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Hockey Banter, Week XII: Tournament Probs

After a weeklong hiatus for the holidays, The Banter returns with an in-depth discussion of how to best correct the glaring NCAA Regional problems.

Seriously, this is a problem.
Seriously, this is a problem.
Photo via Adam Marchany

Joseph Gravellese: I hope everyone had a good Christmas. It's finally time to get back to hockey as the Eagles are in action this weekend in Minnesota. This week's Hockey Banter is a very special treat for the tl;dr guy - focusing on an in-depth discussion about how to potentially tweak the NCAA hockey tournament format.

But seriously, it's really long. You've all been warned.

Grant Salzano: But hey, it's CONTENT! And Content, from what I understand, Is King. Or so I'm told.

JG: So, over the past few off-season there have been discussions at each annual coaches meeting about reconfiguring the NCAA tournament in some way. The NCAA hockey tournament has produced some thrilling, white-knuckle hockey -- and it's been kind to BC fans, too.

But there are some problems with the format that the NCAA would really like to address. 10+ years ago, there used to be 12 teams in the NCAA hockey tournament, broken up into two six-team regionals, where the top two seeds in each regional would get a bye.

This did two things: it brought six schools together at one regional, which was good for attendance, and it provided some sort of tangible benefit to the teams with the best regular season records, protecting them slightly from the vagaries of single-elimination hockey.

The expansion of the tournament to 16 teams changed it to a full single-elimination format with four 4-team regionals.

This format has a few issues, currently. In approximate order of importance to the NCAA:

"Problems" -

1. Attendance: This is probably the biggest problem and reason for NCAA concern. Even if all of the other issues we’re about to address below were unresolved, if the current Regionals packed the house every year the NCAA probably wouldn’t have a problem with it. But as it is, we’ve got a situation where on one weekend, 15,000ish people file in to TD Garden on back to back nights for the Hockey East tournament, then one week later Worcester/Manchester are deserted for NCAA games - with the same situation repeating out west.

2. Atmosphere: College hockey prides itself on selling its atmosphere as a reason why fans should choose to follow the game and players should choose to play college hockey rather than going the junior route. Passion, excitement, and energy are lacking in the crowd at NCAA regionals and it obviously bleeds over to the TV broadcast as well. It’s not just that the seats are mostly empty at these regionals, it’s that you’re not getting student sections or overly loud fans for any team.

3. Lack of advantage for top seeds: We all love upsets. (Well, maybe BC hockey fans not as much since we’re usually on the wrong side of upsets when they happen, but I’m using "we" as in "American sports fans" here.) So it’s pretty cool to see teams like RIT and Union knock off big powers and advance to the Frozen Four. That being said, college hockey teams do battle from October through March playing 38+ hard and tough games to position themselves for the NCAA tournament, yet a team that puts up a great season can have it derailed in an instant by a team that either gets hot at the right time or gets a few fluky bounces to win a game. To some degree, the NCAA hockey committee would like to evaluate how to give a better advantage to teams that have excellent seasons without reducing the thrill of tournament play. In addition to the inherent randomness of single-elimination hockey (see point 4), another disadvantage to top seeds is the potential of flying across the country and facing a team playing closer to its own home due to attendance concerns. (See: #4 seed UNH backing its way into the NCAA tournament in 2011, to be rewarded with a virtual home game in Manchester against #1 seed Miami - isn’t Miami supposed to have the advantage?... See also: overall #1 seed BC, in that same year, being shipped out west because they couldn’t play a conference foe in round 1 and UNH was locked in to the Manchester regional as the host.)

4. Single-elimination hockey is singularly thrilling, but it’s also singularly unfair among the major sports as the low-scoring nature of the game makes it susceptible for more oddball single-elimination results.

GS: Aren't 3 and 4 basically the same thing?

JG: No. I mean, I view them as two separate issues. Single-elimination hockey is kind of unfair regardless of who's playing who.

The LA Kings of 2012 show that you can be a low seed but still show your dominance over a long series & demonstrate that you're the best team when the playoffs come around.

So I'd say that while 1 & 2 go together, and 3 & 4 go together, they are separate issues where you could theoretically address one and not the other.

Which I think we'll see when we run through some of these potential change scenarios.

GS: Fair enough.

JG: Okay, so.

