Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Big Ten Tournament Format to Change

The Big Ten tournament is dead. Long live the Big Ten tournament.

A conference official has confirmed to the Wisconsin State Journal that the original league playoff format, selected last June, will be scrapped. In its place: an entirely single-elimination bracket which follows the same general pattern as the previous plan, with the top two teams earning a bye to the semifinals, where they'll face the winners of a first round involving the other four.

That's two Big Ten tournament formats, zero Big Ten tournaments actually played if you're keeping score.

The biggest change, though, isn't the "what," it's the "where": a to-be-determined neutral site.
[Associate Big Ten Commissioner Jennifer] Heppel declined to identify the neutral sites to be targeted, but multiple sources with knowledge of the discussion Monday confirmed the Big Ten will initially look to secure a rotation of facilities between Joe Louis Arena in Detroit and the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn.
Those two arenas are currently home to the late rounds of the CCHA and WCHA tournaments but partially because of the Big Ten, that's changing. The CCHA will cease to exist after the 2012-2013 season, its members parceled off to the Big Ten, NCHC, Hockey East, and a new-look WCHA. The WCHA will still be around, but without heavy hitters Minnesota, North Dakota and Wisconsin (among others) beginning in 2013-2014, it's unlikely to have the ability to command a major venue for its championship.

In fact, the conference shakeup was cited by Heppel as the reason for the switch.
"You can make decisions seven months ago and you have conference realignments and other things that have gone on. It changed the world the college hockey is living in."
Fair enough, but it's also likely that bluster from Barry Alvarez and his gang in Madison had something to do with it. Specifically, Wisconsin was worried about scheduling conflicts involved with the campus-site tournament that may have caused them to lose their status as hosts for some state high school tournaments (Ohio State also jumped in after the fact with similar concerns). It's probably worth noting that the Badgers were the only vote against the original plan when it was adopted.

The changes aren't official until approval by the Big Ten advisory council later this month, but that's considered to be a formality.

While an ideal answer for Penn Staters probably would have involved Pittsburgh as part of a broader rotation, it's a relief to know (depending on how much faith you place in "multiple sources with knowledge of the discussion," I suppose) that St. Paul will not be the sole site of the tournament. While I've never been to the Twin Cities, I've heard nothing but positives about the area, the hockey atmosphere there and the Xcel Energy Center itself. That's not really the point. The reality is that St. Paul is convenient to precisely two of the six teams in the conference, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The third-closest school, Michigan State, faces a 10+ hour drive. For Penn State, it's close to prohibitive unless you have the money to jet-set it (I don't, congratulations on your life if you do). Atlanta, Jacksonville, FL and Memphis, TN are all closer to State College than St. Paul. Or, if you prefer Canada, Saint John, New Brunswick and Rimouski, Quebec (home of Sidney Crosby's junior team) are also more convenient.

The Gopher loyalists are already in full-on propaganda mode, insisting that the rotation will melt away once the conference observes that there's more money to be made in St. Paul than Detroit.

...however unlike Detroit (above), Minnesota does not have any Stanley Cup banners. Well, to be fair, the Cup was awarded on Minnesota's home ice once...oh right, the Penguins were the ones winning it.

I won't make a prediction as to how that all turns out other than to say that the difference, if any, won't be significant enough to abandon common sense to chase a few bucks (especially when we're talking about some of the richest athletic programs in college sports, not schools that depend on a likely tournament gate cut of a couple hundred thousand dollars for survival). Let's hope not, anyway.


  1. Ouch! It still hurts to recall the North Stars losing the '91 Cup.

  2. There is no reason they can't rotate through each B1G state. Detroit, Columbus, St. Paul, Madison and Pittsburgh are all viable. If anyone doubts how many hockey fans live in PA, go to ESPN.com sometime, vote on a hockey poll, then hover over each state on the map. Almost always PA contributes by far the most votes. Plus Pittsburgh is pretty darn close to 4 of the schools. I'd say it should get consideration.

  3. I really don't doubt that the tournament would do well in a lot of locations (my preference originally was a St. Paul, Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh rotation, which gives every school a close tournament at least once every four years). I got into a Twitter blowup today with a Minnesota guy who thinks that St. Paul will so outbadly outperform Detroit - or anywhere else - that the brass will have no choice but to get rid of the rotation (the guy I linked in this post, if you're wondering). I think that's ridiculous. If there is a difference revenue-wise, it won't be compelling enough to give one team a home tournament every year. I figured out that the last ten Minnesota games at the Final Five drew 17,855 per game while the last ten Michigan games at Joe Louis Arena for the CCHA tournament drew 14,119 per game. Toss in the added convenience for everyone else, and I'm just not seeing this huge difference that some say will be there. The guy that I argued with likes to cite a statistic stating that the WCHA Final Five record attendance is about 88,000, compared to 34,000 for the CCHA. Problem is, that number compares five games to two, since the CCHA sells one ticket per day.

    What most people don't fully realize is that this is an entirely new concept in college hockey. These are six schools with huge followings. There are no Ferris States, Bemidji States or Alaskas (either one) in this group (that's not meant as a knock on the small schools, they're a huge part of what makes college hockey great). While schools like Ohio State and Penn State (I'm not sure how since we haven't started yet) are slammed for not bringing many fans to the table, there's no doubt in my mind that playing the familiar Big Ten names and some of the all-time programs in the sport will improve "casual" turnout. Even the casual Michigan and Michigan State fans will be more likely to turn out for Minnesota, Wisconsin and Penn State than for Lake Superior State, Northern Michigan and Miami.

