This is going to sound like sour grapes if things don't go well this weekend, so let's get this out of the way now. Some needed changes to the Division I Men's Ice Hockey Tournament format / location.
Paring Field Down From 16 Back To 12. Starting in 2003, the NCAA expanded the men's hockey tournament to its present 16-team, four regional format. Prior to that, the tournament had just 12 teams divided up into 2 regionals, East and West. Top two seeds in each regional received first round byes.
While I strongly support expanding college football's playoff (are there ANY non-SEC fans left on the BCS bandwagon?), I actually support decreasing the number of teams picked for the NCAA men's hockey Tournament for a number of different reasons.
For one thing, this would allow the NCAA to get more games on TV by breaking up the tournament into three separate rounds -- first round (4 games), quarterfinals (4 games) and the Frozen Four (3 games). This decreases the number of total games in any TV media rights package but allows for more flexibility in scheduling the games.
Second, the advantage afforded to top seeds has been on the decline ever since the field expanded to 16 schools. Here's the Frozen Four seed total for the years from 2003-present.
2003: 6 -- 1, 1, 1, 3
2004: 6 -- 1, 1, 2, 2
2005: 5 -- 1, 1, 1, 2
2006: 9 -- 1, 2, 3, 3
2007: 11 -- 2, 3, 3, 3
2008: 8 -- 1, 1, 2, 4
2009: 12 -- 1, 3, 4, 4
2010: 7 -- 1, 1, 1, 4
2011: 9 -- 1, 2, 3, 3
I know how this sounds as a BC fan arguing that top seeds should be afforded more of a built-in advantage in the NCAAs, but really, shouldn't we be awarding the nation's top programs for superior regular season performance? With today's tournament format, all you have to do is get in and win four games. The top teams will win more often than not but you are giving top seeds no more than a 60/40 chance of winning each night. That ends up being nothing more than a 15 percent chance of winning it all.
Finally, there are simply fewer college hockey programs than there were in 2002. Since the tournament has expanded to 16, college hockey has lost programs at Iona, Fairfield and Wayne State almost lost Bowling Green a few years ago, might lose Alabama-Huntsville and reloaded with just one program in its place -- Penn State.
There's also little hope of future growth. Unlike men's lacrosse, where you can survive as an independent and the conference landscape is conducive to future growth, the current and future college hockey conferences stifle it.
-- Big Ten Hockey Conference (6). In order to join the BTHC, you have to be a member of the Big Ten (with only six available targets).
-- NCHC (8). The NCHC only has eight programs so there is some room for growth there, though several of the CCHA / WCHA leftovers made it a point to try to get an invite to the new conference to no avail.
-- WCHA (9). The new new WCHA will have 9 members so little room for growth out west (1-3 more programs?).
-- Hockey East (11), Atlantic Hockey (12) and ECAC (12). Meanwhile, the East is basically filled up. The AHA and ECAC both have 12 teams. Hockey East will have 11 with the addition of Notre Dame, and will likely go to an even dozen. Basically, if you are a school in the eastern half of the US and want to start up a college hockey program, you have to hope that you'll take the spot of the 12th Hockey East program in either the ECAC or AHA or try the independent route. And we know how well that's going for UAH.
-- Independent (1). Alabama-Huntsville, for now.
Single elimination hockey is insane to begin with, but since the NCAAs has now increased the numerator and decreased the denominator, we are now simply letting too many programs into the postseason:
Pre-NCAA Tournament expansion -- 12 of 62 (19.4% of programs)
Post-NCAA Tournament expansion -- 16 of 59 + Penn State (26.7% of programs), though UAH will have a tough time getting to NCAAs without a conference so really, 16-of-59.
Rewarding over 1/4 of the college hockey programs with a trip to the postseason is just stupid.
Most would not be in favor of a 32-team Division I-A college football playoff (that's 25.8 percent of the 124 FBS programs). So why does college hockey reward that many teams with a shot at a National title for a subpar regular season performance?
Scaling the tournament back to 12 teams will also allow the NCAA to remove two of the regionals.
