Monday, March 28, 2011

NCAA Men's Hockey Championship: Frozen Four Set, Schedule Should Shift

If you spent the weekend glued to channels of the tube broadcasting basketball games, I don’t blame you. It’s been a great tournament.

What else have been great have been the first two rounds of the NCAA men’s ice hockey tournament, which, like men’s hoops, determined Sunday who the four finalists would be.

But more on that in a minute.

There are a ton of issues going on in the sports world right now, and honestly, you can take your pick of interesting stories: Will Floyd Mayweather, Jr. ever fight Manny Pacquiao? Can the Barry Bonds trial end in anything but a disaster? For how many more years will the what-to-do-with-the-BCS discussion continue? Will there be professional football this season, and if so, will it start on time? Could the impending expirations of the current NBA, MLB collective-bargaining agreements mean that those two sports are right behind? Will Tiger Woods ever get his moxie back?

These questions, and many more are tumbling through the minds of American sports fans on a daily basis, but I am here to pose the question that nobody’s asking: Why, if the NCAA men’s basketball tournament is so perfectly scheduled, so popular, and so much – right now – in the self-determined need for expansion, can the same collegiate association not put their heads together and figure out a better spacing system for the men’s hockey tournament?

After the jump, we’ll take a brief look at a few theorems.

Alright, got your turkey melt and your frosty glass of milk? Here goes:

A) Nobody cares. I pondered the different options in terms of when to list this, the easiest answer of them all, and my thought was: Let’s just get it out of the way. Of course I don’t really mean nobody, but when you calculate the number of sports fans in the country, and the television ratings/attendance numbers associated with them, hockey doesn’t just take the back seat, it takes the way-back seat. The seat that’s not really even a seat. And that’s the pro level. Start talking semi-pro and college hockey, and the numbers plummet. For the purposes of this discussion, however, we must focus on both those that do pay attention, those that one day might. So, if the numbers don’t necessitate a conversation proposing change, then that conversation’s simply not going to happen.

B) Everything Frozen Four-related must coincide with the presentation of the Hobey Baker Award ceremony. Nonsense. Change the award ceremony to either after the conclusion of the conference tournaments, or after the conclusion of the championship game.

C) It’s important to get these student-athletes back to their respective campuses and in the classroom so that they may focus on academics. It’s possible, but if they’re going to miss class (which they really don’t; all regular-season, conference tournaments, as well as the championship are played at night on weekends, with the exception of the Frozen Four semi-finals, which falls on a Thursday.

D) It doesn’t matter because, hey – look at football. Some of those teams have to wait four, five, and six weeks for their bowl games to roll around. Naw. Comparing football and hockey is clearly a case of apples/oranges, since there are tons more football programs throughout the country, and millions more dollars associated with those games, universities, television contracts, etc.

E) The most likely scenario is: They’re waiting for college hoops to wrap up. I would poo-poo this notion for two reasons: 1) Nobody is going to miss the Frozen Four because they’re enveloped in March Madness, which leads me to 2) The Final Four will be played this weekend. You’ll have two games Saturday evening, the winners of which will advance to the championship game on Monday, April 4. The Frozen Four has always – as far as I can remember – had the Thursday/Sunday format for their tournament, so if you’re going to stick with that, then why not schedule it the week following the first/second rounds of the tournament, and you can stagger the games and days with the basketball schedule.

My guess is that it’s neither of the above, and that it has to do with what will draw the best television ratings, but that’s also silly because I can’t imagine that ESPNU’s schedule is so packed that they can’t fit in the college hockey games in the same weekend that the Final Four is happening. I mean, this is the first year I can remember in a long time where an absolute ton of the March Madness contests are being broadcast, and the networks don’t have to jump back and forth in the middle of games to cover the one that’s the best matchup of the moment.

The NCAA men’s hockey tournament is one-fourth the size of its basketball counterpart, and exactly zero of the opening games were broadcast on a basic-cable channel. You could catch some on ESPNU, or online via, assuming your Internet provider supported. The point being that the hockey tournament did not interfere with televised hoops whatsoever. College basketball fans got to watch any and all games desired, and college hockey fans did the same, assuming they had the appropriate cable package or Internet provider, or were in a market that carried the coverage locally.

The point is this: For much of the college-basketball tournament, coaches, players, etc. are dealing with a schedule that closely resembles their regular season. They play one or two games a week, with just a few days off in between. The only difference is when this bracket goes from Elite Eight to Final Four; the four remaining programs suddenly have six days off. But six days off is, in my mind, a world of difference than 11 or 12. The men’s hockey tournament kicks off on a Friday. Half the teams play, the other half play on Saturday. The teams that play Friday and advance play again on Saturday. Conversely, if your first game isn’t until Saturday, and you win, you play again Sunday. Logic would suggest, then, that the two Frozen Four matchups happen four days later, on the subsequent Thursday, and the two winners play for all the marbles on Sunday.

