that comes along with being No. 1. I know to some this may sound crazy, but we have seen teams ascend to the top in recent years only to immediately drop a game or two (or more). You know this Penn State team better than I. Is that something that concerns you?

Paula: I wouldn’t say that I’m concerned about it, because I doubt very much that the coaching staff at Penn State sees it as a concern. As enthusiastic as Guy Gadowsky is, he’s also level-headed and has always struck me as the kind of coach who is in the moment rather than one who puts too much stock in potentials. This is a moment for the Penn State program, certainly. I don’t know how the players will react to this, but if they follow the lead of Guy Gadowsky, I’m sure they’ll be keeping it in perspective. That’s not to suggest that they won’t be enormously proud of this nor to suggest that they can’t be knocked out of the top spot, but I doubt that the Nittany Lions will put all of their emotional eggs into the basket of this moment.

The interesting thing about the timing of their ascension to the top spot in the poll – and their top spot in the PairWise Rankings – is that they welcome Ohio State for two games this weekend, pitting the top two offenses against each other. Also, the Buckeyes have done well against the Nittany Lions in the past, and it is quite possible for any combination of outcomes for that series.
In other words, the Nittany Lions can have their heads in the right place, completely, and still lose to Ohio State and fall from the top spot without it having anything to do with not being able to handle the pressure of being No. 1.

The poll is interesting this week, with five teams grabbing at least one vote for the top spot. I admit that I struggled, too, with who to place at No. 1 and ultimately cast my vote for Penn State because of the Nittany Lions’ consistent performance this season. I don’t care who they’re playing; good teams by and large beat the teams they ought to beat, and Penn State has lost just two games this season.

Jim: I, too, gave my vote to Penn State. And I deliberated a good bit trying to decide if I needed to drop Denver for a loss to a very good Western Michigan team before confidently beating the Broncos a night later 7-2. We weren’t the only ones struggling with their ballot, though. That was evident in the fact that the other college hockey poll, the USA Hockey poll, held Denver as its top team.

I understand what you’re saying about this weekend’s opponent for Penn State. Ohio State has proven to be a very good team this year and losing this week at least is probably close to a 50/50 proposition for the Nittany Lions. It could easily make this a short stay at No. 1 for Penn State, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that this fifth-year program (fourth playing a full Division I slate) can now call itself the top team in the nation. There are teams that have been around for decades and still never held the No. 1 ranking.

Changing pace a little bit, this weekend brought to a close the fourth edition of Frozen Fenway, a series of Hockey East (and other) games played at Fenway Park in Boston. Since the first event nearly a decade ago, which drew 38,472 fans to watch Boston College and Boston University play a terrific game in a winter snow-globe like atmosphere, I’ve personally criticized attempts to recreate this product. It is a cash grab for the Boston Red Sox and this year’s event proved that the popularity of the event has clearly waned. The four games drew a total of 35,979 fans, and that was an announced attendance with hardly that many inside the ballpark.

I understand everyone saying that this is about the student-athlete experience, playing at Fenway Park. Maybe it’s because I never played hockey that I can’t totally relate to this. Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna took to social media this weekend to tout the effort that goes into putting on an event and called naysayers like myself “curmudgeons.” I get that when you put in the amount of work that this event takes, you don’t like to be criticized. But am I crazy for thinking that all of these events just simply aren’t very “special” anymore? You’ve been part of a few in the Midwest. Are you as cynical as I?

Paula: Yes, I am. I am a big fan of Joe Bertagna’s and I appreciate his perspective on the event, but I would gently like to suggest that people inside the game – commissioners, coaches, players, all associated with specific hockey programs and leagues – don’t have the perspective of the average fan of the game, and the average fan of the game no longer considers events such as these to be so special. In fact, when outdoor games become as routine as they have become, they lose any claim to that word at all.

I covered the Cold War game in Spartan Stadium weeks after the 9/11 attacks. It really was special. The event was fantastic, setting what was then a world record for attendance for ice hockey. It was held between two storied programs at the very height of their intense rivalry, and the game itself was fantastic, a 3-3 tie. That it took place less than a month after those coordinated terrorist attacks helped everyone there feel a little bit more normal, gathering with a big crowd of folks who shared a single passion.

There have been many other outdoor games as well, and I’m sure the participants have enjoyed them. As you pointed out, though, the attendance for these events seems to diminish annually, reflecting that waning enthusiasm on the part of the people who watch and follow the sport.

I’ve never been a big fan of playing games that count on temporary ice surfaces, especially in the unpredictable outdoors. I think it’s great fun that the NHL has its Winter Classic, but that’s a league that plays far more games than are played in Division I hockey.

So I guess I’m a curmudgeon, too.

Jim: I will close this topic by echoing a little of what you just said. I like and have respect for Commissioner Bertagna and pretty much everyone involved in the Frozen Fenway event. I will single out the Red Sox organization, though, as I still see them as exploiting other sports. College football is falling prey as well. Boston College played Notre Dame at Fenway a couple of years ago. Now they’ll play a much less-appealing game against Connecticut next season and two other football games will be played there. Personally, I’d just like to see the Red Sox stick to baseball and keep their paws off of college hockey.

