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Time to rethink most mid-season college hockey tournaments

BC heads to the Three Rivers Classic shorthanded today

2016 NCAA Division I Men's Hockey Championships - Semifinals Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Today, Boston College Hockey returns after a 19-day absence with a marquee matchup, taking on Quinnipiac - one of the winningest programs of the decade, and the team that knocked them out of last year’s Frozen Four.

Cool, right? This should be a real spotlight game on the college hockey calendar. But... two problems:

1. You, personally, can’t watch it.

I mean, you can, I guess, if you live in the Pittsburgh area, or decided to make the trip. But the Three Rivers Classic games aren’t on TV, and they aren’t even being streamed - despite being played in an NHL arena, which certainly has the technology.

2. BC will be playing with a shell of a roster

The Eagles go in to this game down 5 players due to the ongoing World Junior Championships - Colin White, Joe Woll, Casey Fitzgerald, and both Mattila brothers. To make matters worse, Ryan Fitzgerald is still recovering from his high ankle sprain.

College hockey has a proud tradition of doing a lot of things differently from most college sports, and as college hockey fans, we don’t mind that. But one quirky college hockey thing that could use some tweaking is the handling of the long layoff and the playing of some of these midseason tournaments.

NCAA hockey teams generally wrap up their first semester of games around December 10, getting the entire exam period and Christmas off before playing a limited schedule between Christmas and New Year’s, consisting largely of midseason tournaments at neutral sites. Then the normal schedule resumes after the New Year — this year, January 6 starts the first regular hockey weekend of 2017.

This week’s college hockey slate includes:
The Three Rivers Classic (Pittsburgh)
The Mariucci Classic (Minneapolis)
The Florida College Hockey Classic (Estero, Florida)
Great Lakes Invitational (Detroit)
Ledyard Bank Classic (Hanover, NH)
Desert Hockey Classic (Prescott Valley, Arizona)

Previous years have also witnessed the Catamount Cup in Burlington, the Shillelagh tournament at Notre Dame, and some sort of Connecticut hockey thing UConn used to host when they were in Atlantic Hockey.

With some of these tournaments, it’s easy to see why they exist. The GLI is probably the second greatest regular season hockey tradition after the Beanpot. The tournaments that teams host on campus potentially make sense, although attendance figures suggest they’re just as well-off just hosting a game than hosting an in-season tournament (check out the seating bowl at the Mariucci Classic whenever the Gophers aren’t involved; BC’s win over Alabama-Huntsville in the Mariucci was Jerry York’s record-breaking 925th win, and about 300 people seemed to be in the stands to witness it).

But with the Three Rivers Classic, I’ll be honest - it’s hard to see what this tournament is accomplishing. Maybe if you had a Pennsylvania-heavy lineup with Penn State involved in addition to RMU, it could start to fill seats. Maybe if it was on TV (even regional TV in Pittsburgh), it could be a chance to put a spotlight on college hockey to a different audience.

As it is, what you’re going to get is four largely nondescript hockey games, featuring one minor local team, playing in front of a smattering of fans in a mostly empty arena in games fans at home can’t watch on TV or online, and games very few fans are going to be motivated to travel to. These aren’t like bowl games or something people make a point of traveling to; they’re just regular season games.

College basketball has a bunch of random in-season tournaments and neutral site “classics” that draw basically no live crowd, but they exist for TV, because people watch. If some of these were televised, it would be a different story.

As it is, these tournaments seem to do two things: 1) draw more inventory away from campus venues, which is where the crowds are usually best; and, 2) put on potentially marquee games during a period when some of the best players won’t be around.

I know fans of, say, 50 out of the 60 college hockey teams would just call this sour grapes because they won’t be missing anyone, but having these games with elite teams during World Juniors is a bit of a downer. And from a BC perspective, these are two critical pairwise games that will be played without 5 key players.

I certainly hope that BC at least goes with the BU method in future years of just skipping these mid-season tournaments altogether and limiting their play during WJC to one game at most (BU has a game on January 5 against Union, the same day as the Gold Medal game at World Juniors).

But I also hope the college hockey powers that be take a hard look at these tournaments and figure out what they’re accomplishing. Do the kids get up to play in these kinds of events? Maybe they do. That’s the argument for continuing to repeat Frozen Fenway, and it’s an argument I accept, even though I’m not a fan of having that event over and over again. If the players enjoy it - fine. But is that the case for these games?

In an ideal world, I’d like to see the break condensed a bit: play a full slate through the weekend of December 15-16, 2017, then take three full weeks off for the holidays (still far more time off than basketball takes). Then get back to business for a normal weekend slate on January 5-6, 2018; the first day of that game weekend will be impacted by the Gold Medal game at World Juniors but by January 6 everyone is back regardless of how far their teams advance.

By condensing the break, you can probably either start the season a week later, or eliminate a mid-week game or two from the calendar. Either would probably be a welcome change. (Personally, I’d like to see the college hockey season go all year ‘round, but something tells me it would make more sense from a ratings and ticket sales standpoint to try to condense things a bit and have fewer weeks going up against football).

Keep the GLI in its traditional window, and maybe have one or two spotlight events during the holiday period that get TV time and can pack a house. Otherwise, shorten the break, move more games to campus, and prevent important games from being majorly impacted by World Juniors.

I just wrote 1000+ words about something that will never happen; welcome back, college hockey!

And let’s get some wins this weekend, Eagles.