Analyzing the 2018-19 schedules: NCHC ‘in a good spot,’ has a system that is ‘good for the game overall’

Hayden Shaw (North Dakota-28) Erich Fear (Denver-2 ) Grant Mismash (North Dakota-16) 2018 Jan. 27 The University of North Dakota hosts Denver University in a NCHC matchup at the Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks, ND (Bradley K. Olson)
North Dakota’s Hayden Shaw and Grant Mismash team up to subdue Denver’s Erich Fear in an NCHC game Jan. 27, 2018 at the Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks (photo: Bradley K. Olson).

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

It didn’t take long for the NCHC to become one of college hockey’s premier conferences.

It immediately began placing multiple teams in the national tournament annually, with six teams qualifying in 2014. In 2017, both Denver and Minnesota Duluth went to the national championship game, and after the Pioneers won it all that year, the Bulldogs returned favor by beating Notre Dame this past season.

The league’s immediate and resounding success is because its eight members are unafraid of playing anybody at any time and in any venue. It’s a collaborative effort designed to boost individual profiles within a cooperative structure.

“When you look at the selection of teams in the national tournament outside of automatic qualifiers, every conference is only .500,” commissioner Josh Fenton said. “There’s a winner and there’s a loser, or there’s a tie. The differentiating factor is the out-of-conference record from top-to-bottom of each league. We’ve proven in the last five years that the conference getting more teams into the tournament have a better non-conference record.”

The numbers back the assertion. The NCHC is dominating non-conference games since it started play in 2013-2014. North Dakota posted almost 40 wins against outside competition in the past five years, including two seasons with nine non-league wins. Denver has over 30 wins, and both Miami and Minnesota Duluth are right behind it.

There have only been a handful of times where an individual team finished under .500 in an individual season’s worth of outside competition. Even then, it’s offset by a solid finish somewhere along the line.

Omaha, for example, only won three games against non-league teams in 2013-2014 but rallied to win all 10 games the next season. Colorado College entered the league by losing nine of 10 games in 2013-2014 but won six games last season, a year in which no NCHC team won less than that number.

It’s come from varied methodology. NCHC teams play a healthy mix of home and away games against nearly every conference, and it’s a model boosting the league’s profile amongst its peers. North Dakota, for example, played and won games against every single conference in the past two seasons, including Canisius, a team it will visit in the upcoming season.

“We want a system, and we believe in a system that’s good for the game overall,” Fenton said. “(The system) encourages people to go out on the road and play other teams in a non-conference setting. We want to make sure that the NCAA selection criteria reflects that, and it does right now. We don’t believe it’s right and good for the game if a model is set up for a team to play its non-conference games at home because it has the financial wherewithal to buy teams to come in.

“We want to make sure that the system is set up in a way for rewarding teams to go on the road and to get appropriate credit for a ‘good win’ on the road.”

The winning culture boosts the league by making the conference schedule competitive for NCAA tournament slots. It’s enabled by a league schedule that needs to remain structured, even as it has to be flexible for a conference spanning three time zones.

“With eight teams, a perfectly balanced schedule is 28 games among seven opponents,” NCHC director of communications Michael Weisman said. “But we only play 24 games. Everyone plays teams home and away, but there’s one team that league members will only play at home and only on the road. We retain protected partners that are ‘travel’ or ‘rival’ partners, but this is the case it’s been since the league began.”

The league ensures certain members will always remain in four-game season series after a system based largely on geography and, in some cases, logical history. Denver and Colorado College, for example, are paired together as in-state rivals in the Battle of the Gold Pan, and Miami and Western Michigan played together in the old CCHA. St. Cloud and Minnesota Duluth are within two hours of one another in the State of Hockey.

That left Omaha and North Dakota, but even they’ve played emotional, competitive games through the years.

“They were probably the two odd teams out,” Weisman said. “But they’re still a bus trip away. All of our protected partners are a bus trip, whereas pretty much all other trips are flights.”

The travel partner concept enabled the NCHC to schedule a particular way leading up to the postseason. Because the league is smaller in numbers but spread across the central United States, the league ensures the last weekend of the regular season is between travel partners. That ensures teams of a bus trip if they’re not already at home in the week prior to the postseason. If a team needs to a board a flight for the playoffs, being able to get home quickly – and subsequently make arrangements on short notice – became a priority.

