The Big Ten/Hockey East Challenge: Great Idea, But Plenty Of Room For Improvement

via bceagles.com

The inaugural Big Ten/Hockey East Challenge will feature 11 different schools in 13 games between October 18-27. Here are some suggestions on how to improve the event in the future.

On Tuesday, the Big Ten Conference and Hockey East announced the schedule for the inaugural Big Ten/Hockey East Challenge. Eleven different schools will play in 13 games between October 18-27, with the conference that earns the most points receiving something called the Big Ten/Hockey East Challenge Cup.

Boston College will participate in three of those 13 games:

Fri., October 18: Wisconsin at Boston College
Fri., October 25: Boston College at Minnesota (8:00 p.m., Big Ten Network)
Sun., October 27: Boston College at Minnesota (2:00 p.m., Fox Sports North / Sports Time Ohio)

Points will be awarded as follows: two points for a win, one point for a tie and a bonus point for a road win. Should a Big Ten school utilize a shootout in any of its home games, it will not factor into the result. If, at the end of the Challenge the score is tied, the result of the Penn State-Vermont game, played on neutral ice, will serve as the tie-breaker, which, strange.

Like many things related to Hockey East these days -- expansion, Hockey East Tournament format, Frozen Fenway 15.0, etc. -- the Big Ten/Hockey East Challenge is a great idea, but it seems a bit rushed this year. It seems as if both conferences wanted to put something together in the first year of the Big Ten Hockey Conference, but couldn't come up with a league-wide scheduling agreement in time. Instead, they just took the pre-existing non-conference games scheduled and created a make-shift challenge out of those games.

If this event is going to continue after this season, here are some ways I'd like to see the Challenge improved:

1. Every school participates. Unlike other made-for-TV inter-conference challenges (think: hoops' ACC/Big Ten Challenge), only 11 of the 17 clubs will participate in this challenge. Some programs, such as Boston College (3 games) and Michigan (4), will play in multiple games while five Hockey East schools and one Big Ten school (?) won't participate in the Challenge. When schools like Providence and Notre Dame -- two schools expected to finish towards the top of Hockey East -- aren't involved, it cheapens the Challenge a bit and puts Hockey East at a disadvantage.

The only reason schools are left out of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge in basketball is when the two conferences are at an uneven number of programs. This seems like a problem for the Big Ten/Hockey East Challenge until you realize that starting next season, Hockey East will have twice as many programs as the Big Ten, making scheduling this challenge pretty straightforward.

Once Hockey East is at 12 schools, what the two conferences can do is set six two-game series between conferences. Three Big Ten schools would host a two-game weekend series against two different Hockey East opponents, while the other three Big Ten schools would hit the road for a two single games against two different Hockey East opponents.

Example:

Boston College @ Michigan
Boston University @ Michigan

Michigan State @ Merrimack
Michigan State @ UMass-Lowell

Notre Dame @ Ohio State
Vermont @ Ohio State

Penn State @ Massachusetts
Penn State @ Connecticut

New Hampshire @ Minnesota
Maine @ Minnesota

Wisconsin @ Northeastern
Wisconsin @ Providence

Since Hockey East programs only get a single game out of the Challenge, the teams that host a game could schedule a non-conference opponent for the second night of the weekend. It's a bit more tricky for the HEA road teams, but several of these BTHC schools have other schools from other conferences in close proximity to campus. All else fails and a program wants a second game that weekend, they could face each other in a non-conference conference matchup at a neutral site location. Because who doesn't need more BC-BU?

2. Pair teams together based on the previous years' results / TV appeal. Let the conferences and TV partners come up with the pairings to maximize the TV draw. This works to programs like Boston College's disadvantage in hoops, where it seems like BC winds up playing Nebraska, Northwestern and Penn State on loop. But this is done for a reason, plus in hockey it actually works to BC's advantage. The smaller programs may complain, but they'll also probably be happy just to get the date against a Big Ten opponent.

Merrimack, for example, is only playing 32 games this season -- two less than the allowable 34 games -- in part because the Warriors couldn't find enough non-conference opponents to fill the schedule. This will increasingly become an issue for some of the smaller Hockey East programs looking to put together the yearly non-conference schedule. Why shouldn't Hockey East and the Big Ten step in here and give programs a guaranteed 1-2 games a year against one another?

3. No neutral site games. The above schedule gives each conference six home games and six road games, meaning there's no need for a neutral site game to be introduced into the Challenge.

4. Shorten the time window. If fans are going to pay attention to this Challenge, the two conferences need to shorten the time window. Take a cue from the Big Ten/ACC Challenge and play all these games over a single weekend to heighten interest in the event. An event like this isn't going to generate nearly as much interest or excitement when played over a 10-day period.

5. No single game results as tiebreakers. Again, modeled after the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, in the event of a tie, the Challenge Cup goes to the previous years' winner. This obviously isn't possible in the inaugural year of the event, but making the tiebreaker the one neutral-site game played between two of the weakest schools in each conference seems silly.

6. Get these games on TV. As it stands now, seven of the 13 Challenge games will go untelevised. Just one will be on BTN (BC @ Minnesota). There's an opportunity for both conferences to first put together a solid Challenge lineup and then use that TV inventory to get these games not just on the BTN but also NBC Sports Network, CBS Sports Network, the ESPN family of networks and NESN.

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