Looking Back, Looking Forward
Issues Surrounding College Hockey, and Putting a Bow on Tampa
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
As one season ends, it's already time to look forward. The annual coaches convention is coming up in Naples. This one is sure to be filled with fireworks — more so than usual.
The biggest issue will be the commissioners' firing of Paul Kelly as Executive Director of College Hockey Inc. This enraged a certain set of coaches, particularly a group that was working closely with Kelly, a group that included George Gwozdecky, Jeff Jackson, Red Berenson, Jack Parker, Enrico Blasi, Kevin Sneddon and Ted Donato.
To summarize, most coaches believed Kelly was doing good things for college hockey in his efforts, while the commissioners had issues with insubordination, as Kelly seeked (to what extent is still unclear) a single-entity framework for college hockey. We previously chronicled the whole sordid affair.
Throughout the whole coaching fraternity there are various levels of concern. Some coaches are still very upset, while others are keeping a level head, understanding of both sides of the issue, while focusing on the more important issue of getting things done going forward.
My position remains the same as it did before — on the issues, the commissioners and college coaches should be on the same page. The commissioners, by and large, are not the ones that get in the way of progress, despite what Mr. Kelly has said. Those two groups should be working together to fight for the issues college hockey needs to solve. Some hinderances to progress include, simply, the nature of the NCAA structure itself, which will be tough to beat but can be worked with. Other hinderances have to do with parochialism, but that's a parochialism that — again, by and large — does not originate with the commissioners but with the schools themselves.
So hopefully everyone can sit in Naples and sing Kumbaya and get along. But if that doesn't happen, hopefully there can also be some leadership that will keep the conversation productive and moving towards solutions.
One quirk is that Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna, a prominent figure in the commissioner's group and the lightning rod for much of the coaches' criticism, is also president of the American Hockey Coaches Association. We'll see how that plays out.
Forgetting the personalities, there are the issues. Yes, issues. To summarize some of the more prominent ones ...
* The battle against major junior. College Hockey Inc. has helped fight this battle on multiple fronts. It includes education, which continues strongly with or without Paul Kelly. It also includes trying to work with the CHL and NHL to get legislation through that would solve some of the issues that concern coaches the most. This is the main area where coaches believed in Kelly. How to prevent top-flight talent from fleeing for Major Junior, and how to prevent Major Junior teams from poaching college players, especially mid-season, are the main areas of concern. It's unclear what can be done to prevent this. One battle involves working with the NHL to change the draft age to 19. There's no reason the commissioners and coaches, or whatever new structure is created, can't work together on this. The commissioners have no reason to be at odds with these goals.
* Face masks. The 30-year battle to remove the requirement of full shields/cages, continues against the NCAA.
* Issues Kelly mentioned as being important — TV contracts, scheduling, conference affiliation — are, again, issues that can't be resolved on a national scope without individual schools being willing to give up significant power. Won't happen.
* Regional sites. Some NCAA Regionals sell well, others don't. The committee will probably re-visit whether having four neutral site regionals is ideal for a good tournament experience. The coaches will prod the committee one way or another. But finding a consensus on this will be difficult as usual. If you want to change the regionals back to on-campus sites, people will complain about that too, just like they did before. Having two eight-team regionals might be a good option that doesn't drastically change the nature of the event, but could help attendance.
Tampa Wrap Up
Tampa was a lovely place to have a Frozen Four. Setting aside that I personally loathe the weather — the arena was great, the setting was lovely, and the organizers did a solid job.
Significant credit should also be given to Tampa for overcoming numerous obstacles. After the bid was awarded, the Lightning went through two ownership changes. In 2009, the second group canceled a college hockey tournament that Notre Dame was hosting, which raised eyebrows. Alabama-Huntsville, which was the host school for the event, lost its athletic director to a heart attack, nearly had its program eliminated, and is still on shaky ground.
The issue I have with Tampa remains the same, however, from when it was first announced eight years ago — the distance. Tampa now joins Anaheim as the only Frozen Fours not to sell out since 1997 (not counting the Ford Field event in 2010). The common denominator is distance. Those places are too far from any school that's going to be in the tournament.
Bids will start to come in this summer, and soon the committee will select locations for the 2015 and 2016 Frozen Fours, and perhaps beyond. The ideal locations consist of the following attributes:
- NHL arena
- no NBA team plays there
- at least close, relatively, to a college hockey hotbed
- the arena is downtown, walking distance to hotels and attractions
Us media types want things to be as easy for us as possible, too, but just about any NHL arena these days will be accommodating in that regard.
With that criteria in place, certain venues become obvious choices.
* St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center is about as perfect a location you can get. It's a great NHL arena with no NBA team, and in the middle of a college hockey hotbed. But it just had the Frozen Four in 2011, a nine-year gap from 2002.
* Boston is a tremendous place, other than hosting an NBA team. With all that was going on there in 2004, it caused some issues. But no reason Boston shouldn't get another bid, except that there's so many other good candidates and it's time to give others a try.
* Chicago ... has an NBA and NHL team, but a great city. The arena is not close to the real downtown, however. And Chicago has never put in a bid.
* New York ... too much going on in Madison Square Garden. Nightmare in terms of hotels. Brooklyn is an option, since it opens in the fall, but it holds only 15,000 for hockey.
* San Jose ... HOME RUN. The Shark Tank is a great arena, that part of the country is tremendous, and even though it's far from college hockey hotbeds, the locals love their hockey in San Jose and it should have no trouble selling out.
* Nashville ... If not a home run, then a solid triple. Almost right up there with San Jose for most of the same reasons. Nashville is also known to be very interested. Expect this one to happen.
* Otherwise, we're talking about going back to recent venues, like St. Louis, Washington D.C. and Denver, all of which were great.
Chris Kreider jumping from winning a national championship to making his NHL debut during the Stanley Cup playoffs that year, got everyone researching the last time that happened.
College Hockey Inc. unearthed Tony Hrkac, winning the title with North Dakota — right after winning the Hobey Baker Award, as well, by the way — in 1987, to making his debut with the St. Louis Blues. He went on to score 132 goals in 758 NHL games.
But a Twitter follower — Mike Moore — found John Byce, who played four years at Wisconsin, culminating with the 1990 national championship, followed by his NHL debut with Boston in that year's playoffs. Byce played eight games during the Bruins' run to the Stanley Cup Finals that season, and tied a record by scoring a goal 10 seconds into a Cup final game against Edmonton. Those wound up being the only NHL playoff games Byce participated in, and he played only 21 NHL regular-season games.
It's not the same, but it's hard to ever top the experience of former Bowling Green defenseman Ken Morrow. He went from winning the 1980 Olympic gold medal, straight to four consecutive Stanley Cup championships.