College hockey has enjoyed its largest postseason crowds before the tournament moved to its present four regional, 16-team format. Especially in the East. Here are the top 5 East / Northeast Regional attendance sessions.
1999: 12,517 -- Maine (7) vs. Clarkson (2) and New Hampshire (2) vs. Michigan (1) (OT), DCU Center, Worcester, Ma.
1996: 12,407 -- Vermont (2) vs. Lake Superior St. (1) and Boston U. (3) vs. Clarkson (2), Pepsi Arena, Albany, N.Y.
1993: 12,045 -- Boston U. (4) vs. Northern Mich. (1) and Maine (6) vs. Minnesota (2), DCU Center, Worcester, Ma.
2001: 11,976 -- North Dakota (4) vs. Colorado Col. (3) and Boston College (3) vs. Maine (1), DCU Center, Worcester, Ma.
2002: 11,888 -- New Hampshire (4) vs. Cornell (3) and Maine (4) vs. Boston U. (3), DCU Center, Worcester, Ma.
All five of the top sessions were played before the tournament expanded to 16. Today, you're lucky if you are playing in front of more than 7k fans in one of the four regionals. The tournament is spread out in two too many locations and as a result, certain regionals -- mostly of the Albany, Grand Rapids or Green Bay variety -- are played in front of crowds of no more than 4k.
Speaking of regionals ... no more regionals hosted in cities with a population less than 200,000. That means you, Northeast and East Regionals. No more Worcester, Bridgeport, Manchester or Albany. The Regional rounds are a great way of promoting and marketing the sport of college hockey. Why are we tucking them away in tiny New England cities in half-filled (or worse) AHL arenas? No, really, why??
Since we are scaling back the tournament to only have two Regional locations a year, we are implementing a non-Nassau Coliseum, NHL arena-only rule for the Regional round. Addendum: locations north of the Mason-Dixon line.
That will give the East Regional these locations to choose from: Boston, New York, Buffalo, Newark, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh or Washington DC (Toronto, Montreal and/or Ottawa if you really want to get entrepreneurial).
Out west, the Regionals should cycle through Denver, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Chicago and Detroit. Maybe Columbus, and St. Louis, but well, not really.
That should be the extent of it. Until college hockey materially changes its national footprint, we shouldn't be hosting regionals in cities that don't have an NHL program. There are so many ways to better market the sport and I believe a majority of those start by making the NCAA Regional Round more accessible to casual fans. Read: put the Regionals in big East coast cities (Boston, New York, DC). Not Worcester, Massachusetts on a Sunday night at 8 PM.
Frozen Four rotation. Which brings me to my last point. The pool of available Regional host cities (see above) will serve a double purpose as Frozen Four cities. No more Frozen Fours in Anaheim, St. Louis, Milwaukee or Tampa. Just stop. Please. College hockey needs to be played in hockey cities and the location of the annual Frozen Four should be restrained to one of the above locations.
I'm not joking when I say there should be an NCAA bylaw that requires the Frozen Four to take place in both Boston and Minneapolis/St. Paul twice over a six year period. The fact that the college hockey center of the university (Boston) hasn't hosted the Frozen Four in nearly a decade (and will be even longer with the next two Frozen Fours back east in Pennsylvania) is criminal.
And yes, I get the fact that the NCAA likes to move the Frozen Four around so that the diehards and annual attendees can get to new cities and/or get a respite from the cold April weather in the North. I get that. But the Frozen Four in Anaheim and Tampa does little to nothing to help further market and grow the sport of college hockey. USF, UCF and Florida aren't going to watch this year's Frozen Four and start thinking about all the fun they could be having. You're probably also not going to get middle school and high school kids to suddenly take up playing ice hockey in hopes that they turn into the next Hobey Baker winner.
In fact, this year's Frozen Four host may likely be an SEC club team in the near future if they can't find a conference to call home.
But a Frozen Four in New York? Boston? MSP? Chicago? Denver? These are the markets college hockey should be trying to make further in-roads in. Not making the mistake Gary Bettman did expanding the NHL to warm weather, non-hockey cities like Phoenix, Atlanta, Nashville, Miami and Tampa.