“We’re still spread out over three time zones geographically,” Fenton said. “So there was an aspect of geography that played a role in how we scheduled travel partners. The two schools furthest east have a history in the CCHA with Miami and Western Michigan. There are four schools in or near (the state of) Minnesota that were WCHA rivals, and the Gold Pan rivalry goes back many, many years. So it was important to maximize the number of games those teams have played each other, which led us to come up with the system and the rotation we have.”

The NCHC formed something of a super conference in college hockey. The teams are living up to the league’s already-developed reputation as a powerhouse, even though they know everything is ever-changing. Right now, the system works out well, and there are no complaints. And if there were, there are back-to-back national champions proving that something is succeeding.

“We check in with membership annually to make sure they feel they can put together a non-conference schedule in a manner of what they’re looking for,” Fenton said. “To this point, that’s been the case. The number of 10 games isn’t too many or too less right now because we’ve been able to make it work.

“We are able to crown what people would refer to as a true champion. We have a full complement of games, even though we stop short of having a true, balanced schedule. So we’re in a good spot (as a league).”

18 COMMENTS

  1. Mr. Rubin, you’ve done a really nice job with all your columns on the various conference schedules. No matter which conference any fan’s team is in, they were all an interesting read. All were well written and informative. Keep up the good work throughout the upcoming season.

      • I’ll second that. Wish the season would start next week, can’t afford to have anyone else bail to NHL. Have to wait until the 17th to get our AF-DU tickets. Getting them from AF this year, not DU since this is our first real game.

        • I’ve got my calendar marked for a week from today when DU tickets go on sale. Already purchased my tickets for our series down in Omaha in January. Need to find out when tickets for CC go on sale. Big plans this year!
          Going through AF to get tickets?

          • Yep, have an online account with both AF and CC. Once you purchase tickets through both, they save your info, including credit card number. Had to buy them a couple of times, from AF and CC, when I waited too long, and DU ran out. Think DU, AF, and CC will all go on sale on the 17th. I’ll let you know if I hear anything.

          • I did look and CC tickets on sale the 22nd of Sept. Our schedule works great for me this year as a lot of road games I want to go to fall on weekends that I have those Fridays off. Nothing better than not having to take time off of work.

          • Sounds great for you. I remember last year you couldn’t get some of the Fridays off when you wanted to go to games. Two weeks ago DU sent out emails to season ticket holders to purchase seats for all the games. Would expect DU to put them on public sale this Monday or the 17th.

          • I’m sure you will be one of the first to get them at 9:00 MT on the 13th. Good thing about pulling up Magness seating is that it shows which end DU attacks in 1st and 3rd period. I am sure you know this and I’m preaching to the choir.

          • Ha….sections 5, 6, and 7 is the end my teams shoots at twice! Sat in one of those every time I’ve been there except once a friend of mine got gold tickets through her work and we sat up there. I received some funny looks from people as I rolled through the catering line with my Sioux jersey on :)

          • Crimson and Gold a little too steep for me. Sat there a couple times with the couple we go to Regionals and FF. Nice spread every game. SInce they belong, it makes it easier to get tickets from DU with them for these games. They also go to CC and AF with us, but I handle the tickets for the “local” games.

          • Yeah, I’m not sure how much those tickets were back in 2009, probably a pretty penny these days. Spread was pretty good. I did get yelled at by some worker cause I took three cookies (was bringing back one each for the other two I was with)…..there were 4 giant cookie platters and this was in the middle of the third period. I had to kind of laugh at that one. Outside of that, was pretty good.

            Wish I had some “local” games I could attend…..there was a conference for that….oh yeah, old WCHA. St. Cloud, Mankato, goophs all within 60 miles. Now I just have St. Cloud and that arena is terrible. How’s the atmosphere at AF? Would be fun to catch a game there some time.

          • Great atmosphere at AF, just what you would expect. All the people there are courteous, polite, and friendly. Only two minor downsides. Have to wait a little bit to get into the academy, due to the security of the MPs checking the cars at the North Gate. Usually there is a backup coming off I-25 to the exit. Second issue is with the ice. Since one side of the rink is open, the last 5-7 minutes of each period, the ice gets choppy. Their rink is not enclosed like most others. One side has a huge hallway that leads to the basketball and track facilities.

          • Weird, never knew it wasnt fully enclosed. Hoping UND schedules some games there at some point.

            So what will be the homer level on TMQ this year? hahahahahhaah

  2. Dan, good article, yet you missed one point, the conference has actually won the last 3 national championships. North Dakota beat Quinnipiac in 2016.

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