Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The NCAA Hockey Tournament Needs to Return To Campus Sites

On Saturday night, the last team selected into the NCAA hockey tournament skated off with the trophy as #15 seed Yale defeated Quinnipiac for the national championship.  The story to me isn't so much Yale winning it as much as how Yale won it.

Two weeks earlier, Yale defeated Minnesota and North Dakota to emerge from the West Regional into the Frozen Four.  I don't get ESPNU at home, but fortunately, I found myself out of town with access to the Yale/North Dakota game on Dish Network.  North Dakota led most of the way, but a defensive meltdown in the last 10 minutes of the game led to Yale's upset.

It didn't help North Dakota's chances that the West Regional game was held in a mostly empty Grand Rapids, Michigan arena. Yep...the "west" regional was held in the eastern timezone.  Was it neutral ice?  Technically so, though the facility was so ill-suited for a tournament game that players had to use toilet stalls for lockers.
It was almost like the game was played at a municipal ice rink, albeit with shiny boards and shiny graphics on the ice.  Every hit against the boards created an echo in the largely quiet arena.  This wasn't a championship atmosphere.  It was no atmosphere, because the venue was nearly 600 miles away from the closest school in that region.

Immediately after that game, viewers were switched to the New Hampshire/UMass-Lowell game, and it was remarkable contrast in environment.  The neutral site was 40 miles from both campuses, making it an easy drive for every fan.  It was a packed house, and completely different feel.  A championship atmosphere.

There are lots of ideas over what to do with the early rounds of the NCAA hockey tournament.  A best of three first round could be interesting.  But no matter what the NCAA does, the opening games need to be played closer to fans.  NCAA baseball uses home fields.  Even NCAA women's basketball uses home courts for the opening rounds.  Is it an advantage for the home teams?  Absolutely...but at least the teams that get it have earned it on the field.  It's not a bidding situation where someone gets an advantage because a nearby community was able to submit a winning bid years earlier.

A community that doesn't support college hockey, I might add.  They depend on fans traveling in to make it work. When you get lucky enough to have teams within an hour, it can work.  It doesn't work away from the east coast, where the schools (and neutral sites) are much more spread out.

It's simply a matter of fairness, because the current format favors east coast schools.

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