Option 1: Keep the format as it is now but either more explicitly seed teams based on attendance concerns and/or commit to dramatically dropping ticket prices. Also, consider changing the venues being used if some venues aren’t working.

PROS: The current format is very exciting and has produced some great hockey, so you get to maintain that. Screwing around with bracket integrity in order to further enhance attendance - i.e., shifting a team from a high #4 seed to a low #3 seed in order to place them close to home - should help some of the attendance issues from time to time. To some extent, the women’s hockey tournament does this: they seed only the top 4 teams, then place the bottom 4 against a corresponding top 4 team based largely on location rather than seeding, though ranking is taken into consideration.

CONS: This would only exacerbate the issue of not protecting top seeds if you’re messing with bracket integrity for attendance purposes. This could lead to a #1 overall seed facing a strong 3 seed from a power conference who gets bumped to a 4 for attendance purposes - and that team would be playing closer to home. Alternatively, instead of facing, say, #16 AHA champion Holy Cross, #1 Minnesota has to play #15 overall Denver (or whatever). Actually, this might not be so bad for Gopher fans given their history with the Cross. Sorry, guys.

This also doesn’t really address the atmosphere issue, because you’re still dealing with neutral venues and usually not ones convenient for fans to travel to on short notice. Realistically, could you pick better venues than the ones currently used in New England that would get better attendance and atmosphere than the ones used now? Providence should be an improvement... over Bridgeport, but what are the other options? Hartford? Lowell? Agganis? (Is Agganis too small? I say no, but most of these regionals are at AHL venues).

Here’s how they may have re-configured last year’s tournament if focusing on attendance over bracket integrity and/or avoiding in-conference matchups. Basically, you take a 1 seed and a 2 seed and slot them into regionals based on attendance reasons, and then slot in two other teams based on proximity/attendance with an eye toward avoiding in-conference matchups and at least staying as close to bracket integrity as possible.

1) BC
2) MN-Duluth
1) Michigan
2) Miami
Air Force
1) Union
2) Ferris St.
1) NoDak
2) Minnesota
Michigan State

First impressions: BC gets hosed out of playing the #16 seed in favor of a quality Cornell team. . UML is switched to a 4 seed to fit in to Bridgeport while Western Michigan is pushed to a "3." Michigan’s bracket gets a tougher #2 seed than Michigan is entitled to. The Northeast regional would probably come close to a sellout with BC, BU and Cornell in it. With North Dakota and Minnesota, St. Paul doesn’t struggle for fans. Maine fans alone are probably enough to at least increase Bridgeport’s attendance from what it was.

Your thoughts?

GS: It's not a bad idea, really. At least not as bad as some other options. Off the top of my head, the first issue I see is that it doesn't totally take care of the problem.

You're right that Worcester probably gets a solid crowd out of that. St. Paul is probably good to go as well. But Green Bay and Bridgeport's attendance won't come close to having a good atmosphere.

I just think the potential benefits don't really give enough of a reason to make this switch.

JG: I agree, and it would feel grimy to me to completely mess with bracket integrity for attendance purposes. I find it acceptable on the women's side because they're doing it to save money/reduce travel costs rather than just to sell tickets, since they're honestly not really selling tickets anyway.

GS: Plus it's only a total of 4 teams that are getting placed. They're usually able to finagle it so that only one or two are TOTALLY out of place in terms of bracket integrity.

JG: Moving on to option 2 -- an option that has been seriously discussed and has its backers among the NCAA coaches committee -- moving the first round to campus sites, with 8 best 2-of-3 series at the 8 higher seeds' rinks.

PROS: You’re pretty much guaranteed to have a packed house for all eight first round matchups. Students are generally on-campus for NCAA tournament weeks, too - so you wouldn’t have the problem you usually have with Hockey East quarterfinal attendance at schools like BC & BU. You also give the lower seeds an imposing hill to climb: if they beat a top seed 2-of-3 in their house, they’ve really earned their ticket into the next round and none could dare call it a fluke if a team like Vermont or RIT makes it to the Frozen Four. You’re also going to get a great backdrop for TV audiences to show games in places like Mariucci, the Whitt, Alfond Arena (haha okay maybe not any time soon) and the Kohl Center. This seems to address all four problems plaguing the current format.

