Friday, July 8, 2011

"Super League" Formation is Imminent But "Forgotten 10" Have Options

Brad Schlossman of the Grand Forks Herald reportedly confirmed via multiple sources on Thursday the much-rumored formation of a new alliance between select members of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association and Central Collegiate Hockey Association beginning with the 2013-2014 season.

The announcement, expected to come as early as Wednesday, confirms that the WCHA as we know it will indeed not survive the exodus of the University’s of Minnesota and Wisconsin to a newly-formed Big Ten conference upon the conclusion of the 2012-2013 season. The article also rings the death knell for what would have remained of the CCHA which is losing Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State to the Big Ten.

I grew up following Minnesota and the WCHA but I’m as much a fan of college hockey itself and this recent revelation has me concerned about the sport’s overall health.

The yet-unnamed conference will feature North Dakota, Minnesota-Duluth, Denver, Colorado College, and Nebraska-Omaha of the WCHA along with the CCHA’s Miami-OH. Notre Dame and Western Michigan of the CCHA are also expected to be included.

Left swinging in the breeze by these decisions are:

Bemidji State
Northern Michigan
St. Cloud State
Lake Superior State
Minnesota State
Ferris State
Michigan Tech
Bowling Green

While competitive teams remain, there isn’t a ton of sex appeal and these institutions are among the NCAA’s more fiscally-challenged programs. Regardless of how the remaining schools choose to align in the future, there are significant challenges ahead in terms of travel expense and competition to lure the right non-conference opponents to fill their smaller buildings and generate revenue.

Between the eight teams in this new league and the six Big Ten teams, you can bet on the fact that those 14 teams will attempt to schedule each other as much as possible. This doesn’t leave many scraps for the “Forgotten Ten” to fight over which not only hurts financially but, in some cases, competitively. Even in an “up” year, if a school is unable to schedule and potentially beat “Teams Under Consideration” their PairWise ranking would be considerably affected.

In his analysis of this significant restructuring of the NCAA hockey landscape, Schlossman urged those left behind to consider a glass-half-full point of view:

"Instead of seeing this as a catastrophe, the schools left behind should be looking at the opportunity. 
No, they won’t be getting a weekend boon in attendance when traditional powers such as UND, Minnesota and Wisconsin come into their buildings annually. 
But the door is opening for these teams to annually compete for league championships and NCAA tournament berths."

Schlossman goes on to bolster his claim of “opportunity” by chronicling the post-season futility of these so-called traditional bottom-feeders. He then offers Bemidji State and R.I.T. as examples of teams which overcame weaker conference affiliations to ascend to Frozen Four berths in recent years.

If opportunity is to be the selling point for the “Forgotten 10” I will go one better on that: How about doubling that opportunity? Rather than combining forces and settling for one automatic NCAA berth, why not simply add one team to each remaining group to form two six-team conferences and secure two berths in the final 16.

With tensions reportedly already elevated between the camps and talk of an uncomfortable two years ahead, what better way for the afterthought institutions to strike back than to potentially eliminate an at-large option for those that spurned them? In addition, this would double the recruiting exposure of single berth and the additional opportunity becomes an instant recruiting tool.

The WCHA teams would be smart to court a team like Air Force to fill out its roster which makes geographic sense for both parties with Colorado-based Air Force currently residing in the Atlantic Hockey Association. It would also pit Serratore vs. Serratore with Air Force's Frank and Bemidji State's Tom squaring off four times annually. The CCHA, on the other hand, could possibly pluck Alabama-Huntsville from the independent scrap heap or attempt to lure another team from out east.

If those scenarios were to occur, competitive re-alignments Schlossman suggested could be considered but with a slightly different twist. For instance, an Alaska-Fairbanks move to the WCHA would fuel its natural rivalry with Anchorage and Michigan Tech joining the CCHA raises the stakes for meetings with fellow Michigan foes Ferris State, Lake Superior State, and Northern Michigan.

Here’s how things could look in a couple of years:

Bemidji State
Northern Michigan
St. Cloud State
Lake Superior State
Minnesota State
Ferris State
Michigan Tech
Bowling Green
Air Force Academy or ???
Alabama-Huntsville or ???

