Analyzing the 2018-19 schedules: With odd number of teams, Hockey East has ‘the same challenge other leagues have to deal with’

Christopher Brown (BC - 10), Brady Tkachuk (BU - 27) (Melissa Wade)
Christopher Brown (BC – 10) and Brady Tkachuk (BU – 27) come together in a Hockey East game during the 2017-18 season (photo: Melissa Wade).

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth of six in a series looking at each conference’s schedule for the upcoming 2018-19 season.

College hockey conferences all carry an identity.

It can be assumed or fabricated, but it’s often times created organically by its member institutions and programs. It becomes the most recognizable piece to the puzzle, even as it changes or shifts over time.

Hockey East has always been about New England, a region where hockey is king. It’s created all kinds of opportunity, and the league hasn’t shied away from experimentation, discovery and growth. It’s an expansion that literally grew the league in size, but it also grew the league’s approach, which in turn created a downstream presence that’s been both incredibly positive and incredibly challenging.

“This is my 22nd year, and I’ve seen (Hockey East) go to nine to 10 to 11 to 12 and back to 11 (teams),” commissioner Joe Bertagna said. “Each of those iterations have something different to it. When you had eight or nine teams, you could play everyone three times. You can imagine that going from nine to 10 to 11 to 12 that we transitioned from three to two teams. And then we wound up at an odd number, which meant one team was one a bye every week. But that’s the same challenge other leagues have to deal with, too.”

The Hockey East schedule complexity is completely different because no game is beyond a five-hour drive. Six schools are in Massachusetts with three located in Boston. The two furthest trips both include Maine, which sits 350 miles from both the University of Connecticut and the University of Vermont.

It makes scheduling relatively easy at a surface level. Every team plays its opponents home-and-away, which creates a two-year cycle of playing everyone twice at home and on the road, with the exception of Maine and Vermont, which necessitate strictly home or away series. Each team then draws a third game against four opponents, rounding the schedule at 24 games.

“Physically growing the league required a qualitative growth because it created new fan bases in new areas,” Bertagna said. “Connecticut was really a no brainer because state universities are a big part of who we are, and we didn’t have a presence (at the time) in Connecticut. The way they’ve built the program has helped them draw very well in Hartford, and they’re right with Lowell as one of the better attendance draws. That’s a plus because it created a new market where we previously didn’t have one.”

“I’m sure it would be easier (for the league) with a balanced schedule, but it gives us opportunities to play some teams we might not otherwise see,” said BU head coach Albie O’Connell, previously an assistant for the Terriers, Merrimack and Northeastern. “There’s a lot of good tests and places to put yourself in a position down the road.”

The geography has its clear advantages. The schools’ proximity allows for more flexibility in dates, and it allows schools to move dates that might not be otherwise off-limits. For Boston College, Connecticut and Massachusetts, all of which share arenas with other attractions, other dates then open up from a league perspective.

In 2016-2017, for example, the Eagles hosted North Carolina on a Saturday in January in men’s basketball. The Hartford Wolf Pack played a home game against Rochester that same day, and UConn men’s basketball played a home game in Hartford on Sunday. The UConn-BC hockey game took place on the following Tuesday.

“When we’re in a bind and running out of weekends, we can move games to Tuesday or Wednesday and not miss class time,” Bertagna said.

But that positive can ultimately become the league’s restriction. Hockey East experimented with physical growth when it added Notre Dame in 2013, a move that ultimately didn’t work out because of the travel.

“Notre Dame was an interesting experiment because we went outside New England for the first time,” Bertagna said. “If we were going to expand outside of New England, who has more visibility and recognition than they do?

“But at the end of the day, it probably didn’t work for both the league and for Notre Dame. It was an amicable split, and the Big Ten seems to make more sense. In our league, Notre Dame was the only one that had to fly everywhere. The New England teams only had to fly there once every two years. It helped us appreciate that we have to appreciate our geographic footprint in New England.”

Scheduling’s become an intricate part of the Hockey East discussion as the league’s grown spiritually as well. The last decade saw outdoor games at Fenway Park and conference games moved to Belfast as part of the Friendship Four. There’s an obvious marketing and branding benefit, but it created a schedule matrix impact.

“We had a real challenge with (Fenway Park),” Bertagna said. “We have a great partner with the Red Sox, but they have to sell a certain amount of tickets to guarantee that event is financially sound. That first year, we told our schools that the first one had to be really successful in order to have a second one. So we had to deliver BC-BU, which sold out in four hours.”

The success opened the door for future events, but the challenge shifted into continuing peak interest. UNH played Maine at Fenway in 2011 and Cardinal Sean O’Malley dropped a ceremonial first puck before a Catholic school weekend, but the conference had to balance inclusivity against financial decision-making.

“We had to keep track of a couple of different things,” Bertagna said. “We wanted to make sure everyone had a chance to play at Fenway, and now everyone’s played, including UConn. But we also had to reimburse a school that’s giving up a home game. So when you have a BC-BU and BC-Notre Dame game, it comes with a huge crowd interest but also comes with a very expensive reimbursement price tag. So my trick is to find a competitive balance that spreads the event but also finds the right game to keep the check written back to the host school under control.”

Opportunities are mounting for the conference within its New England footprint. There are new sponsors and media opportunities strengthening it as a top undercard draw to the NHL in the hockey-mad region. Every step comes with new impacts, however, from internal scheduling to the kind of non-conference game a team expects to win in order to help the greater conference coefficient.

“BU is obviously a good place for teams to come and play,” O’Connell said. “On the flip side, it’s important for us to do well in the league. There are some leagues that have done really well, especially the NCHC when you look at teams like North Dakota and Denver. So it’s important for us to play those teams and have good results.”

“When schools come to Hockey East and say they’re interested, the athletic directors have to make a determination if the team can add to the league,” Bertagna said. “When we grow, we have to take our brand and expose it to new people. The good thing about our league is that our footprint is so small. When we added teams, we allowed our existing fans another place to go to, and that’s something that works very well (for us).”