CONS: You’re stuck with another pain-in-the-ass problem the next week with what to do with the remaining eight teams after week one, potentially dealing with the same attendance and travel problems. You’re also likely increasing overall travel expenses. Additionally, there are two reasons right now why the NCAA has a week off between NCAA regionals and the Frozen Four: to give fans and staff of Frozen Four teams time to make travel arrangements, and to avoid going up against the shootyhoop Final Four the first weekend in April. You’d no longer have that luxury if you had to play three straight weeks of hockey.

While you’re helping the TV audience by putting games on in front of a more exciting atmosphere, you’re creating a TV dilemma by probably having most of the tournament games overlap - who isn’t going to want to play Game 1 on Friday night at 7? You probably won’t be able to get every game on TV, and having multiple games on at once will hurt the viewership of each individual game. Right now, you pretty much get one game at a time, which is convenient for the TV partners.

Two other potential problems with this format: 1) What happens if a school like Merrimack qualifies as a top-8 seed? Or even Vermont, which seemed far less far-fetched a few years back? Do you really want to play NCAA tournament games in tiny, tiny venues that give almost no opportunity for opposing fans or casual locals to get tickets? 2) Is this TOO tough a hill for a lower seed to climb? (I say no, but some might argue yes.)

What say you?

GS: I have a couple thoughts here:

First, I'm a fan of the single-elimination format. Best two-out-of-three doesn't totally disgust me though, so I would consider seeing this. Plus it's a LOT more hockey to watch. So, yayyy.

However, the question of what to do for the next round isn't a minor one. What DO you do? Seriously, what is being discussed? Because I don't even know what the logical progression would be.

JG: I don't think anything's actually being discussed. Conventional wisdom is that you'd have two super-regionals the next week. The logic being that these will be power programs leftover and with only two regional sites to fill you might get better crowds. But I just don't see it. These fanbases will probably want to save vacation time and money for a potential Frozen Four trip the next week.

GS: Two super-regionals with four teams participating, with one game each?

JG: Yeah.

GS: That makes zero sense to do. I think you're looking at two options here, each with their own benefit:

One, you could just have the next round as a single game at the four remaining higher seeds. OH THE ATMOSPHERE. One game with a Frozen Four invitation on the line on your own ice. Drool.

We've seen the excitement first-hand on the women's side.

JG: That would be epic. You’re pretty much guaranteed great atmospheres and full houses throughout the tournament. While you still have the problem of having no off-week, you’re not relying on traveling fans because you’re expecting home fans to fill the arenas.

CONS: You still have the same problem of going up against the shootyhoop Final Four in week two of the tournament. You also still have the same problem of all the games overlapping for TV purposes on week one, and you could still run into the "Merrimack problem" if a school with a small arena is a top seed. You’re also now talking about a REALLY big hill to climb for lower seeds, having to win at someone else’s campus two weeks in a row in order to crack the Frozen Four. You’re also potentially creating extra travel.

GS: Hey, soccer does it. Lots of travel, I mean.

Plus, regardless of going up against the Final Four, you will still *easily* pack the houses. Doesn't really fix the TV situation though.

JG: What's your other idea, based on the 2-of-3 at campus sites first round?

GS: It's more radical and less likely but since having 2 of 3 in the first round is radical enough, why not: Make the "Iced Eight" or whatever be at one site. Three rounds in one weekend.

The immediate CONM that I come up with here is the near impossibility of getting tickets. Haha

JG: The NCAA would never do that, but man that would be awesome.

They like the ________ Four brand, and yeah, that would be a crazy scramble for tickets.

You could theoretically also hold two super-regionals at campus sites of the two highest remaining seeds.

GS: Is there any other _______ Four brand other than shootyhoops and hockey?

JG: College Cup is the soccer final four. Pretty sure Field Hockey also has a final four. (Grassy Four?)

GS: Haha

Back it up a bit -- two super-regionals on campus sites is a BRILLIANT idea. I can't think of any real cons to that.

JG: I can. Last year, with the same last 8 teams remaining, Union would've hosted a super regional.

I mean, you're talking about hosting a super-regional in Nowhere, N.Y. in a stadium that seats 3,500. I know that sounds quaint and fun but it's not the way a serious sport acts, is it?

GS: If that 3,500 seat arena is *jumping*, then yes. What other sport does something as awesome as that?

It's very unique. I don't think it would be a bad thing.