    As for Pennsylvania, I guess we'll just have to keep proving it. People seem to like to throw that "NOT A HOCKEY STATE!!! GAHHH!!!!" thing at us, as if Minnesota, Michigan and Massachusetts are the only people allowed to like hockey. It's ridiculous, and I have every confidence that PSU will be one of the great outposts in the sport. Once that happens (and maybe with an assist from OSU and continued success from the Penguins), I'd like to think that Pittsburgh will be considered for an occasional hosting opportunity.

  4. First of all, screw the Penguins. They stole the Cup after my beloved North Stars dropped it. Second, don't listen to us Minnesotans, we're from the state of hockey that has never won a Cup. Pennsylvania is going to be a great place to play when the rotation comes it's way.

  5. Haha I hope you're not getting the impression that I'm a Penguins fan. I most definitely am not. Hypothetically, I would have rooted for the North Stars in that series (I wasn't a full-on hockey geek until a couple of years after that, and the caption in the post was meant as a jab at other, less reasonable, people).

    I just mean that the Penguins are important in establishing that Pittsburgh is a viable hockey market. If some conspiracy of circumstances somehow pushes their support back to pre-lockout levels, there's no way anyone takes them quite as seriously. It would also help if the Robert Morris holiday showcase does well. Supposedly, PSU, OSU and Miami will be the other three teams next year, so it will be interesting to see the draw.

  6. I'm sure the B1G tournament would draw very well in St Paul if Minnesota and Wisconsin are in it (my understanding is that the B1G plans to have all six teams in the final tournament every year). Perhaps it would draw better than it would in Pittsburgh or Detroit, but if ticket sales can't be the only concern. A major point of having D1 sports to begin with is to build goodwill with alumni and people in the region, so it behooves each school to be able to provide opportunities for their own fans to see their team.

    It should also be part of both the B1G and each school to drum-up interest for college hockey in B1G Country. Interest in college hockey is probably as high as it's ever going to be in Minnesota (that is to say, it's very high) but there's a lot of room for growth in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Chicago-land. Bringing the the tournament to those areas would help build interest there.

    This is why the NCAA Frozen Four moves around. If they wanted to just guarantee maximum demand for tickets, they could just play it in Boston or St Paul every year, but instead they've moved it around, even to places like Tampa, Washington, and Anaheim. I don't know how well that's worked out because I don't think they promote it enough, but it's not a bad idea.

    I love Minnesota for many reasons, but Pennsylvania shouldn't have to defend it's "hockey state" status to anyone. We haven't produced a lot of great players, but there's no shortage of fan interest. Pittsburgh was one of the first cities to have pro hockey in the United States - way before the Twin Cities, by the way. The Flyers are very popular and the Hershey Bears are the most successful minor league franchise ever (in any sport, as far as I can tell, not just hockey). If you look at TV ratings and ticket sales, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are among the top, and not just per capita, but in absolute numbers too. PA has two NHL teams, two AHL teams, one ECHL team (used to be two. Poor Johnstown) and an OHL team. Not bad.

    What PA does not have, historically, is a lot of fans for college or high school hockey (there are a lot of reasons for that, mostly lack of facilities). But there's no shortage of interest in high school or college sports in general (much more than there is in Boston, for example) Bringing the biggest university into D1 in both men's and women's hockey is a big step to changing that, of course. Hopefully some more will join in at some point (I'm looking at you Pitt).

    With some clever marketing and outreach, plus some quality facilities, the high interest in hockey and the interest in college and high school sports can be married together to make this work very well here.

    While it's not close, MSP is reachable by car from here. I once drove from Washington DC to Minneapolis in one day. 17 hours. It was hard, but it can be done. Certainly, one way or another, I will be there to see Penn State play. It's also fairly easy to fly there from State College because you can take Delta through Detroit. That's not cheap, however.

  7. Pittsburgh has had the highest TV rating of any US based team in the NHL. And they average the MOST VIEWERS per broadcast as well.


    They have sold out every game since the city/state agreed to help build the new arena (January of 2006 or so?). I think Pittsburgh had about 3 kids drafted in the first couple rounds of the last NHL draft. The NCAA must think PA is a good hockey state -- the Frozen Four will be played here in both Pittsburgh and Philly.

    Seriously, anyone who dismisses PA as a viable hockey state is living way in the past, or they simply have their head up their behind.

  8. Those were the numbers I was referring to but I couldn't recall if Pittsburgh was #1 or just in the top 5. It seems that only the Steelers are more popular in Pittsburgh. In Eastern PA, the Flyers are probably third behind the Phillies and Eagles, but not by much.

    The grassroots of the game are growing too. When I played hockey as a little kid, Penn State had one of the only real indoor ice facilities between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and there weren't many there either. Now there are a few more and hopefully more on the way. Hockey is still not a PIAA sport. I think it might help if it were. It would also help if the girls' game was better developed.

    The Frozen Four is being played in Tampa this year and has also been in Anaheim and Washington, so that's not necessarily an indicator of anything, but I expect it to do well in both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Getting tickets is kind of a hassle, unfortunately.