Commentary: Keep Neutral-Site Regionals
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
At least once per year, usually more, I get myself into a debate about the location of NCAA Regional games. There are many people who clamor for a return to campus sites for these games, as opposed to the neutral sites now mandated by the NCAA.
I've written about this topic before, but I was inspired to do so again after reading the latest polemic from Brad Schlossman of the Grand Forks Herald. Taking a cue from North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol, he joins him as an outspoken proponent of moving the Regionals back to campus sites.
Unfortunately, I disagree with Brad, and with the data he uses to support his argument. I say unfortunately, because Brad happens to be one of the best college hockey writers in the business, and I'm a big fan of his work, and usually agree with him on many other topics. So, when I disagree here, I do so with great respect.
The proponents of campus sites suggest that the atmospheres are better. Regionals, no doubt, often draw low crowds, particularly Western ones, where teams are spread out and it's hard to find good venues. These proponents argue that a great atmosphere is where NCAA games should be played, comparing it to the great atmosphere for NHL playoff games.
The problem with this argument is two-fold:
One, there are very few places where this is the case. It's certainly true that any game played in Grand Forks or Mariucci Arena will draw 10,000-plus rabid fans. But with these games often coinciding with Spring Break on many campuses (or even if not) you're liable to find the same phenomenon you see in conference tournament playoff games on-campus, namely, far fewer people attending than for regular-season games. This happens everywhere for a variety of reasons, not just the Spring Break factor.
Two, the fairness issue. Most coaches still believe, and I agree, that NCAA games should be played at neutral sites. When the NCAA moved away from campus sites to neutral sites in the early 1990s, it was considered progress. After all, that is what the men's basketball tournament does. Any time a basketball team is too close to home, there's a national outcry that it's unfair. Very few sports can support neutral sites and get away with it, but when you can, it's considered a good thing. Hockey clearly can support it sometimes and not support it other times, but changing it back is going backwards.
The Frozen Four is at a neutral site, so why does the same principle not apply? Clearly, the Frozen Four has no issues with attendance compared to the Regionals, but the philosophical underpinning of playing the games at neutral locations still apply. The philosophical underpinning — fairness — should apply to the entire NCAA tournament, if possible. And in hockey, it's possible. The tradeoff — perhaps better crowds — is not worth it.
On the fairness issue, there is another major point: There are many coaches — and, again, I agree — who believe the schedules are unfairly tilted in favor of large schools, who schedule many more home games than the smaller schools. This leads to better records and to higher seeds in the NCAAs. That is different than the NHL where the schedules are balanced. If you then give these schools home NCAA games, it's a double whammy to the road team, which already had a harder time during the course of the season's non-conference games.
As one coach put it last year, "Eight to 12 teams want their cake and eat it too. When we get in, we want a chance."
Yale's 2013 run is the poster child for this. Brad complains that those regional games were played in front of 2,000 people, and that's true. But Yale would've otherwise had to play on the road at North Dakota and Minnesota to reach the Frozen Four. Instead, at a neutral site, it won both games and eventually won the national championship. Would Yale have rather played in front of a lot of hostile people for "atmosphere" or actually won the games?
Now, take this year. Union would've hosted a Regional at its small arena. Would this have been good? It might have been rabid in there, but what about Vermont, Providence and Quinnipiac fans? Where would they go? There was 6,655 at the Bridgeport Regional final. Is it progress to limit that to 2,300?
Brad goes on to bring up some statistics that I find dubious. He is trying to point out the folly of teams that host regionals getting to play close to home. He suggests that the teams that host should at least earn it through their record.
There are many holes in this argument.
First off, no one is suggesting that the "host team plays at home" concept is ideal. Ideally, this would not be necessary. But it's sort of a compromise between the two camps, a way to boost attendance in those host locations and reward a school for stepping up and being willing to host a Regional. Hopefully, the sport continues to progress where this isn't necessary.
Brad cites Minnesota's record of 8-0 in St. Paul since 2003, and 2-5 at other venues. He is saying that, if Minnesota is going to get home games, and get a clear advantage, it should at least earn it.
Again, this is true that hosting gives Minnesota an advantage, but it only points out, to me, the deeper necessity to get away from "home games." The goal should be to prevent Minnesota from hosting and playing there when it doesn't earn it, as opposed to wiping out the entire neutral-site system.
In addition, these numbers don't state whether Minnesota was the higher seed when playing in St. Paul. It's only a problem if Minnesota is winning games in St. Paul as a 4 seed, which isn't really the case.
More dubiously, Brad points out that Boston College is 11-1 in Worcester since 2003, and lost by four goals in the only Regional it had to fly to in the last 15 years.
First, he incorrectly states that Boston College was a host in Worcester. Boston College was not a host in Worcester, ever, so the concern that teams aren't earning "home ice" is incorrect in this case. Boston College gets placed in Worcester, in fact, precisely because it earns "close to home" status when placing teams in Regionals by virtue of being a high seed.
Second, it's a myth that Boston College gets a great advantage from playing in Worcester. BC's crowds at Regionals are not overwhelming, even when playing so close to Boston. Anyone who has ever attended these Regionals understands this.
No, Boston College wins in Worcester because Boston College would win anywhere. Boston College wins because it's a great team, period. Citing a 4-goal loss at a Western Regional one year is hardly contrary proof.
Brad also leaves out all of the other Eastern schools that play near their homes. New Hampshire has received no real advantage from hosting NCAA games in Manchester. Boston University, a school that actually has been a host in Worcester, is only 5-4 all-time in NCAA games there.
Those two examples contradict the idea that teams are benefitting unfairly from playing at venues where it hosts, and supports the idea that BC wins a lot simply because it's really good.
The bottom line is, only a half dozen schools, at best, really would see rabid home ice atmospheres and benefit from it, and it's not worth upending the system for those rare occasions.
There are some ways to perhaps make the Regionals better. There has been talk of having two eight-team Regionals. That could work. I'd be in favor of trying it out.
They also might want to try fixing the too-high ticket prices at the venues.
But keep the NCAAs a neutral-site tournament.