JG: Hold on to this thought because it's relevant to the next options, which I think also has genuine proponents: Keep the current format of four, single-elimination regionals, but have the four regionals at the top 4 seeds' campus rinks.

PROS: You’ll get great attendance and atmosphere at least for the host team’s games, and the tickets will probably all be sold for day two even if they go unused when a host team loses on day one. You maintain the strengths of the current format (the excitement of single-elimination and the extra week between regionals and Frozen Four), while also giving a boost to the #1 overall seeds by letting them defend their home turf.

CONS: You still have the "Merrimack problem," and you still have the randomness of single-elimination first round games after a long season. It also could create some awkward television when you eventually get lucky with a UMass-Lowell vs. Cornell regional final played at Ralph Englestadt Arena in front of 15,000 empty seats.

GS: This is personally my favorite idea of all of them. First, the Merrimack Problem does not trouble me. If they were good enough to be top 4, they should get to defend their home turf.

Second, I don't think a UML vs. Cornell regional final at the Ralph would have bad attendance.

JG: I agree with that, from a meritocratic standpoint. I disagree with your second point, but I guess there's no way of knowing for sure.

That said, I do think this option does the best job of touching on the various issues of concern.

GS: I suppose one option for the Merrimack Problem is to require schools to host their regional at an arena with, say, at least 4,000 seats. Something like that.

JG: But that kind of goes against the spirit of awarding hosting to teams based on merit, and could create all kinds of booking nightmares if Merrimack can't find a rink.

GS: Well I agree, but I'm speaking from the perspective of people who care about such things.

JG: Or if they're in a bracket with #3 seed BU and BU kindly "lends" Agganis.

Now there's a fourth aggressive option that I hadn't considered until someone floated it on USCHO last week:

GS: Oh?

JG: Option 4: Four regional pods at two locations. Frozen Four stays as is.

Basically, you’d keep the current format, but have two regionals happening simultaneously at each venue, bringing more fans to one centralized location and hopefully increasing overall ticket sales. This would also provide a hell of a show for local fans. For instance, in last year’s NCAA tournament, you could have had:

Friday in Manchester
1) BC vs. 4) Air Force
2) Duluth vs. 3) Maine
Saturday in Manchester:
1) Union vs. 4) Michigan State
2) Miami vs. 3) Lowell
Sunday in Manchester:
A doubleheader with both winners to the FF
BC vs. Duluth
Lowell vs. Union

And then the same deal out in St. Paul with the two western brackets.

PROS: You’d almost certainly have increased attendance, as there should be enough traveling fans from one pod that are interested enough to buy tickets to the other while they’re in town that it gives at least a noticeable attendance bump. Also, having 8 programs in town means a bigger likelihood of roping in casual fans in the area. "Hey, BC, BU and UNH are all in town for NCAAs" might be a big enough draw to get someone in greater Manchester to drive to the Verizon Wireless Center for tournament games. This would also be a great show for fans to get six games in three days at one rink.

CONS: It probably doesn’t really address the atmosphere issue all that much. You’re still dealing with neutral sites and while common sense dictates fans of the other pod’s teams would buy tickets while they’re in town, that’s not really an ironclad guarantee. It also doesn’t address the competition-based issues. Additionally, imagine what it would cost to buy a three-day pass to something like this? They’d have to change the current method of only selling full-weekend packages and sell individual game tickets... which is honestly something they should be doing anyway.

GS: Kind of the opposite situation of our "Iced Eight" in one place option.

I disagree that it won't affect atmosphere. If you're smart about your regionals, this is nearly a slam dunk.

JG: And by "Smart" you mean greater Boston and greater Minneapolis, every year. Right?

GS: As soon as I said it, and realized that's what I meant, I realized it wasn't as great an idea as I thought. haha

JG: Option 5, which is never going to happen but would probably solve the attendance problem, would be to reduce the tournament field back to 12 teams and have two six-team super regionals like in years past; the top two seeds would get a bye in each regional.

This would give an advantage to top seeds and send six fanbases converging on two cities, increasing demand for tickets. But good luck getting the NCAA to vote to reduce the size of a tournament field. Naht gonna happen.

GS: Nah, 16 teams is correct I think.

JG: You're probably right about that, the 12 team format was just kind of cool. Maybe I'm becoming cranky and old, and/or a hipster. Or a cranky old hipster. "The 12 team format was pretty obscure, you've probably never heard of it."

