Why it's time to move NCAA men's hockey regionals to home sites

Jan. 16—GRAND FORKS — The 2022 NCAA men's hockey tournament should have been the last straw for neutral-site regionals.

It started with a game between Minnesota State and Harvard in Albany, N.Y. The crowd was sparse enough to count by hand — in a venue that seats more than 10,000. Pandemic-restricted crowds were larger.

Up the road, Minnesota played Western Michigan to go to the NCAA Frozen Four in Worcester, Mass. That game drew the smallest crowd to watch the Gophers all season.

In most sports, the big games have packed stadiums and the best atmospheres. In college hockey, they often have the worst.

This issue has been going on for more than a decade now with regional flops spanning from St. Paul to Cincinnati to South Bend to Toledo to Grand Rapids and more.

Yet every year when the topic comes up at the American Hockey Coaches Association meetings in Naples, Fla., a segment of coaches and administrators argue that this is acceptable — necessary, even — and excuse what's been happening.

You'll hear:

"We just need to pick better sites."

"It wasn't bad in (insert year here), so it's OK."

However, even the "good" years aren't that good. Attendance has been bleak so often that if a regional fills 70 percent of the seats and has any semblance of an atmosphere, it's celebrated.

There's also a big lesson college hockey never learns: The next regional disaster is right around the corner. It always is.

I began writing columns on this topic a decade ago. Neutral-site regional proponents always pointed to average years as proof that it was working and improving. But the disasters always returned.

Ten years later, they haven't fixed it. It's time to try something new.

The NCAA has locked in neutral-site regionals through 2026. It has opened a portal for bidding for 2027 and 2028. The bidding portal closes next month, and if the NCAA Men's Ice Hockey Committee doesn't make a change this spring, they'll award them in the early fall and we'll be stuck with neutral sites for two more years.

The solution isn't complicated.

It's bringing regionals to the home buildings of the higher seed.

Here's how it would work: The 16-team field would be selected. The top eight would host on opening weekend — No. 1 vs. No. 16, No. 2 vs. No. 15, No. 3 vs. No. 14 and so on.

The next weekend, the quarterfinals would be played with the higher seeds hosting again.

Then, it would go to a pre-determined NCAA Frozen Four site, the lone part of the men's hockey tournament that has been successful.

Some have proposed the No. 1 seed hosting a four-team regional. But that doesn't solve the problem. If the No. 1 seed gets upset in the first round, you're going to have a regional final in an empty building again. Imagine UConn playing Arizona State in St. Cloud.

The idea of playing home-site regionals is not a radical one.

Everyone else in college sports, outside of men's basketball, does it.

Women's hockey, women's basketball, volleyball, baseball, softball, lacrosse, soccer and FCS football all start their tournaments at home sites and eventually move to a pre-determined championship site.

Even FBS football will start its College Football Playoff at home sites when it expands to a 12-team tournament next season.

So, what's keeping men's hockey from doing the same?

According to conversations with a dozen college hockey leaders, there are athletic directors and coaches who believe it's unlikely their teams will ever be in the top eight of the Pairwise Rankings and have the ability to host.

So, they'd rather play in an empty arena in the middle of a college hockey desert than in a packed house on campus. They believe that gives their teams the best chance to advance.

It's not good for the players. It's bad for the fans. It's terrible for television.

It's a short-sighted approach and one that doesn't even add up.

In the 10 years since college hockey's realignment in 2013-14, the three conferences with the lowest winning percentage are Atlantic Hockey, the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (formerly the Western Collegiate Hockey Association) and the ECAC.

Those leagues have combined for five NCAA Frozen Four teams in that span.

Four of those Frozen Four teams would have been top-four seeds and hosting throughout (Quinnipiac 2023 and 2016, Union 2014 and MSU-Mankato 2022). The fifth was Minnesota State-Mankato 2021, which would have hosted first round but not the quarterfinals.

Atlantic Hockey hasn't had a Frozen Four team in that span.

Neutral-site regionals aren't helping underdogs advance — nor should that be what's important in building a tournament.

The debate should be centered on what's best for the players, fans and the sport as a whole. The answer seems clear.

