Monday, September 26, 2011

Break Out the Sines and Cosines, It's Time for Rotation

When it comes to the ECAC Tournament, there are two elements that seem to be the topic of consternation on a yearly basis. The first is the now 10-season long inclusion of all 12 teams in the tournament. The second is the tournament location.

There's honestly nothing that's ever going to be done about the first of those elements. That's something we're stuck with going forward. The second one tends to be the catalyst for some very heated arguments from time to time.

First, a little history. The ECAC held the final weekend of its tournament in Boston for its first 30 years, from 1962 to 1992. At first, it made sense to have the final weekend there - it's a college hockey hotbed, and was home to four of the league's teams to boot for much of that time. After the Hockey East split, however, it became obvious in short order that the ECAC tournament was playing second fiddle to Hockey East's tournament. It only made sense for the league to leave Boston behind despite the history and the hotbed.

From 1993 to 2002, the tournament was held in Lake Placid, a time period which is remembered fondly by many long-time ECAC observers, including myself. This was something of a golden age for the tournament, especially given the relative success of the league's hot draws during that time period - RPI, Clarkson, Cornell, and St. Lawrence all made repeated trips to the home of the Miracle on Ice during this time period and although 1980 Rink was not as big as Boston Garden had been, it was generally full every year and created a bit of a destination experience for the tournament.

The 2002-03 season was where everything changed. Lake Placid was increasingly seen as being too remote and too small to properly house the tournament, and along with the addition of the 11th and 12th place teams, the tournament moved to Albany. Things turned sour right away. Whereas every single season in Lake Placid featured at least two of the league's three biggest draws - Clarkson (also a local team in LP), Cornell, or RPI - in nine seasons in Albany, Clarkson and Cornell never made it there in the same season, and RPI, the biggest local draw, never made it at all. Combine that with lackluster advertising for the weekend from the league, the Times Union Center, and the city of Albany, and attendance has been dwindling.

Last year, the league began what was supposed to be a three-year experiment in Atlantic City, but fans were underwhelmed, and attendance was even worse so far removed from the league's geographic footprint. Now, rumor has it that the league is in talks to move the tournament to the Dunkin' Donuts Center in Providence as early as this season.

One basic truth has to be established here. When certain teams aren't successful, the four-team final round will not be successful no matter where it's held. Harvard, Dartmouth, and Brown simply don't draw fans to the tournament. RPI's recent resurgence, unfortunately, hasn't resulted in a semifinal appearance (yet). Clarkson is now floundering almost as badly as RPI was in the middle of the last decade. St. Lawrence is having struggles of their own.

So with that in mind, where's the best spot for the ECAC? It's certainly not Atlantic City, a destination chosen with guaranteed dollars for the league, not fan happiness foremost in mind. Boston's out of bounds, since there's no use in returning to second fiddle. In all honesty, the options seem to be, in alphabetical order, Albany, Bridgeport, Lake Placid, Manchester, Providence, and Syracuse.

Which do we support? Well, for obvious personal reasons, we like Albany. But as a long-term location, Albany underwhelmed due in large part to the venue and the city seemingly dismissing the weekend in terms of promotion. They haven't earned the right to host the tournament every year moving forward, that's pretty clear.

So... how about the option of "all of the above?"

We're talking about a rotation - or at least, a tournament that has a different location every year. This is a bit of a foreign concept for college hockey, as it's really only been tried in the minor conferences. The CHA, during its existence, tended to have a different neutral venue every year, but that league was so far outside of the norm with smaller programs in Minnesota, New York, Colorado, and Alabama at various times, that there was no place that really made sensein terms of a draw.

But could it work for the ECAC?

The rotation would eliminate the regional bias by moving it to areas near(ish) to all of the six travel partners over the course of six seasons - Albany (RPI/Union), Bridgeport (Quinnipiac/Princeton), Lake Placid (Clarkson/SLU), Manchester (Dartmouth/Harvard), and Providence (Brown/Yale) are each at least somewhat within the league's footprint, and each have solid links to college hockey, either in the annals of history or in the recent past. Why not mix it up from year to year?

It would liven up the travel for those who attend the tournament every season. Even during the golden age in Lake Placid, there was only so much one could do year in and year out in a small town in the Adirondacks. By using a rotation, it'll give fans the opportunity to do and see new things each year. Rather than try to force the host city as a destination, make the tournament itself the destination, and see how it changes the league's outlook moving forward.

Each of these locations, despite what snarky know-it-alls will tell you in argument, have unique attractions for those willing to seek them out. Do they have the glitz of a big time city like Boston or New York? No. But then again, the ECAC as it currently exists would get swallowed up in those cities. Boston, as we've said, would feature the league competing with a far more popular league for attention. New York would be be practically impossible, trying to sandwich the tournament in between the Rangers, the Islanders, the Devils, the Nets, the Knicks, the Big East basketball tournament, and, oh yeah, the circus. That wouldn't end well.

The argument frequently features people who have a very close attachment to one specific location - there are those who yearn for the nostalgia of the Lake Placid years. There are those who merely want it to be close to home. Each realistic location has strengths, and each has weaknesses. A rotation of sites would allow the league to take advantage of each site's strengths, while allowing it to mitigate, to some extent, their weaknesses.

The WCHA has St. Paul. Hockey East has Boston. The CCHA has Detroit. Those tournaments are wildly successful in part because they each have a monopoly (or in Hockey East's case, at least a cornered market) in those major cities. It'll be interesting to see how it all shakes out between the WCHA, the Big Ten, and the NCHC, but regardless, the ECAC doesn't have the luxury of a major city that makes sense or high demand to create a yearly destination.

For a league that is no longer among the top draws in college hockey but isn't quite among the dredges, rotating tournament sites just makes sense.

1 comment:

  1. When RPI makes it back, I'd love Newark and tolerate Bridgeport. I'm from the Lake Placid era, so I think it's perfect, but I'm not going to drive six hours to go.

    Newark would be like Albany though...very little to around the arena. Haven't been to Bridgeport so I don't know.

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