GS: I think the point of all this though is that most of these options are dramatically better than what we have, which is just irreparably broken.

JG: Well, I want to hesitate. There's a lot of good in the current format, but the attendance issue is irreparably broken. Which is the Mother Of All Issues when you're relying on the tournament to put the "revenue" in "revenue sport."

GS: The "format" of single-elimination with decently preserved bracket integrity is ideal, I think. But the regional format is completely broken.

JG: Ultimately, my vote is to go with option 3 - regionals at campus sites. You maintain the current format, which at least does the best it can with balancing the competing demands of attendance, travel, bracket integrity, and avoiding in-conference matchups; you give the #1 seeds a rightful home-ice advantage without making it overwhelming to lower seeds; you eliminate the goofiness of lower seeds getting home ice advantage due to hosting, and you likely come close to selling out every regional game. I don’t think there’s enough of a difference between the 2 and 3 seeds to justify giving the 2 seeds the opportunity to play 2-of-3 at home. But if you’re a 1 seed, you’ve earned some sort of edge.

The "Merrimack problem" is the most vexing one here and it’s kind of unavoidable. Requiring schools to host the event at a building with a minimum capacity of "X" kind of goes against the spirit of this arrangement, and could create all kinds of logistical/booking problems. So you just have to suck it up and hope you don’t encounter the problem too often.

Here’s how it would have looked over the past few years:

2012: Regionals hosted at BC, Michigan, North Dakota, and Union (2,225). Three great spots for a regional, and then Union. But really, this would have been a huge net positive.
2011: Regionals hosted at BC, North Dakota, Yale, and Miami. The Yale Whale and Miami’s rink are both in the 3,500 range for capacity, which is too low for my taste but I’d say better than the alternative of all the empty seats in AHL arenas.
2010: Regionals hosted at BC, Wisconsin, Denver, and Miami. Now you’re cooking with gas.
2009: Regionals hosted at BU, Denver, Michigan, and Notre Dame. Yes please.
2008: Regionals hosted at UNH, North Dakota, Michigan, and Miami. Again, Miami’s arena is on the small side, but this is a great slate of hosts.
2007: Regionals hosted at Clarkson, UNH, Minnesota, and Notre Dame. Clarkson is a problem here.
2006: Regionals hosted at Michigan State, BU, Wisconsin, Minnesota. Perfect.

GS: Wow.

JG: Even though I think we have somewhat differing priorities, we agree on the best potential change to the tournament format. (In a realistic world, anyway. In a really perfect world, I'd love to see real playoffs with home-and-home action. But I understand why this will never happen and accept it.)

GS: Home-and-home aggregate. Lulz.

JG: You laugh, but that used to be a thing.

GS: An awesome thing.

JG: Anyway, that's that. I think we agree that something needs to change, and campus sites need to be part of the solution.

There's not too too much to talk about this week that we haven't already touched on before. We all know what's up this weekend. #York925 should be an absolute slam dunk and anything less than an easy win would be a big blunder, Gaudreau or no Gaudreau. The Minnesota game is going to be really tough, especially since Skjei from MN was one of the USA's last cuts, so they're only down 1 D instead of 2.

GS: Yeah that's really weak. Losing Gaudreau probably makes us an underdog, especially with us being on the road. Weird. The kid is a game-changer the likes of which we at BC only get once every collegiate generation (so, like, every 4 years or so).

JG: And I'm predicting said split, if you're putting me on the spot.

Yeah, our offense really revolves largely around him at this point. I have faith it will develop into a more well-rounded attack as the season progresses, but for now it's too steep a hill to climb @ Minn. to lose him. Hope I'm wrong.

GS: We need a performance out of the second line that we got in the last game against BU. It's not unlikely. I think they'll step up. Lots of leadership on that line.

JG: By the time this article posts, the US will have one WJC game in the books, so any thoughts we have on that will be outdated --- I'll be sure to post my thoughts once I've managed to fire up the DVR and watch the game. But best of luck to the US team and may we have a great feat to celebrate for #GaudreaubeyBaker when he returns home on Jan. 11.

GS: Indeed.

JG: Go Eagles, and thank goodness hockey's finally back. This three week layoff reminded me that I need to get put in suspended animation next summer.

GS: Sign me up for that.