As much as we waxed poetic about Penn State earlier, I want to give recognition to a team that still, in my mind, isn’t getting enough respect: Union. The Dutchmen, similar to Penn State, lead the country in wins with 16, yet barely eclipse the top 10, moving this week from 11th to ninth. Sure, back-to-back losses to North Dakota and Boston University to start the second half brought this team down, but the Dutchmen, at 10-1-1, are now in first place in the ECAC. With players like Mike Vecchione and Spencer Foo, along with a cast of terrific role players, a part of me believes this team is going to be deadly come postseason.

Paula: I am complicit in this, as I have Union only at No. 12 on my ballot – and I consider them to be a very good team as well. I saw the Dutchmen play Michigan at the start of the season and I thought then that they had the potential to be a dynamic team. Vecchione and Foo are dynamic and senior goaltender Alex Sakellaropoulos is having a very, very solid season. I’m not sure why Union is such an under-the-radar team, but the Dutchmen do not garner the attention they deserve. I am sure, though, that the Dutchmen will be far more visible if they continue to be as successful in ECAC play in the coming weeks. Once again, I fear the Dutchmen suffer from something completely not of their own making, that perception of strength of schedule that you and I discuss frequently here.

You’ve Got Mail

I would like you to comment on the number of college players that leave early for the NHL. Most of these defections affected mainly the old WCHA, and now the NCHC. Denver will probably have Henrik Borgstrom for another year, but North Dakota will definitely lose Tyson Jost to the Colorado Avalanche this year, according to a Denver Post article. Unfortunately for North Dakota, the Avalanche are the worst team in the NHL and need an infusion of young talent. This trend will undoubtedly hurt Boston University in the next couple of years. Clayton Keller, Charlie McAvoy, Dante Fabbro and Kieffer Bellows will all leave before their junior years. College hockey is the only sport where 18- and 19-year-olds get “poached” by professional teams at such a high rate. – Jerry Chasin, Denver, Colo.

Jim: Well, college hockey isn’t the only sport to have players poached by the pros at an early age. Basketball has a similar issue, though those players aren’t drafted until after they leave college. Football has put in place a system where players can’t enroll in the NFL without first attending two years of college. And baseball it seems teams don’t see proper development until a later age, so few leave college despite being drafted at a young age like hockey.

But hockey is unique in many ways and that uniqueness hurts the college game when it comes to NHL defections. First, hockey allows players to be drafted at the age of 18, thus most top players enter college drafted of are drafted after one season. Thus, these players have NHL executives in their ears during their entire college career.

Secondly, major junior creates a very unique challenge. The fact that players can be moved between the NHL and a major junior team, similar to how one is moved between the top club and a farm league team in baseball, puts college teams at a disadvantage. The second a player signs that professional contract, their college eligibility is gone.

But to your question, the reason you’re seeing so many more players leaving early for the NHL than you did maybe 10 or 15 years ago is the NHL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement. Under the CBA, if a player graduates from college (well, more specifically finishes their fourth year of college) and doesn’t sign with the NHL team that holds their draft rights by Aug. 15, that player becomes a free agent (see Jimmy Vesey). Thus NHL clubs are motivated to sign drafted players before they become seniors, even if those players sit in the minors for a year or two. Similarly, players who aren’t drafted become a land-grab and, if successful in college, generally have a plethora of offers from NHL teams long before those players reach their senior season.

It’s for these reasons that we see so many players leaving college early. It’s not ideal for college hockey, but many efforts have been made to change how the NHL handles college players and little momentum to help college teams has been gained.

Paula: Jimmy, you’ve addressed this beautifully. The CBA is the single reason for the increase, as you’ve said. I want to piggyback on what you said about the young draft ages and the major juniors.

Because of the CBA, that pressure to sign players before they’ve finished four years of college hockey has increased, but all along the competition between the NCAA and major juniors has been intense, with major junior hockey often making promises to players that are not kept or are confusing in their wording, promises about paying for players’ college tuition, for example. A few years back, even Canadian hockey writers were calling into question some of the practices of some Canadian major junior teams in regard to what they were promising for tuition reimbursement.

While players move between the major juniors and the NHL, many players move from major junior team to major junior team. There is a stability in college hockey that major juniors cannot offer, and that may be the reason why the NCAA is seeing so many talented players choose to attend college. Some of the players undoubtedly know that they’ll enroll for a year or two and be gone, but during that year or two, they’ll earn college credit and benefit from consistent development with the same core of teammates.

We’d all love to see talented players remain in college for their entire eligibility, but who can blame a young man for leaving the NCAA for professional hockey when he has a family advisor talking to him constantly about his professional potential while he’s playing for his college team? Also, if a player is good enough to play NHL hockey, he will be reluctant to remain in college and potentially risk an injury that would prevent him from achieving a dream and earning real money. I can’t blame a guy for that. I don’t like it much, but there it is.

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