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Column: Time for college hockey to abandon 'neutral ice' playoff sites

Minnesota Duluth's Caleb Herbert, top, celebrates his goal with teammate Drew Olson (8) during the second period of a NCAA Northeast Regional college hockey game against Maine in Worcester, Mass., Saturday, March 24, 2012. (News Tribune file photo)

The building was sold out.

The fans were crazy.

The atmosphere of Wednesday night’s Wild-Avalanche playoff game was quite a sight, no different from any other game in that series.

Anyone think it would have been better played in Grand Rapids, Mich.?

Didn’t think so.

It’s time for college hockey to take a serious look at the way it conducts its national tournament and consider what’s best for the sport.

The current system of having four, “neutral” regional sites featuring four teams is flawed for a number of reasons.

No. 1 on the list: Attendance hasn’t been nearly strong enough. In 2013, North Dakota and Yale played a regional final game — with an NCAA Frozen Four berth on the line — in front of fewer than 2,000 people. It was the smallest crowd to watch any North Dakota game — home or road — in seven years.

Just down the road, 2,460 watched St. Cloud State play Miami with a Frozen Four trip on the line.

Attendance has struggled so much in the West — where schools are spread out and it’s a guessing game on who will make it any particular year — that only one venue bid for the Midwest Regional in 2015.

That site was Compton Family Ice Arena in South Bend, Ind., home of Notre Dame. Although the NCAA has gone away from awarding regionals to campus sites, it had no other option than to go against its own policy and put this one on Notre Dame’s campus.

The big positive to the current setup is to have neutral-site games with no advantage to either team. But even that’s up for debate.

The regionals are continually placed in the same venues, and even if they aren’t home sites, it’s clear there are advantages to the teams that are located nearby.

Since the NCAA went to its current format in 2003, the University of Minnesota has reached the NCAA tournament nine times. The Gophers have hosted regionals in Minneapolis or St. Paul four times and they have reached the Frozen Four all four times (8-0). They’ve been sent elsewhere five times and reached the Frozen Four none of those times (2-5).

Boston College is 11-1 in Worcester, Mass., another frequent host. The Eagles have reached the Frozen Four five times in six Worcester regionals and twice in the other five that were elsewhere. The only time that Boston College has had to fly to a regional in the last 15 years, it lost by four goals in the first round.

In the last 17 years, only two national champions have had to fly to both the regionals and the Frozen Four — Yale in 2013 and Denver in 2005.

Add all of that up and it’s probably not a coincidence.

If there are going to be advantages in the NCAA tournament, why not give them to teams that earn them through their play during the five months of the regular season instead of an administration that puts in a strong bid three years earlier?

The idea of playing a best-of-three series at the home venue of the higher seed in the first round is an option that should merit considerable discussion this week at the national meetings in Naples, Fla.

One of the unique, special things about college hockey is the wonderful atmospheres at home games — especially big games. Whether it’s 10,000-plus seat buildings like Ralph Engelstad Arena, Mariucci Arena or the Kohl Center, or if it’s smaller buildings like Miami’s Goggin Ice Center or Cornell’s Lynah Rink, they can all be deafening.

Isn’t this what the sport should showcase on its national platform?

Sure there are arguments against it.

The first one will be those complaining that we’re not going see as many upsets.

But as the National Collegiate Hockey Conference playoffs showed us this year, when you get evenly matched teams together, it can happen. Three of the four higher seeds lost best-of-three series at home.

College hockey has reached that stage where No. 4 seeds beat No. 1 seeds on a regular basis (nine straight years to be exact). There’s so much depth and parity that upsets will happen.

And if they don’t, is it really a disaster if the four best teams in the nation reach the Frozen Four?

That’s essentially what happened this year and it was a wonderful, entertaining Frozen Four — one of the best in memory.

Another myth is that this would only help big, historical powerhouses host and advance. This year, the Eastern College Athletic Conference would have hosted the same number of first rounds as the tradition-rich Big Ten and NCHC teams combined.

When the NCAA awarded regionals in December, it only did it for two years, knowing that this topic would be visited at the national meetings. Those meetings are here and it’s time for the coaches to ask what’s best for the sport.

If they need any guidance, they can watch what happened in the NHL on Wednesday night.

Brad Elliott Schlossman covers college hockey for the Grand Forks Herald.

Brad Elliott Schlossman

Schlossman is in his 12th year covering college hockey for the Herald. In 2016, he was named the top beat writer in the country by the Associated Press Sports Editors. He has voted in the national college hockey poll since 2007 and has served as a member of the Hobey Baker and Patty Kazmaier Award committees.

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