NCAA Hockey Tournament Format Changes On The Horizon?

The format of the NCAA men's ice hockey tournament may be changing as early as 2011-2012, writes Brad Elliott Schlossman of the Grand Forks Herald. At an annual college hockey meeting held last weekend, one proposal for changing the format of the NCAA men's ice hockey tournament has reportedly gained some traction:

Under the most popular proposal, the tournament would stay as a 16-team field, but the first round would be a best-of-three series played at the venue of the higher seed.

The eight teams advancing to the quarterfinals would play at one of two super regional sites. The quarterfinals would be one-game shots with a trip to the Frozen Four on the line. The Frozen Four would not change.

The reason for this proposal is two-fold: it gives the higher seeds more of an advantage (placing greater emphasis on the regular season) and helps alleviate attendance concerns for the Regionals.

The second reason is clearly the more pressing concern for college hockey. This year's Regional attendance was certainly ... lacking.

A quick trip around the four Regional sites revealed teams playing to arenas that were two-thirds empty. The most egregious example of this was the East Regional final between RIT and New Hampshire. With a trip to the Frozen Four on the line, a mere 3,737 fans filed into the Times Union Center to watch fourth seeded RIT upset UNH. The Times Union Center can hold 14,236 for hockey.

Cinderellas in college hockey, it seems, are bad for business.   

It's pretty clear that NCAA hockey can’t fill up neutral site arenas for these first round Regional games (and the current economic downturn certainly hasn't helped, either). Even if they could fill the arenas, it feels like the selection committee has increasingly been playing around with team seeding, trying to place teams in regionals that will hopefully draw a crowd and minimize travel costs. If you move the first round back to campus, you no longer have to worry about filling neutral site arenas and travel costs for teams, and are able to seed a 16-team bracket based on merit, not on location. 

Another benefit to moving the NCAA Regionals to a best-of-three series on campus would be to reward the top seeds in each regional. I know that you have to win the games on the ice, but other than trying to match top seeds to geographically close sites, there really isn’t much reward currently for finishing the regular season as one of the top four teams in the country.

Take this year's Denver program for example. The top seed in the East regional faced a 4th seeded RIT team at the Times Union Center, a 3 1/2 hour car ride from RIT’s campus. If the Pioneers had gotten past RIT, they would have faced either New Hampshire or Cornell, both infinitely closer to Albany than Denver. Today, it seems like it’s just as easy for a 3 or 4 seed to win two games in two days in a single elimination tournament and advance to the Frozen Four.

Placing the Regionals at the top seeds' campus would give top seeds much more incentive to finish in those top 8 slots and put greater emphasis on regular season performance.

While this proposal has its benefits, there are always an equal number of drawbacks.

One drawback is that you will likely see fewer Cinderellas crashing the Frozen Four ball. In the past few years, Cinderella has been a Frozen Four mainstay with programs like RIT, Bemidji State, Miami (Ohio) and Notre Dame all making the Frozen Four as one of the last 4 teams to make the tournament field. One program in particular - the Miami RedHawks - came within a minute of winning the title in 2009.

In addition, for all the heartache that the single-elimination NCAA ice hockey tournament has caused BC fans in the past, there's something exhilarating about the current tournament format. To me, a one-and-done ice hockey tournament makes for much more compelling television than the best-of-seven format used in the NHL. The opening weekend of the tournament - where the tournament goes from 16 teams to 4 in three days - is the best weekend of the year for college hockey fans. The avid college hockey fan gets to watch 12 straight Game 7s in a little under 72 hours. Under this new proposed format, hockey would be drastically altering the format of the sport's best weekend.

Finally, along with messing with the best weekend in college hockey, it's unclear how TV coverage would change to accommodate the new format. Under the current tournament format, ESPN does an OK job of airing all the NCAA games on one of their family of networks. Mainly ESPN2, ESPNU and ESPN3.com. It would become nearly impossible to show all 24 first-round games live on ESPN, and a lot of games such as the #1 vs. #4 matchups might be left off TV entirely. Would ESPN even have the rights to air the games, or would those rights sit with the regional networks that cover the various programs (FSN, NESN, etc.)?

Overall, while this proposed format would likely get more butts in seats for the Regionals and give top-seeded programs more of a built-in advantage, I think there's some redeeming value in keeping the format as is. The drama of a single-elimination ice hockey tournament is matched only by the Olympics medal round and Game 7 of the Stanley Cup, and I have plenty of questions around TV coverage and schedule format that, at least for now, have me leaning towards keeping the NCAA's current system in place.

Then again, it's just as easy to say "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," especially as a fan of a team that's won the National Championship 2 of the last 3 seasons.

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