Monday, August 5, 2013

Seeding Tournaments: 3RC vs. Pegula Challenge

Construction is underway at HARBORcenter, adjacent to the Sabres' First Niagara Center

Last Friday, Buffalo sports blog Two in the Box (which happens to be written by ACHA Director of Public Relations Chris Ostrander) presented an idea for an in-season tournament called the Pegula Challenge (a working title). It's an interesting concept, using the Terry Pegula/Sabres-funded HARBORcenter as a tool to heighten the city's profile in college hockey through a four-team showcase played at the neighboring First Niagara Center. And, as you may have guessed, Penn State is one of 2ITB's proposed guests thanks to the Pegula connection, along with Buffalo-area schools Canisius and Niagara. Canisius, of course, will call HARBORcenter home beginning next season.

So what of the Three Rivers Classic, the Pittsburgh-based holiday tournament that has hosted PSU in each of the Nittany Lions' first two varsity seasons? It needs to be pointed out that with Penn State having 14 out-of-conference slots available until more Big Ten schools jump to NCAA Division I, there is room for both tournaments on the schedule. Boston College, just to cite one example, will play in both the Three Rivers Classic and the Beanpot this season, navigating much less breathing room to do so.

But hypothetically, because it's August, and because I don't write enough pure opinion pieces, what if both are played over the holidays and it has to be one or the other? Which do you choose?


Consol Energy Center and First Niagara Center are both, obviously, NHL facilities. Both are less than 20 years old and therefore meet some arbitrary standard of niceness (with a slight edge there going to the CEC, which is 14 years newer and possibly the best arena in the NHL right now). What swings this category for the Pegula Challenge, though, is HARBORcenter. While it wouldn't be the site of the Pegula Challenge games, I have to think that the intelligent people running the show up there would be smart enough to integrate the rink/restaurant/hotel/retail colossus as much as possible. Fan events like a skate with the players could be a part of things, or maybe even a parallel tournament involving youth teams from Buffalo (and one from PA, of course). The only limit is the imagination.

Advantage: Pegula Challenge

2013 Atlantic Hockey tournament champ Canisius is a program on the rise

Opponent Lineup

In this brave new world (for Penn State) of the PairWise Rankings, there's not really a ton of room for scheduling charity. If you want an NCAA Tournament at-large bid, you need to rack up quality wins, period. One of my bigger concerns with the Pegula Challenge, then, is that two of PSU's three possible opponents would be locked-in Atlantic Hockey teams, with the third possibly a Big Ten that the Nittany Lions would be playing anyway. Beyond its attractiveness to a school like Penn State, I'm skeptical of the Pegula Challenge's ability to grab a major PWR (and ticket) mover for that fourth team, even assuming that PSU is established as a force by the time things get going. That's not intended to be a slam on Canisius and Niagara, as both are programs with sincere aspirations and both may be on the way after making the NCAA Tournament last year. But Robert Morris also deserves to be in that category, and until those aspirations are fulfilled by one or more of the AHA teams, I'm going to side with the proven flexibility that has already landed national powers Miami and Boston College.

As a second facet to this category, the Three Rivers Classic seems to better lend itself to becoming a long-standing tradition. Last year's inaugural field was sort of an Ohio vs. Pennsylvania Beanpot, played in a major city fairly close to the border. While 2013's group has departed from that idea with BC's inclusion, there's definite potential for a connection lasting past however long Pegula owns the Sabres.

Advantage: Three Rivers Classic

10,797 tickets were sold for the 2012 Three Rivers Classic's PSU-OSU consolation game

Fan Support/Revenue

The Three Rivers Classic is a known quantity. Using a one ticket per day setup, last season's inaugural event moved 11,663 seats on day one (PSU-Robert Morris and Ohio State-Miami) followed by 10,797 on day two (PSU-OSU, RMU-MU). Root Sports Pittsburgh also gave the consolation and championship games two separate tape-delayed airings. It should be said, however, that Bowling Green and Boston College are unlikely to offer the same drawing power to 2013's edition as the RedHawks and Buckeyes did last season, and that another pair of five-figure crowds would be a pleasant surprise.

As 2ITB mentions, Buffalo previously hosted the Punch Imlach College Hockey Showcase from 1997-2003. It took on a few different formats, but generally involved both Niagara and Canisius along with a pair of "outside" teams. Occasionally, it pulled respectable crowds, as with November 11, 2000's 6,671 for a Niagara-Western Michigan, Mercyhurst-Canisius doubleheader. Most of the time though, it did not. Two years later, the Punch Imlach landed megateams North Dakota and Michigan, but only 2,981 wanted to see how the Griffs and Purps fared against the measuring sticks. A pairing of the two local schools drew 4,314 on January 11, 2002, but things bottomed out in the showcase's final year with a paltry 1,911 for Canisius and UMass-Lowell.

Buffalo is certainly an outstanding hockey market well beyond the size of the city (as is Pittsburgh), but it does have something to prove in terms of college hockey crowds, even when local schools and name programs are involved.

Advantage: Three Rivers Classic


As a Rust Belt native, I'm not going to say a bad word about either Buffalo or Pittsburgh. They're both my kind of place, inhabited by my kind of people. Both are underrated nationally, generally dismissed as "the hilly place with yinzers, the Steelers, the Penguins and french fry-topped sandwiches" or "the place with the wings, the snow and underachieving sports teams by Niagara Falls." But I'm not copping out with "push," that's not my style.

I'm not sure that there's a significant program exposure/recruiting edge to be gained from one site versus the other. As mentioned, both markets churn out players at impressive rates but both are already well within PSU's footprint (I suppose it's reasonable to toss a few bonus points Buffalo's way due to their being out of state though).

In terms of the fan experience, I think HARBORcenter gives Buffalo an advantage within the arena's immediate area, but the rub there is that the one "hockey-themed, upscale restaurant and bar" or even the one Marriott hotel are unlikely to be enough to accommodate everyone. That forces people out into the larger city and, in Pittsburgh's case, one of America's still-undiscovered gems. The Strip, Oakland, South Side and Station Square? All worthy destinations during the day before the games, or postgame as well. And don't forget to go up Mt. Washington and snap one of these:

Yes, this is actually my photo from when I did just that last season

Advantage: Three Rivers Classic


Terry and Kim Pegula donated $102 million to Penn State hockey to finance an arena and allow the school to jump to NCAA Division I. While Pittsburgh has more than its fair share of PSU fans and boosters, nobody from the city has donated $102 million to Penn State hockey.

Advantage: Pegula Challenge

Final Tally

The incumbent Three Rivers Classic hangs on by a 3-2 count. But then again, that last category probably counts for double or triple if push comes to shove, no?

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