Michigan, UND Hockey Fans Squeeze Into Undersized Tournament Venue

Four of college hockey’s biggest fanbases will be represented in Maryland Heights, Mo.’s 3,000-seat Centene Community Ice Center Friday as the NCAA men’s hockey tournament gets underway amid a new round of debate over the organization’s host selection process.

No. 4-seed Michigan State takes on Western Michigan at 5 p.m. ET, before Michigan and North Dakota face off at 8:30 p.m. ET. All four schools average more than 3,000 attendees at their own games, with UND leading the country at 11,612 per contest.

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Publicly available tickets sold out quickly earlier this week, though the get-in price for seats hovered around a reasonable $60 on StubHub Friday morning.

The other regional venues—Providence, R.I.’s Amica Mutual Pavilion; Sioux Falls, S.D.’s Denny Sanford Premier Center; and Springfield, Mass.’s MassMutual Center—each comfortably sit more than twice as many fans as the Centene Center, which serves as the St. Louis Blues’ practice facility and the home ice for Lindenwood University.

So why is the Centene Center hosting this region of the NCAA men’s hockey tournament?

The current NCAA Tournament format dates back to 2003, with the lowest average draw on record (at least before 2020) coming in Grand Rapids, Mich., which averaged 2,724 fans in 2014. More recently, there have been calls to put early round games in teams’ home arenas, in the name of making attendance easier for local fans and rewarding higher seeds in an event already rife with randomness.

This year, for instance, No. 3-seed Denver was sent to play Massachusetts in Springfield. The Pioneers still prevailed, 2-1, on Thursday and will now face Cornell. That placement was the result of “bracketing principles” that limited the selection committee’s options as it kept regional hosts at home and prevented intra-conference matchups early in the tournament.

As for the decision to host the West region in the shadow of St. Louis’ Hollywood Casino, the NCAA made a statement earlier this week.

“The NCAA Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Committee evaluated all bids for the 2024 regional sites in the winter of 2020,” a spokesperson said. “However, only a few venues in the western part of the country submitted bids for the four-year cycle. Given the limited number of sites in the geographical area, the committee chose the best options to enhance the experience of the student-athletes and coaches.”

Normally, NCAA hockey bylaws require host buildings to have a capacity of at least 5,000, though an exception was made this time. Next year, the Frozen Four will be played in St. Louis’ 18,096-seat Enterprise Center, which could have also factored into the decision-making process.

The Grand Forks Herald recently reported that the NCAA’s regional system will be “up for debate” when coaches gather next month in Naples, Fla.

Whichever team emerges from Missouri will next head to St. Paul for the Frozen Four at the Xcel Energy Center (capacity, 17,954). But for now, Spartan, Bronco, Wolverine and Fighting Hawk backers will have to learn to get cozy.

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