Friday, August 27, 2010

Todd Milewski, International Man of Mystery (Media Pitstop #2)

For our second interview of the summer, we got the opportunity to sit down with another titan of the college hockey media world.

Todd Milewski is the executive editor of USCHO.com. The site is, for all intents and purposes, the grandfather of college hockey websites, having started publishing in the summer of 1996. The site revolutionized the way fans view the NCAA selection process when they began releasing the PairWise Rankings, a process of simple math that mimics the way the NCAA selection committee chooses at-large teams for the tournament. Today, the rankings, published weekly during the last third of the season, are closely watched at all levels of the sport, from the casual fans to the coaches. USCHO also publishes the most widely cited weekly national Top 20 poll in the college hockey world.

Milewski, a 1999 graduate of the University of Wisconsin, has been with USCHO for quite some time, serving a number of years as the site's WCHA writer. He has also covered the Wisconsin Badgers for USCHO and the Capital Times of Madison, Wis. Last season, Milewski became the executive editor at USCHO, and also works as a multimedia editor for madison.com.

Without a Peer: So... you primarily have covered Wisconsin, we primarily cover RPI. Probably the two teams that have been hardest hit by the importance of talent lost in the Great Youth Drain of 2010. Hug?

Todd Milewski: Sure, why not.

WaP: What's it going to be like for these teams this season? I mean, it seemed like no one saw this coming.

TM: If they really didn't see it coming, it's a little tough to understand. I think Wisconsin knew it was going to be a mass exodus. Maybe RPI was a little surprised, but this is what happens these days when you've got that kind of talent, like it or not. That's another subject altogether.

WaP: Does this brave new world make the elite talents somewhat less desirable than the solid talents that'll stick around for four years?

TM: I think it changes the game, but what I've heard coaches say is that you're willing to accept the reality that comes with having a player who's good enough to go after one year - as long as you've planned for it. Look at the backlog of players Wisconsin had commit over the last few years. That was for a reason. Now, it bit them last year because they may have expected more players to go, but if you're going to be in the hunt for the elite guys, you have to have Plans A, B and C, if not more.

WaP: Don Lucia has been accused of letting some blue chip talents de-commit and head elsewhere, but if you have guys returning that you thought were going to be gone, suddenly you don't have room for everyone.

TM: Exactly. I don't know how you can fault a coach for being prepared. If it went the other way, and they were grabbing players that were clearly not ready for this level just to fill out the team because more players left than expected, that coach would get the heat, too.

WaP: Seems like it might even the playing field a touch.

TM: I think it has. All of a sudden, some schools that didn't have a chance at upper-level recruits are in the mix.

WaP: So what are we looking at in the WCHA this season? Everything we've been hearing out here has it pegged as a battle between UND and SCSU at the top and a big mess below that. Is that fair?

TM: If it's like any of the last few seasons, North Dakota will start slow, pick up steam around the return from break and go on a tear down the stretch. So I think they'll be in the mix. I think SCSU could be good. I really wonder what we're going to see from Nebraska-Omaha and Bemidji State. I get the feeling Dean Blais is going to have UNO up there somewhere - maybe not the top, but a good chance at top half. I don't think you can rule out Denver, either, even with the losses they took.

WaP: Speaking of Dean Blais... given what he accomplished at North Dakota and what he's done for USA Hockey, especially the unexpected gold medal at the World Juniors last year, is it fair to call him the Herb Brooks of our time? Is that a fair comparison?

TM: I read someone making that comparison once, and my first reaction was to dismiss it. Then you think about it a little more, and it's not too far off. I'd like to give him another year or two at UNO to see if he has magic there, but in terms of a presence among college hockey coaches, he's in that class with Brooks.

WaP: Now that the dust seems almost ready to settle - although, who knows, there could be some more sudden and unexpected defections - who are your early pre-season choices to meet in St. Paul in April?

TM: That's a good one. Way too early to pick this, but I'll take Boston College for sure. They're not on that early departures list yet, which should be big for them. Then maybe North Dakota, Miami and how about Denver. I'm not enthused about picking DU there, but I can see it happening.

WaP: Could Yale have a legit shot at making it that far, or is the ECAC just doomed to mediocrity in late March?

TM: When I was looking through teams trying to come up with a Frozen Four, they were one of those in the list. Are they going to try to play every goaltender on campus again this season? I wasn't a big fan of that, and I wonder if it held them back last year. It seems like they have enough talent up front.

WaP: Their attitude seems to be that if you can score enough goals, you usually don't have to worry about defense all that much. BC spiked that idea last year. They've got a heck of a forecheck, though.

TM: I saw them play a couple games last year at the Wisconsin tournament, and they seemed like one of those teams that could break out and be a real force, but I wonder if that's a short-term deal.

WaP: How about the NCAA's proposal to change the regional system into a home series for the top seeds? What's your take on that?

TM: I think you have to do it one way or another. If you're going to have it on campus in the first round, it has to be on campus in the second round. Otherwise, aren't you just pushing those same attendance issues onto the second round? I think the NCAA needs to figure out what its priority is - attendance or a fair bracket - and go with whatever works best. But going to campus sites seems like a step back to me.

WaP: One thought we had about it is that, if nothing else, it might build some interesting out-of-conference rivalries if a couple of teams play a particularly intense series. We try to find the good in everything... unfortunately, we were unable to find anything good about the concept of icing on the penalty kill.

TM: Yeah, that was kind of out of left field, wasn't it?

WaP: It was shocking to find that Forrest Karr actually had a background in hockey and he was still pushing it as a good idea.

TM: Forrest definitely has a strong hockey background, and I think there's one thing in the idea that has at least some merit, and it's that players should be taught how to work the puck out of trouble instead of flinging it down the ice. I think that's a valid concern, but it didn't have enough weight to change that rule so radically.

WaP: Our overriding concern was really that Paul Kelly's job is hard enough without suddenly trying to convince potentially reticent recruits to come spend a few years playing with a power play and penalty kill strategy that no one else uses anywhere.

TM: Yeah, that's the overriding concern that I think finally brought it down. I feel bad for Forrest because that was his last set of rule changes as part of the committee, and that's what he'll be remembered for.

WaP: Yeah, that's definitely true. Sticks out like a sore thumb. Are half-shields in the NCAA's future? If so, what kind of effect will it have on the game?

TM: It's not hard to find people who think it is. I'm not sure it's going to be very easy to get that through the NCAA. It opens up a pretty big liability if you go from full shields to half shields. But if those who are in favor of the change can effectively explain how it can make the game safer, it has a chance. As for the effect it would have, let's hope it would keep some of those sticks down. Seriously, it's scary out there sometimes, and that's just from watching from the press box. Imagine it down on the ice.

WaP: Last question - what is there that could possibly be done to create some semblance of peace between the CHL and the NCAA?

TM: I honestly think if there's peace to be made, it's going to have to come from the NHL. And with the way things look right now, I don't like the chances of that happening. The CHL isn't going to give up things easily, and college hockey doesn't have anything to give away, really. I just have trouble picturing what harmony between the NHL, CHL and college would look like. I'd love to see it, but it's going to be tough.

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