Four days seems like plenty of time to get back to school, go to class, practice/prepare for your next opponent, and hit the road again. Okay, plenty might be stretching it, but I would be largely in favor of putting a condensed schedule together, and at least having the punch of your most-recent victory still a little fresh in your head. If you go the route they currently do, there’s zero chance of momentum carrying over, and you’ve got all of this time laying around to perhaps over-practice, and prepare in excess. It’s like the NFL format where the top-two seeds in each conference get a bye.

I’m not saying there’s a problem with the way the NFL goes about scheduling its post-season. It seems to work fine, and with professional football, you can probably benefit from the extra recovery time. But every year, inevitably, the discussion comes up with all four teams that got a bye: Will the week off hurt them? Will they be rusty? Are their opponents better off because they played last week, have emotional highs and momentum pulsing through their veins and locker rooms?

I’ve not looked at statistics for NFL clubs coming off that post-season bye, but I’m certain someone has, that it’s the right word combination of a Google search away. Consider that your homework. Dig up the win-loss record for NFL playoff teams after a first-round bye. My guess is that it’s probably going to be in the neighborhood of a 60/40 split in favor of teams that played in a Wildcard game. (Update: Don’t actually do that because it’s counter-productive to my point: In the last 10 NFL post-seasons, the team coming off of a first-round bye won 25 of the 40 Divisional-round games played, which is nearly 63 percent.)

Bad example, but I’m not straying from my thesis. I could argue that that’s professional, this is college. That that’s football, this is hockey. That the NFL, while doing a great job attempting to achieve league-wide parity, is about drafting, free-agent signing, and salary caps, while the NCAA can only offer scholarships, and only at the universities lucky enough to have a sanctioned program. And regardless, in this scenario, nobody’s getting a bye. Everybody in this tournament has exactly the same amount of post-season games, nearly the exact same amount of rest. So, the question remains: If teams work all year to have a successful regular season, compete and win some conference-tournament games, hope for a tournament berth, and fight for the requisite two wins to get to the Frozen Four, why are you making them wait a week and-a-half for a chance to play for it all?

Christmas being the only exception, these guys play 20 consecutive weeks of a regular season, go straight into a two-weekend conference tournament, straight into regionals, and then have to take a week off before the championship semi-finals? It doesn’t make any sense.

The way it should look, then, is that the semis should be happening this Thursday, the Hobey Baker ceremony on Friday. Saturday, then can be used for a light skate, and some rest, and your championship game on Sunday. Then you get the heck outta Dodge, get the kids back to school, and they can clamp down for papers, projects, finals, etc.

That’s how I’d do it, anyway. Allow the kids to keep their engines burning; instead of providing them with an opportunity to let some of the season’s steam dissipate, potentially resulting in a flat Frozen Four performance.

Anyway, Sunday’s two contests were hard-fought. Well, one of them was. The Denver Pioneers got trailblazed in their match against the two-seed Fighting Sioux of North Dakota. In the 6-1 route, they never even appeared partially in the game, but that’s more of a reflection of UND’s power than it is DU’s shortcomings. The final match of the weekend involved a more-defensive battle between the University of New Hampshire Wildcats and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Notre Dame took a one-goal lead early, and barely looked back. Up two headed into the third, they clamped down, and didn’t allow the lone UNH tally to find the back of the net until there were three minutes and change left in the contest. As the players began their on-ice celebration, television cameras panned to head coach Jeff Jackson on the bench, and if you’re able to read lips, you could see him say to the second assistant he hugged, “We’re going to the Frozen Four.”

And indeed they are. The matchups are set: The Irish square off against the University of Minnesota-Duluth at 4 pm Central, Thursday, April 7.

Three and-a-half hours later, it’ll be the Michigan Wolverines challenging the Fighting Sioux. Both games will be played in the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, MN. Both will be televised on ESPN@ HD, The two victors will go toe-to-toe Sunday the ninth at 6 pm, the NCAA hockey championship at stake.

Personally, I’m thrilled as can be that the Irish have advanced this far. I’m tempted to say that UMD will knock off the Irish, only to fall to North Dakota, but the homer in me says Notre Dame advances, only to become runner-up for the second time in three years. Either way, those games should be being played on the March 31, April 3, not the following weekend.