Friday's first day of NCAA Tournament play brought a couple upsets, as the low seeds in the East Regional took the headlines. We also saw St. Cloud State get that horrifying monkey off their backs, picking up their first NCAA win thanks to overzealous officials, embellishment, and a really good power play.
Besides the upsets by RIT and New Hampshire, and the double-overtime win for the Huskies (no disrespect to Wisconsin, but their game is only a headline if they win 14-0 or lose), the big story of Friday's first-round games was the attendance.
More specifically, the story was the lack of attendance.
In Albany, the games were played at Times Union Center, a large facility that seats over 14,000 fans for hockey. The announced attendance for the two-game session was 4,073.
Obviously, top-seeded Denver wasn't going to bring a lot of people. They don't travel well traditionally when it comes to the WCHA Final Five, so why would you expect them to travel well to Albany?
The NCAA Selection Committee moved teams around for attendance purposes, hoping -- obviously -- that stacking two New York schools (Cornell and RIT) in the East Regional with New Hampshire would pick up the slack from Denver's fans not really showing up.
RIT brought the Corner Crew, and the rest of the arena was largely empty for both games. It was embarrassing to watch, frankly, and reflects poorly both on the NCAA and the sport.
But it wasn't as embarrassing as seeing the "crowd" at the XCel Energy Center. The home of the Minnesota Wild seats more than 18,000, and the hope was they could draw a decent crowd, even though the host Minnesota Gophers didn't play well enough this season to earn an invitation.
The announced attendance for that two-game session was 7,281. That's not even half of capacity, and it's akin to what is drawn into that building for the small-school state tournament in boys' hockey.
Considering that Wisconsin is one of the WCHA's more vibrant and well-traveling franchises, and St. Cloud State is a freaking hour up the road, this is just stupid. If these two teams can't bring a crowd to St. Paul, no one can.
Proving that the NCAA isn't very smart, they've started awarding regionals to large venues like these. The results have often been disastrous, most notably this year, as well as a few years ago when Denver hosted a regional that the Pioneers didn't qualify for. The games at Pepsi Center attracted crowds similar to what was on hand in St. Paul Friday.
Next year, we're heading towards another embarrassment, as there is a regional at Scottrade Center in St. Louis. Why? There are very few teams and fanbases that can drive to St. Louis from their home base, and the biggest -- Wisconsin -- pretty much has to play in the regional at Green Bay if they qualify for the tournament, or the Resch Center will be empty.
It's time for the NCAA to explore a serious change in how these regionals are awarded. The women's basketball tournament is a good example of a sport that can fill seats for major events, but isn't ready for regionals at neutral sites. Efforts to play them at neutral sites have often been met with awful results with no championship atmosphere at the games.
Hockey is the same way.
I had someone ask me when the NCAA will go to two-of-three series for these first round matchups, so we don't have to worry about No. 1 seeds constantly being picked off in the first round. While that will probably never happen, it's more likely that we'll see a push to move these regionals to campus sites of the top seeds.
Yes, elite teams lose games at home sometimes. Yes, you're running the risk of small crowds and bad atmospheres if the home team falls in the first round.
But can it possibly be worse than what we saw in Albany and St. Paul Friday?
It's probably a tremendous advantage for a team like Denver to get to play at home. It's also very expensive, because even if you throw bracket integrity out the window, you're flying three teams there. But you flew North Dakota, Alaska-Fairbanks, Denver, Bemidji State, and Alabama-Huntsville this year, and you won't make as much money on ticket sales because of weak crowds at the venues chosen to host these games.
Drop the 6,000-seat minimum, get rid of the bid system, and give campus sites a shot. There would be some minimums, obviously. You'd need to have 4,000 or so seats, adequate press facilities, locker room space, and the ability to accommodate press conferences somewhere in the building after the games. You might eliminate some older venues with these mandates, but you're also making abundantly clear the fact that atmosphere is vitally important to growing the sport.
After all, casual fans tune in, see huge gobs of empty seats along the glass, and think "If no one else wants to watch this, why should I?".
I know the NCAA doesn't care about hockey, and neither does ESPN, but it would be nice if someone tried at some point.