Tuesday, April 08, 2014

College Hockey Almost Certainly Not Done Changing

One-time Minnesota Wild executive Bill Robertson was named the new commissioner of the WCHA Tuesday. Robertson will replace Bruce McLeod, who ran the league for 20 years and will retire in June. Robertson will actually join the league next month, providing a bit of a buffer between his official arrival and McLeod's official departure.

(Notice how I resisted jokes about McLeod's departure actually having taken place about a decade ago. I'm actually proud of myself for that.)

Robertson's task is not a small one, but he's not alone.

College hockey is not in a stable position, for a variety of reasons. Namely, there are schools in virtually every league that aren't happy. Something is irking them, be it travel, scholarships, finances, or administrative issues of some sort.

I'm not here to say everyone was happy with the old arrangement. I'd bet there were unhappy types back then. It just wasn't as vocal a group, and everyone had their traditional leagues to lean on. The WCHA and CCHA had their warts, but they'd also been around for a long time and had experienced a ton of success, both on the ice and off.

(Example of off-ice success in the old alignment? Look what the WCHA Final Five became at its zenith, in the early and mid 2000s.)

When the Big Ten and NCHC plucked all the "big-name" programs from those leagues, the CCHA died completely and the WCHA changed dramatically.

Now, it seems the majority of hockey people involved in these leagues would probably revert back to the way things used to be, if only it was that easy.

Since we know that won't happen, it might be time for fans to resign themselves to more changes.

With that potential inevitability in mind, here are a few ideas -- both mine and others -- that could help alleviate the concerns of programs and remove some of the "buyer's remorse," as Mankato Free Press scribe and wonderful human Shane Frederick tweeted Tuesday.

The WCHA should cut to 24 conference games.

Will this create more holes to fill in non-league schedules? Absolutely. But the NCHC (ten) and Big Ten (14) have plenty of them, too.

Why should the WCHA cut from 28 to 24? Money.

Last season, every WCHA team visited Alaska at least once. Four teams went twice, playing road series against both Alaska-Anchorage and Alaska. Two of those teams made two separate trips north, while Michigan Tech and Minnesota State spent a whole week up there. With a 24-game league schedule, it could be structured so three teams don't go to Alaska at all during a season, and certainly you wouldn't have four teams going twice.

Not only does it remove some of the financial strain, but it makes travel a little less than a pain.

The WCHA should seek to expand.

This one will be a little controversial. I know that there are some teams in Atlantic Hockey that want to go to 18 scholarships. That's been the case for a while. If the WCHA finds two of them, expands to 12 teams, and goes to a two-division format where the Alaska teams are in separate divisions but locked into playing each other four times a season, the league could settle travel concerns without necessarily cutting the league schedule.

A so-called Eastern Division would comprise the two AHA teams, one of the Alaska schools, Alabama-Huntsville, Ferris State, and Bowling Green. The upper Michigan teams, Bemidji State, Minnesota State, and the other Alaska team would make up the West.

Structuring a full league schedule could be difficult. If each team in the division played a home-and-away, that would be 20 games. With a 24-game conference slate, that would leave four games, two home and two away, to be played outside the division. Doing that would mean only two teams out of 12 would have to make the double-trip north, and that would be easily handled around school breaks to minimize academic impact of the travel. At 28 games, you'd have eight games to play against the opposite division. Either way, there would be teams in the league that did not meet during the regular season.

In addition, I'm told the travel arrangements for UAA and UAF are different, and it's more expensive for teams to go to Anchorage. I'm not sure how this is possible, but Robertson needs to fix it if it's the case.

The NCHC should run its tournament the way the Big Ten does.

This has been suggested to me multiple times.

I'm not sure how it would be executed, but there are a couple options.

The first is to bring every team to Minneapolis, which would allow for travel arrangements to be made far in advance, thus making that side of things cheaper than it is now, where arrangements are made on short notice. The negative? Four games on Thursday. You think the tournament wasn't attended well this year? Wait until -- as an example -- Denver and UNO are playing a quarterfinal game at like 10am on a Thursday.

The other option? Take six teams to Minneapolis and play single elimination. Top two get byes into the semifinals, and there are two quarterfinal games Thursday. Same format as the Big Ten. Teams couldn't arrange their travel until late notice, but the tournament would be structured to succeed. Gives the teams at the bottom even more to play for at the end of the season, because they have to fight for inclusion into the conference tournament.

Why go this route? Look at the crowds drawn for first-round campus-site playoff series this season. It could be argued that teams are better off playing in a centralized location and building a cool event that way.


None of this is guaranteed to help, but it's clear change is coming.

I don't know what that change will be, but I'd be stunned if we kept this configuration in place any longer than schools are contractually obligated to stick around for. We might see new leagues formed, we might see current leagues dissolved.

We welcome Robertson to college hockey. Hopefully he doesn't end up regretting what he got himself into, and hopefully all the leagues can find common ground and work together for the good of the sport.

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