The No. 1 reason to change to home sites is to create the best game experience.

College hockey is played all season in front of passionate home crowds and unique environments. Raucous student sections and bands give college hockey a style of atmosphere not even the NHL, American Hockey League or any junior league can replicate.

But we almost never see college hockey at it's true peak.

Once the games become the most important, they're pulled out of college hockey towns. The student sections are eliminated. They're too often played in front of half-empty buildings, some of which don't even regularly host hockey. The atmospheres are stale. They do not have a big-game feel.

"Obviously, the strength of college sports is the atmospheres," said ESPN's John Buccigross, a supporter of home-site regionals. "In some cases, it's what separates it from pro sports. Sometimes, the intensity is the same, but college fans tend to be younger, which is obviously more boisterous, engaged and energetic."

Home regionals would guarantee electric environments no matter where they're played.

In the last decade, 28 different teams would have hosted an NCAA tournament game — nearly half of men's college hockey. Quinnipiac, Denver and Minnesota would have hosted the most (six). UND, Minnesota State, St. Cloud State and Michigan would have hosted five.

Among the other teams who would have had playoff games on campus are Ferris State, Cornell, Clarkson, Union, UMass, Boston College, Penn State, UMass Lowell and so on. It's a wide range of programs with different profiles, but all would have generated incredible atmospheres.

That Minnesota-Western Michigan game in 2022 to go to the Frozen Four, by the way, would have been played at Lawson Ice Arena in Kalamazoo — one of college hockey's liveliest venues.

"Our goal should be a 100 percent sellout in all venues," UND athletic director Bill Chaves said. "At the end of the day, I worry that the environment we see during the regular season is not replicated during regionals."

Denver coach David Carle is a strong proponent of home regionals. He says it's not about what setup helps his team the most.

"Us and Boston College have won more than anybody in the current model," Carle said. "It's not coming from a stance that this would be better for Denver. The current model works for us. We've proven that. It's about what's best for everybody and how our game takes the next step.

"I'm a young coach. I plan on doing this for a long time. I want to see our game grow. I think we need to think outside the box and have some uncomfortable conversations and think of ideas of how to actually make the game better and not just stick with the status quo."

Home-site regional detractors will argue playing NCAA games at home sites is too big of an advantage.

But the home-site set up has much more fairness than the current neutral-site setup, where teams can become pseudo-hosts by placing financial bids.

Last season, had UND scored an overtime goal against St. Cloud State at the NCHC Frozen Faceoff — and beaten Colorado College the next night — a No. 1-seeded team (likely Quinnipiac) would have come to Fargo to play against North Dakota. Would that have been fair? Not at all.

Similar situations have happened.

Miami's two best teams of the last 15 years earned No. 1 seeds in 2011 and 2015.

In 2011, the RedHawks got sent to Manchester, N.H., to play New Hampshire first round. In 2015, Miami got sent to Providence to play Providence first round. The RedHawks lost both.

In 2019, Minnesota State earned a No. 1 seed, but got sent to Providence to play Providence in the first round. The Mavericks lost.

There is little fairness in that.

In the home regional setup, teams would have to earn their spots, and it would be dictated by the Pairwise Rankings, an objective formula known to all before the season begins.

"The Pairwise is a very well calculated mathematical equation," Carle said. "It punishes you for losing at home, rewards you for winning on the road, rewards you for going on the road, rewards you for playing a hard schedule. . . we have this great system in front of us that we all know and trust. Let's let that decide, so we're all on the same playing ground, rather than DU or North Dakota buying a regional."

The home-site regionals would also create additional interest throughout the regular season.

Not only would there be a spotlight on who is in the top 16 of the Pairwise Rankings, but there would also be a chase for the top eight (first-round hosts), and top four (guaranteed quarterfinal hosts).

"Now, fans are coming to regular-season games knowing, 'If we win tonight, we're going to move into the top eight and we're going to get an NCAA game,'" Carle said. "We love watching playoff races. We love watching home-ice races. Why would we shortchange ourselves of that drama and that intensity that can be brought from that and the excitement it adds to the fans?"

The regional setup isn't great for fans.

