Tuesday, November 24, 2015

A Rigged Game

College hockey has a remarkable ebb and flow to it, historically. Ten years ago, it seemed like nothing could ever stop the WCHA. From 2000 to 2006, the conference won the national title six times. From 1994 through 2010, there were no first-time national champions.

And now look at things. Since 2007, just one WCHA crown (and in modern terms, one Big Ten and one NCHC national championship). Since 2011, four of five national champions have been first-timers. And they're from places you wouldn't expect. Yale. Union. Providence. Your last three in a row, none of which were highly fancied at the beginning of their seasons.

Welcome to the new landscape of college hockey. It's all part and parcel of a history that created nationally recognizable programs in places like Colorado College and Clarkson and, until a couple of years ago, a highly insular structure with no national conferences to speak of.

And then along came the Big Ten.

"Men’s ice hockey is slightly more important to the Big Ten Network’s revenue stream than women’s field hockey, yet the conference was willing to blow up college hockey for a few hours of auxiliary programming," writes Patrick Reusse of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune this week. It's a perfect breakdown of why the hockey version of the Big Ten came into being, and what it did to the college hockey landscape. It was about programming for a conference television network focused on football and basketball, but needing other attractions to really make it tick. And it completely unraveled the long-standing order of things, especially out west.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the Big Ten bigfooting the rest of college hockey. It didn't.

For a small conference - the smallest member-wise in college hockey - the Big Ten outpunches its size. Its six member schools have combined to win 23 national championships, more than any other conference (17 for the NCHC, 13 for Hockey East, 8 for the WCHA, 7 for the ECAC). But that's an accounting of the past, and this is now.

In its first season, the Big Ten did earn two of the #1 seedings in the NCAA tournament. But last year, its champion - Minnesota - could only manage a #3 seed, and the Gophers were the only Big Ten entrant, unceremoniously dumped by Minnesota-Duluth in the first round. Wisconsin labored last season as one of the worst teams in the nation, and this year, the entire conference outside of Michigan and Penn State is slouching out of the gate with pretty rough records.

So where's the problem? How did big money Minnesota, with its 10,000 seat arena and regional TV contract get embarrassed on national television in 2014 by a small liberal arts school in Upstate New York that plays its home games in a tea cup?

The answer lies heavily in the difference in the way Union and many small schools have been recruiting. If you've been paying close enough attention, the recent Frozen Four appearances by Bemidji State, RIT, Ferris State, and Union should not be blowing your mind. They're instructive instead. These schools don't grab the blue-chip prospects ready for college hockey when they turn 18. Those players go to Boston University (like Jack Eichel), or Michigan (like Dylan Larkin), or Wisconsin (like Nic Kerdiles). And they don't go there very long. Eichel and Larkin left after their freshman years, Kerdiles after his sophomore year.

No, Union built a national championship on the backs of older players who developed longer in junior hockey. Guys that were more experienced as freshmen at the age of 20 or 21 than even those blue-chippers. The next first-round draft pick may not be coming to play for Quinnipiac, but they'll gladly live with bringing in an older player who's going to be around for four years - and potentially playing as seniors at the age of 24 and 25. It's a great equalizer.

And the Big Ten has decided that it isn't fair.  (If you haven't read the story yet, click the link. Adam Wodon of College Hockey News breaks it down very well.)

Their solution? Without consulting the rest of the college hockey world at the annual meeting in Naples, FL, they decided instead to unilaterally submit legislation to be voted on by the NCAA - which they can do because they're the only "all sports conference" in college hockey - that would reduce the age limit before recruits will lose eligibility from 21 to 20.

The big, bad Big Ten needs the playing field leveled against those piteous little upstarts in Canton, NY and Duluth, MN, don't you see? It's just not fair.

Now, hockey does differ from most NCAA sports in the average age of freshmen, but it differs from most NCAA sports in a lot of other ways, too. Major league draftees don't lose eligibility. The aforementioned lack of "all sports conferences." The season length is longer. And of course, the sheer number of "play-up" teams. These are all by-products of college hockey's long-term niche presence and the nature of youth and junior hockey structures.

The Big Ten's excuse for all of this is that they're simply trying to bring hockey closer to being in line with the rest of the NCAA, even though it would be completely unacceptable to require recruits to be on campus immediately after they graduate high school. And why is that? What's the rationale?

We wrote five years ago about the recruiting game and how the NHL was changing things. The NCAA is becoming an ever increasing route for players to reach the pros - more than 30% of NHL players are NCAA alums now, as opposed to just over 20% a decade ago, and far less a decade before that. There was a time that even the very best players would stay for their entire four-year college career before jumping to the NHL. Today, pro contracts can frequently be in the offing even for guys that aren't likely to get a whole lot of ice time at the highest level, to say nothing of the blue-chip prospects.

Ironically, when we wrote that, we were expecting Brandon Pirri and Jerry D'Amigo to return to Troy for their sophomore seasons - and they didn't. So schools like RPI aren't looking for the Pirris and D'Amigos anymore. They're looking for the Chase Polaceks and Nick Bailens. It's the Mat Bodies and Jesse Roots of the world that are winning national championships. It's guys that are staying in college, finishing their education, and playing for four years that are powering the best teams in the country.

Most players who are playing in juniors into their early 20s aren't going to be NHL prospects - if they were, they'd have been pushed to college already, or headed off to major junior. But these players are also far more likely to graduate one day - which is supposed to be the point first and foremost.

Now, does this proposal explode the system? Not entirely. Players are still going to be able to mature in juniors for a couple of seasons before coming to college. But it stinks for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the underhanded way the Big Ten went about doing this. They are trying to ram it through with a vote among college administrators of whom a majority doesn't care a lick about hockey (which should sound familiar if you remember the Prop 65 battle a decade ago). They're doing it over the protestations of the vast majority of college hockey coaches (who opposed the measure 49-11 in a straw poll of all 60 of them), and probably worst of all, it skews things more in the favor of the schools that already have a lot of the advantages when it comes to recruiting in the first place.

Yes, these same institutions who don't bat an eye at accepting the commitment of players not even old enough to drive - and sometimes not even old enough to be in high school - have a problem with RIT stocking their roster with 21-year-old Canadian freshmen. Hear that? That's the sound of the world's tiniest violin. Getting beat by 24 and 25 year olds? Why don't you recruit some 20 and 21 year old freshmen yourself? Seems reasonable enough. Instead of adapting, however, these schools just want to rig the game in their favor instead.

College hockey continues to change. Beyond the Big Ten, it started changing again last year when Arizona State decided to go varsity, a move which could well encourage more big money schools to do the same in parts of the country previously untouched by college hockey. It's good for the sport. But it brings with it the challenge of maintaining traditions. I always love to point out the 1996 national championship game between Michigan and Colorado College as a perfect example of what makes college hockey special - in any other sport, the Wolverines would easily crush the Tigers, but in hockey, the titan and the minnow can meet on equal terms. Perhaps the 2014 title game is an even better example - the minnow won.

But we risk losing that if legislation like this is allowed to go through, especially in the manner that the power schools are trying to accomplish it. And that would be a complete shame.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with your comments. Worse for the NCAA, it may push more 21 year-old student-athletes into the CIS, where they have five years eligibility (not three) and can play varsity hockey for their entire undergraduate degree, and even post-grad (e.g. UNB has a 5th year player in Law, one in MBA and one in Education).

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