Solutions

Division III and Division I don't share many common goals and Division III shouldn't hold its championship game for extra weeks to meet Division I's timetable.
St. Norbert athletics photo

By Peter Langella

The NCAA Division III Presidents Council has rejected a proposal to have a shared Division I/Division III men’s championship weekend -- at least for now. I, for one, am ecstatic. I hope this idea is tabled for good. The D-I Frozen Four (insert TM symbol) has become a moneymaking spectacle, often being held in far off lands (Tampa comes to mind) and as gone so far as to sacrifice the integrity of the ice surface in order to sell more tickets (remember the temporary rink at Detroit’s Ford Field?). If that’s the direction they want to go in, more power to them, but I’m so glad the D-III presidents left our athletes out of it. It’s not what D-III is about, and it’s not why we watch the games. 

I’ve been playing, coaching, and watching hockey games my entire life. I’ve always been a rink rat. A lot about hockey has changed over the years, but just as much if not more has remained the same. The same conversations that have been going on at rinks for decades are still happening now: Players are talking about the latest in equipment, their next opponent’s penalty kill, and the young stars in the pros. Coaches are trying to help their team find a certain advantage, always studying film and scouring rinks for the right pieces to their puzzle. Fans are discussing fundraising opportunities and comparing past teams to current ones and sometimes yelling “Shoot it!” when they should just trust their power play quarterback instead.  

And all of them – all of us – are trying to figure out ways to improve the game we love. 

All of which brings me back to the idea of changing the men’s championship weekend. Though I was not in favor of the rejected proposal, I do remain in favor of change. In fact, I think we need change. The current system is not the optimum one, so here are a few options for positive change:

Solution No. 1 

Combine our men’s and women’s championships. One venue, eight teams, six games; an amazing hockey weekend. 

This is very feasible. Schedules wouldn’t have to be altered significantly, and it would be such a great way to celebrate DIII hockey as teams and fans of both men’s and women’s teams would come together. It could be held at a neutral site like Lake Placid or Minneapolis, or even a predetermined on-campus site like UW-Superior’s Wessman Arena, which has hosted two men’s Frozen Fours and will host this season’s women’s. On-campus sites are special. I love it when games stay on campus or at the home arenas of DIII teams. 

Which leads to:

Solution No. 2

Keep the men and women separate and move everything back to campus sites. There’s nothing like a home crowd cheering for their team. Even as a player on the road, I would have rather played at Middlebury or Plattsburgh in front of hostile fans every game than play at a mostly empty building with no atmosphere. Why do you think the Utica men have such a home-heavy schedule every year? Because coaches and players want to go there to play. They want the challenge of playing against the largest crowds in the country. If teams were afraid of it, nobody would agree to it. It’s fun to play there. It’s that simple. 

Don’t get me wrong. I think Lake Placid is great. It’s a cool town, and the hockey history is richer than almost anywhere else on the map. But Herb Brooks Arena is too big. I’ve listed the last dozen men’s championship games below with attendance figures: 

2001: 2,100 (sellout) @ RIT (home team in championship game)
2002: 2,600 (sellout) @ Middlebury
2003: 3,000 (sellout) @ Norwich (home team in championship game)
2004: 2,200 (sellout) @ Norwich
2005: 2,165/2,600 @ Middlebury (home team in championship game)
2006: 1,474/3,784 @ Elmira’s First Arena (predetermined neutral site)
2007: 1,052/2,500 @ Wisconsin-Superior (predetermined on-campus site)
2008: 4,770/7,700 @ Lake Placid (predetermined neutral site)
2009: 3,141/7,700 @ Lake Placid (predetermined neutral site)
2010: 5,100/7,700 @ Lake Placid (predetermined neutral site)
2011: 1,741/3,400 @ Ridder Arena, MN (predetermined neutral site)
2012: 3,300/7,700 @ Lake Placid (predetermined neutral site)

As you can see, the non-predetermined campus sites are full, selling out four out of five times. Sure, those Lake Placid numbers look pretty good, but they’re skewed. For example, the 4,770 in 2008 and the 5,100 in 2010 were more like 2,500-3,000 after many fans of the two semifinal losers decided to head home. Last year was even less as the place was far from full for the championship game. Sure, the NCAA made a little extra cash on the pre-sale seats, but it happened at the expense of the teams and players involved. Don’t our teams deserve more than more than the NCAA telling them that they have to play in front of a half-empty building away from a great number of their dedicated fans who might not be able to make the trip?

