Expanding the NCAA Hockey Tournament
Culde Contributor Schuby
As I sat down this weekend to watch the only college basketball games I have watched all year, I caught myself wondering about how a larger men’s hockey tournament would work. In case you missed it, the selection show for men’s hockey was this weekend. Sixteen teams qualified for the tournament that begins this weekend. Besides the text conversation I had with my fellow Dad’s, there was very little coverage about this monumental event. You could argue that the lack of coverage was because college hockey is a niche sport that the common person cares very little about, but you would be wrong. Nobody cares about college basketball until those three weeks in March where everybody gets to give in to their gambling addiction. And most people stop caring after the first week once their bracket has been completely blown to hell. The reason we watch the basketball tournament is not so that we can see blue blood programs going head to head. We watch so we can see David take down goliath. Is a 16-team tournament, there is no David. Hockey is missing an opportunity to enhance its brand, which is solved by expanding its post-season tournament.
When I initially had this thought, I was picturing a 64-team bracket just as basketball has. The first issue with this is that hockey only has 60 teams, so in order to have a bracket of that size everybody would qualify for the post season. The 1 seeds would all get an automatic bye, and the rest of the tournament would play out just as the basketball tournament. The big issue with this format is that the competition would be very watered down, making the first round a waste of time. Nobody needs to watch 5-31-3 Niagara taking on Mass-Lowell. The next available option is to have a 32-team tournament. This allows half the field to qualify for the postseason and adds an additional round to the current format. The problem with this set up is organizing a tournament where it takes five games to win the Natty. Do spread it out over 3 weeks with the championship game standing by itself in the final week? Or do you keep the two week format and have teams play three games that first weekend? One game does not seem like enough, and three seems like too many. 32 teams also allows a team like 9-20-7 Miami to make the field. I’m sorry, but if you can’t scratch up 10 wins on the season you don’t deserve to play in the postseason. That is why the best solution is to increase the field to 24.
Under a 24-team tournament, the top 8 seeds get a bye. This rewards schools for having a solid regular season, keeping the regular season relevant. The other 16 qualifying schools face-off in a single elimination game at the higher seeds rink. Again, this places importance on the regular season and increases revenue as people are more likely to attend a game when it is being played in their own barn. Single elimination makes every game matter and gives Cinderella a fighting chance. Conference tournament champions still receive automatic bids.
Below is an image of what the tournament would look like. Reminder, the opening round is a 3-game series played at the higher seeds rink. The sweet 16 would be played at neutral sights, similar to how the tourney is currently operated. Teams are placed in the bracket according to their current Pairwise ranking. Conference champs are denoted with a star. Some changes were made in order to prevent schools from the same conference matching up in the first round and to get all conference champions into the field.
In looking at my freshly made bracket, some matchups are really intriguing in the first round series. Michigan Tech vs Penn State in a matchup of conference champions (WCHA/Big Ten) could be one that definitely goes three games. St. Lawrence of the ECAC gets in the tourney and gets to show what they are made of against blue blood North Dakota. Two additional NCHC squads qualify in St. Cloud and Nebraska-Omaha, which gives that conference a chance to prove they are superior to any other. BC vs Wisconsin is also a great matchup of two teams that were left out of the tournament this year. Increasing the field creates the possibility of more chaos, which is what March is all about.
The beauty of the basketball tournament is that it gives those Cinderella schools a chance at the spotlight. Most of their stories end after the first weekend, but for that one week those kids and schools capture America’s attention. We need more madness in college hockey so people will finally appreciate it’s beauty. It is time to invite Cinderella to the hockey tournament to see how well that glass skate fits.