Saturday, June 11, 2011

Big Ten Chooses Playoff Format

Penn State is still over a year from its first NCAA hockey game and all six Big Ten hockey schools are still over two from their first conference games, but we already know how that first season will end, thanks to a recent vote of the Big Ten's hockey-playing institutions.
The Big Ten plans to utilize a two-week postseason format that begins with the four lowest seeds meeting in a best-of-three series at the home of the highest seed. The survivors advance to face the top two seeds at the home of the No. 1 seed.
Sounds pretty simple to me. I mean, how many ways are there to conduct a playoff involving six teams?

Well, at least three. That's the number of choices each member school had been given for the playoff format vote. One option was to take place entirely at a neutral site, while another involved best-of-three series at the higher seed's rink all the way through the tournament (including the semifinals and final, which separates it from the winning option and its single-elimination final four at one site). While it's unknown how each school voted, Wisconsin was very publicly in favor of the plan that nobody else liked.
UW opted for the one that had all six teams playing a single-elimination format at a neutral site, preferably the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. The model mimics the one currently used by the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.

But a college hockey source said UW was the only member to vote for that proposal.
I think the Big Ten (the other five schools, anyway) made the right call on this one. While we know that schools like Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan have well-established hockey fanbases that will travel, it remains to be seen if the other three schools will pull enough weight to fill a gargantuan arena like Chicago's United Center or St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center. College hockey already takes something of a credibility hit during the conference tournaments and the NCAA regional tournaments when half-empty arenas are the norm, so why add to that?

Your 2011 CCHA championship game, ladies and gentlemen.

The winning plan is also much easier from a logistical standpoint, as most teams will only have one weekend of travel - zero if you're the regular season champ or a third or fourth seed who gets upset in round one. The Wisconsin-is-homesick-already plan demands all teams travel for a weekend and the other losing plan takes up three weekends and involves the most travel of all.

That said, there was still a part of me pulling for the neutral site proposal. After all, Penn State's now likely going to have to try to win four games in hostile environments for the first couple tournaments. And as someone who likes to hit the road to watch my team, tickets for what's sure to be a high-demand Big Ten final four in a small venue like Michigan's Yost Ice Arena (capacity 6637) may prove cost prohibitive on the secondary market. Better start building up my Nittany Lion Club points and hope for a decent-sized allotment, I suppose.

Regardless, it's great to see yet another step in the process of joining the NCAA hockey fraternity behind us.

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