I say yes, they do deserve more. 

Now that the women have an eight-team tournament, I say play it out over three weeks. Based on the numbers, three western teams and five eastern teams make the tournament every year. Have the quarterfinals on the first Saturday, the semifinals on the second Saturday, and a best-of-three championship series on the third weekend. All of the games would be held at campus sites or home rinks. Alternate East and West accordingly depending on which teams are involved in the finals. Very much like the system of the past few years, which I think has worked quite well. The fans at RIT were great, and I’d love to see Norwich host in the future. 

It’s a little more complicated for the men. One of the reasons is because first the NCAA needs to do something about the Division II teams. It’s an absolute travesty that the D-II teams (on the women’s side as well) have been left in limbo. They’ve been playing against the teams that now make up D-III hockey for decades, and I can’t fathom why the NCAA hasn’t made an exception to allow everyone to play together. I understand bylaws about play-ups and play-downs, but it still doesn’t add up. These teams don’t offer athletic scholarships. They play by all the rules. They should be grandfathered in.

Remember, ice hockey is a niche sport. There are around 350 NCAA D-I men’s basketball teams; over 1,000 in all divisions. There are over 650 NCAA football teams and almost 1,000 NCAA softball teams. Do you know how many ice hockey teams there are? 

227! 

227 total, across both genders and all divisions. It’s a niche sport, and it needs to be treated as such. It’s actually one of the NCAA’s smallest team sports. We forget that sometimes because it’s huge in our minds but that’s just the reality of the situation. The NCAA needs to be more flexible. This is college athletics, not politics or economics or industry, and it’s too bad that the “powers that be” have lost sight of that on so many occasions. 

Getting to the point of this discussion, bringing the D-II teams in would mean that the men’s tournament would be expanded to 12 teams. That’s where the fun starts. 

East vs. West in the championship every year! 

Based on the regional participation numbers, four western teams and eight eastern teams would make the tournament each season. Play it over three weeks, same as the women. Western teams play Western semifinals at the higher seed on the first Saturday. Eastern teams play a first round game at the higher seed on the first Wednesday, then the Eastern semifinals at the higher seed on the first Saturday. The second Saturday would be the regional finals at the higher seed. Those two games would leave an Eastern champ and a Western champ to battle it out for the title, which would take place in a best-of-three series at the home rink of one of the teams. The championship series would alternate between the East and West every year. If it’s held at St. Norbert or Norwich and you can pack in a few thousand fans, awesome. If it’s held at Hobart and everyone’s standing out in the cold, that’s great, too. This is about the sport, not the money. But guess what? I just saved the NCAA some dollars because only one team would be flying out-of-region a season. That fact alone would make up any lost ticket sales they might be worried about. 

As a visual, it would look like this (#’s indicate highest remaining seed):

First Wednesday

E8 @ E1
E7 @ E2
E6 @ E3
E5 @ E4

First Saturday

E4 @ E1
E3 @ E2
W4 @ W1
W3 @ W2

Second Saturday

E2 @ E1
W2 @ W1

Third weekend: E1 @ W1 Best-of-three (alternating E/W every year)
 

Now, some of you may think I’m a little over the top. Maybe even a bit crazy. But remember all of the players and coaches and fans I was talking about earlier? Remember the conversations they’re all having – the conversation we’re having – about ways to improve the game and help grow the sport? That’s all I’m trying to do. I’m trying to be reasonable. I’m trying to figure out a way to help our game stay relevant in this ever-hastening world we live in. I’m just trying to throw out some ideas. 

I hope you’ll do the same. The more people talking about these situations and trying to figure out solutions, the better it will be. Talk to your school’s AD. Talk to your coach.  

Help everyone move forward.

~

Peter Langella played at Trinity College and Norwich University and has also coached at Williams.  He is now a writer and librarian in central Vermont.

No contests today.
No contests today.
No contests today.