Friday, August 17, 2012

Olympic Sized

It's official... the ECAC tournament is making its way back to Lake Placid, where it will be held in 2014, 2015, and 2016. Will that end the long battle over its location that has raged for the last decade, practically ever since the tournament moved to Albany in 2003?

Probably not.

The move out of Atlantic City makes sense. The league saw dollar signs a few years back and made the plunge because Albany wasn't doing enough to market the tournament - and managed to only make things worse. So it was that fans began to look elsewhere once again.

Many viewed Lake Placid as a panacea for the league, a guaranteed return to greatness. Others bounced more fanciful ideas or even loathsome ones, desperate for anything else. We actually proposed a rotating schedule which would include a number of different locations (we suggested Lake Placid, Albany, Syracuse, Providence, and Bridgeport).

If you're a believer in divine providence, perhaps the move back to Lake Placid will benefit RPI. After all, the Engineers are currently on the longest active drought of missing the tournament - by a solid five years, with the next longest droughts being Quinnipiac and Clarkson, who faced off in the 2007 championship but have not been back. The last time RPI reached the ECAC semis was 2002, the final season in Lake Placid during the original run.

There's one important thing that worked about Lake Placid, besides its relatively smaller size making it easier to fill the building - the teams that played there practically always had a large fan base to help fill the joint.

1993 - Brown, Clarkson, Harvard, RPI
1994 - Brown, Clarkson, Harvard, RPI
1995 - Clarkson, Colgate, Princeton, RPI
1996 - Clarkson, Cornell, Harvard, Vermont
1997 - Clarkson, Cornell, Princeton, RPI
1998 - Clarkson, Cornell, Harvard, Princeton, Yale
1999 - Clarkson, Colgate, Princeton, RPI, St. Lawrence
2000 - Clarkson, Cornell, Colgate, RPI, St. Lawrence
2001 - Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, St. Lawrence, Vermont
2002 - Clarkson, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, RPI

There's no question that it was a tremendous run by the teams with the top traveling fan bases in the league. Early on, Harvard was still drawing fairly well, and later in the tenure, a relative local team with a halfway decent traveling fan base was there in SLU. Every single season the tournament was held in Lake Placid, it featured at least two teams that travel well, sometimes three, and in 2000 it landed four. It always had at least one local team since one or both of the North Country teams reached every season.

There was something magic about the tournament back then. Like the Frozen Four today, it was a place where you tried to go every year, and you'd see old friends and old rivals, and it had the added bonus of taking place in a building that is an absolute mecca when it comes to American hockey. I was just a kid when I started going to see the Engineers play there, but I always got chills walking into 1980 Rink. Just thinking about it gives me chills.

The league's luck changed as soon as the tournament left the Adirondacks.

2003 - Brown, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard
2004 - Clarkson, Colgate, Dartmouth, Harvard
2005 - Colgate, Cornell, Harvard, Vermont
2006 - Colgate, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard
2007 - Clarkson, Dartmouth, Quinnipiac, St. Lawrence
2008 - Colgate, Cornell, Harvard, Princeton
2009 - Cornell, Princeton, St. Lawrence, Yale
2010 - Brown, Cornell, St. Lawrence, Union
2011 - Colgate, Cornell, Dartmouth, Yale
2012 - Colgate, Cornell, Harvard, Union

These last ten tournaments simply haven't been able to cobble together any solid turnouts in part because the teams that have been going don't have as big of a following on the road. That's not the only problem - Albany and Atlantic City were poor draws as locations - but it has an impact. No RPI at all, and Cornell and Clarkson never have made it in the same season. The closest thing the league ever got was in 2010 with Cornell and a local team in Union, and that's it.

Bottom line? Well, the bottom line for us seems to be that RPI needs to start holding up its end of the bargain - Clarkson too, for that matter. When the tournament moved to Albany in 2003, the league probably had hoped to see continued visits by the Engineers - something which never panned out. As a result, the attendance and the atmosphere at the tournament slowly began to dwindle until we reached a point that the tournament itself is no longer a "destination" the way it is in the Big Three leagues today.

The ECAC isn't unique in having teams it needs to succeed in order to have a flourishing tournament. The WCHA, for instance, long has relied on Minnesota to reach the Final Five in order to ensure that the Xcel Energy Center is basically full. When the Gophers missed out in 2010 and 2011, the tournament still drew fairly well, but not as much as it usually did. The CCHA has been reliant on Michigan's participation to draw in Detroit - and Boston has never lacked a local team or a member of its "Big Four" for Hockey East's finale.

And of course, you've got Atlantic Hockey in Rochester, which is pretty self-explanatory. Fortunately, even with RIT in the AHA title game the last three years, the ECAC is still outdrawing that league - but not by much.

It has its drawbacks. One of the other reasons the league left Lake Placid was the Olympic-sized ice surface. Once again, a league with 10 teams who play on NHL-sized ice will compete for the league championship on larger ice (Dartmouth and Harvard are both slightly bigger than the NHL's 200x85, but still closer to NHL-size). It's still isolated and tough to get to or from in inclement weather. It's still not a cheap place to find a room. But for now, it's home again.

For the ECAC, the move back to Lake Placid may in part be an admission that it's not going to be easy to fill large arenas for the tournament even if the right teams are there. The 2014 tournament may draw in more casual fans than usual - the ones like me who remember the league's glory days in the 1990s when Lake Placid provided heart-stopping games before packed crowds - but unless the right teams are there once again, the novelty will fade. If that happens, even Herb Brooks Arena will start to look a little empty.

But I'll be there in 2014. Perhaps the magic is ready to return.

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