Yield and Increase in College Hockey

Like Kurt Vonnegut wrote many times:  So it goes.

The University of Alabama-Huntsville heard the death knell for its men’s hockey program two weeks ago, thanks to an outgoing interim chancellor with a fetish for finding local talent to stock its athletic programs — something which does not compute when you slide “Alabama” next to “hockey” by any logic.

RIP Chargers. Please select your resting place alongside such former luminaries as Illinois-Chicago, Fairfield, Findlay, Iona, Kent State, Wayne State and MIT.

Aside from feeling the gut punch from having yet another school’s hockey program fall by the wayside without so much as an internal review from a permanent university head, it upsets me that UAH has bit the big one because it’s happening right at the time that Division I men’s college hockey holds the potential to explode across the landscape.

The creation of the Big Ten, as well as the formation of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference with crucial pieces from other existing conferences, sets the stage for an uptick in competition and exposure across the board in 2013.

Instead of the four traditional groups (Hockey East, ECAC, CCHA and WCHA) dominating the landscape against Atlantic Hockey and the independents, there will be six total.

That should mean better competition top-to-bottom. That will mean two more automatic bids to the tournament. Which most likely means either A) more controversy coming from the selection committee each year regarding at-large selections for 12 slots, or B) the need to expand the Frozen Four once again to accomodate the new entities.

Since I’m a greedy bastard when it comes to the ice, I say go with choice B.

But I say we go with it full force, and break things down even more than they will be in two short years.

If everything proceeds as planned, Hockey East figures to make out like a bandit, adding Notre Dame and increasing its membership to a robust 11 schools. The ECAC at least treads water with its 12 teams, while the WCHA and CCHA will take hits after high-profile programs will head to greener pastures.

What I want, is to eliminate much of the disparity and create even more competition — something that may put a dent into the marauding creature that is March Madness.

The following table should explain where I want to head:

Boston College Union Denver Ohio State
Boston University RPI Colorado College Michigan
Maine Clarkson Miami-Ohio Michigan State
New Hampshire St. Lawrence Minnesota-Duluth Wisconsin
Lowell (UMass) Quinnipiac Nebraska-Omaha Minnesota
Northeastern Army North Dakota Penn State
Providence Canisius St. Cloud State Northwestern
Vermont Fairfield Western Michigan Illinois
Merrimack Iona    
Amherst (UMass) Navy    
IVY LEAGUE WCHA Atlantic Hockey United Hockey
Harvard Alaska-Anchorage American Int’l Notre Dame
Yale Alaska-Fairbanks Bentley Air Force
Princeton Bemidji State Holy Cross Wayne State
Dartmouth Michigan Tech Mercyhurst Illinois-Chicago
Brown Minnesota-Mankato Niagara Alabama-Huntsville
Cornell Northern Michigan Robert Morris Pittsburgh
Colgate Bowling Green RIT Northern Arizona
Pennsylvania Lake Superior State Sacred Heart Marquette
  Ferris State UConn  

Note: Schools in italics represent programs I feel should be resurrected. Schools in italics and boldface represent programs I feel can be created to meet competitive requirements.

I don’t know what the point of expanding the sport’s footprint — if everything goes according to plan — if Hockey East and ECAC maintain a healthy double-digit size but the Big Ten only has six teams, the new NCHC isn’t fully fleshed out, and the CCHA looks like it will have to fold.

I also know that someone, somewhere has the finances to pull off a Terry Pegula and hook up two more teams in the Midwestern state schools — I just proposed the Illinois schools because the state is churning out talent at a higher level than a generation before.

Maybe you get rid of the CCHA, but replace it with a totally new conference (name unknown), anchored by Notre Dame and whose member institutions exist in American hockey hotbeds: Pittsburgh, Chicago, Milwaukee, Colorado, Detroit. UAH and UNA are thrown in the mix because I wish to see all conferences operate at a healthy size and having two former programs come back to life is a decent way to do so.

So, with eight conferences of more-or-less uniform size, it’s presumed that nobody gets locked into a first division/second division attitude in terms of competitive balance.

As for the tournament, it doesn’t have to be altered too much within its present format. The only changes will be to increase the pool from 16 to 24 teams, meaning six schools per region.

The eight teams who receive automatic bids as conference champions are  divvied up 1 through 8 based on, for lack of anything better, the controversial pairwise rankings already in use. They are placed as either a one-or-two seed within each of the four regions. These schools also receive a bye in the first round.

Within each region, at-large schools are seeded 3-6 and 4-5, without reseeding based on the result. That way, the #1 school plays the winner of the 4-5 matchup and the #2 team gets the winner of the 3-6. Those winners square off against each other and those winner make up the bracket in the Frozen Four — which proceeds as it has for decades.

The tournament can then be spread out over three weekends. The preliminary-round and first-round games scheduled for two consecutive days spread out either Friday/Saturday or Saturday/Sunday on the first, and the two rounds which will eventually lead to unveiling the last four schools on the second. Then, the Frozen Four kicks off on Thursday of the third week and the title game still occurs on the usual Saturday.

For a period ending in the late 90′s, the NCAA held its men’s D-I title game on the Saturday following the men’s basketball final, with the previous rounds contested the previous week. Starting in 2000, the hockey tournament began the week prior to the Final Four, then skipped the weekend that the basketball title game was played, then  decided its own champion with the semifinals on the next Thursday and the title game two days after.

I always thought that was suspicious, holding such reverence and showing such deference to March Madness all of a sudden after basically ignoring it for so many years. Hockey being so far down the chain compared to basketball, even in the college ranks, I never viewed a potential conflict between the two to be much of a concern.

But with the growth of the sport as I’ve outlined, toes really need not be stepped on. With a three-tiered system, you still have top-level hockey on consecutive weekends, and the respective title games don’t run into one another. There’s also no two-week gap in competition once the elimination games have begun.