It requires travel on short notice. For fans in the West, it often means an airplane flight.

Home regionals would bring the biggest games to campuses of teams who are having great seasons and whose fans will be eager to see them play at home again. It also would allow students to attend.

"I think our fans deserve to see playoff hockey," Carle said. "That's where you build your next generation of fans.

"I think the net benefit is many markets will grow and expand if their fans are at a game for the NCAA tournament and have a great time. They're going to be much more likely to buy season tickets. That's more revenue. That's more fans. That's more eyeballs. That's more advertisements. That's what I mean by growing the game."

The other way to hook fans on the sport is through television.

Earlier this month, ESPN recently signed a new eight-year deal to carry broadcasting rights to NCAA tournaments, including men's hockey, through the 2031-32 season.

The NCAA tournament also is broadcast nationally in Canada.

What do casual fans who tune into the national tournament think of college hockey when they see empty seats? What do young players in Canada, who are being recruited by both college hockey and Canadian major junior programs, think when that's their exposure to the NCAA game?

By 2027, it's possible Canadian major junior players will be eligible to play college hockey and the NCAA vs. CHL wars will become even more heated. Does the NCAA want to go into those battles showcasing dull atmospheres on TV in Canada?

"How are we making college hockey relevant to the largest number of people?," NCHC commissioner Heather Weems asked. "Where do we go to get the most impact? Where do we get the most buzz?"

The NCAA men's hockey regionals could be compelling TV. But under the current setup, they're not.

"I was at Eastern Washington for 11 years," Chaves said. "Before that, I was at three hockey schools. Hockey wasn't at the forefront in Eastern Washington, but I would watch during the NCAAs. If you see an arena that's not packed, or it doesn't have the environment you know college hockey has, I think that's a problem."

Buccigross is confident ESPN could handle home-site regionals. It does for every other sport.

"We can get a truck anywhere we need to get one to," Buccigross said. "I've done games at UConn, Princeton. . . we can do games at these places."

There are only five NCAA tournaments that are profitable. Division-I men's hockey is one of them.

But home site regionals would not hurt the bottom line. It would make the tournament even more profitable, according to one former Committee member.

Former Penn State associate athletic director Michael Cross, who was on the Committee from September 2019 to January 2023, studied the projected financials of different models of home regionals. He brought the data to the group.

In the model where the top eight host a first round and the top four host the quarterfinals, he estimated the revenue would grow between $1.2 million and $2.1 million per year.

"There's no question in my mind that playing the regionals at home in campus venues would be significantly beneficial to the bottom line," said Cross, now the commissioner of the Southern Conference. "The revenue left on the table is real."

Cross said his study was not a Committee initiative. He did it on his own.

"This was put forward on the genuine belief of what should happen with the sport," he said.

The Division-I Men's Ice Hockey Committee ultimately needs at least four of its six members to agree on the change.

But the Committee often acts on the wishes of the majority of the coaches.

So, the push would likely have to happen with coaches, athletic directors and conference commissioners in Naples this April.

If the Division-I Men's Ice Hockey Committee approves the change, it would then move to another NCAA committee that handles championships.

Some believe there is a chance for change now.

"Early on, the coaches did not want it," one athletic director told the Herald. "There have been some challenges at some regionals and that's created a situation where some coaches are now thinking it would be better to play in front of a full house and an enthusiastic crowd, even if it's for the other team. I think there's been a more positive movement in that direction than there was originally."

One reason many believe this time will be different is because four of the six college hockey conferences are now playing their league playoffs entirely at home sites.

It is believed there is hesitation from many in Atlantic Hockey and the CCHA to go to home regionals for the NCAA tournament. But both of those leagues are now deciding who gets to go to the NCAA tournament based on home regionals, so arguments that home playoff games are unfair don't add up.

The leagues that are using home sites for conference tournaments have seen terrific results.

Minnesota's 3M Arena at Mariucci has been packed for the last two Big Ten title games. Mankato and Houghton, Mich., have seen the same when they've hosted in the WCHA or CCHA title games.

Experiencing that might lend them to believe the NCAA tournament should follow suit.

Let's hope so. It's time to try something different.