I’m using existing conference names for simplicity’s sake but it wouldn’t surprise me at all that, if they chose not to conjoin, they might decide to re-brand themselves and opt for fresh starts.

The common threads in favor of a so-called “Super League”, or “Siouxper League” as Shane Frederick of the Mankato Free Press jokingly suggested, revolve around three key components. Stories by the Duluth News-Tribune’s Kevin Pates, the Colorado Springs Gazette’s Joe Paisley, and Omaha World-Herald’s Chad Purcell all point to potential post season revenue, recruiting benefits, and television exposure which will theoretically rival what the Big Ten Network will provide its members.

As the chorus of a familiar song goes, “two out of three ain’t bad.” Where is this television exposure going to come from? Denver is the largest media market among the renegade group and the Pioneers were televised regionally a grand total of 12 times in the regular season last year. Colorado College games were telecast locally or regionally 11 times live and three times on tape delay in 2010-2011.

I found no evidence of either Notre Dame or Miami being televised last season while defending-national-champion UMD was on TV 15 times locally. But four of those games were against what will be former in-state rivals Minnesota and St. Cloud State while three others were against future non-conference opponent Wisconsin.

North Dakota was the only team I could find which at least had its entire home schedule televised with those not on Fox College Sports carried regionally on the Fighting Sioux Network.

But with the lack of major markets, the absence of the Big Ten schools, and, let’s face it, the fact that college hockey remains a niche sport, from where is the clamor to sign this league to a noteworthy television package going to emanate?

Exclusively inside the greed-driven, self-serving minds of a handful of delusional athletic directors whose regard for the sport as a whole appears to be dwindling.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Yeo's Houston Successor a Great Choice, Enjoy Him While He Lasts

Greetings from the beautiful shores of Minnesota's Leech Lake. God's country in other words. Sand is filtering  between my toes as I type this.

When the Minnesota Wild promoted  Houston Aeros  coach Mike Yeo to replace departed Wild coach Todd Richards last month the move filled one whole but created another within the organization. That situation  was rectified with today's the announcement that veteran NHL assistant John Torchetti has been hired to guide Minnesota's top farm club this season.

That Torchetti got the job somewhat caught me off guard if only because his wasn't one of the names I'd seen bandied about. The candidates most mentioned were former Columbus Blue Jackets assistant Gary Agnew, San Jose Sharks assistant Trent Yawney, and Calgary Flames assistant Ryan McGill; none of which did a whole lot for me.

Torchetti, on the other hand, is a pleasant surprise and an outstanding choice. Early on in the Wild's search for a Richards replacement, Torchetti--along with Yeo and University of Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves--was on my personal short list of favored candidates. I've already had my say in this forum about what turned out to be the runner-up candidates for the Wild job.

I believe Torchetti to be the ideal man to carry the torch of accountability that Yeo lit last season and train Minnesota's prospects to be professional in every sense of the word. I look for the Aeros to continue to be extremely competitive under Torchetti as well.

All of this, of course, leads to the one potential drawback of this choice: Torchetti's tenure may be short, as little as one season. If he has the success I think he'll have in Houston, Torchetti will be a sizzling-hot commodity in next spring's coaching carousel. Enjoy him while you can Wild/Aeros fans.

The John Torchetti File:

  • Age: 46
  • Hometown: Boston, Massachusetts
  • Most-recent Employer/Position: Atlanta Thrashers (NHL)/Associate Coach
  • Prior NHL Experience/Capacity:
    • Chicago (2007-08 to 2009-10)/Assistant
    • Los Angeles (2005-06)/Assistant
    • Florida (2002-03 to 2003-04)/Assistant
    • Tampa Bay (1999-00 to 2000-01)/Assistant
  • Playing Career:
    • 532 points (258 goals, 274 assists) in 359 minor league games over seven seasons with the Carolina Thunderbirds (ACHL, AAHL, ECHL), Virginia Lancers (ACHL), Binghamton Whalers (AHL) and Winston-Salem Thunderbirds (ECHL) from 1984-85 to 1990-91.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Havlat Secures Independence From Wild

With the sandy shoreline and vast expanse of Leech Lake’s sky-blue water providing a glorious backdrop on a hot, sunny Fourth of July at Red Wing Lodge, my thoughts, of course, are focused squarely on hockey. Much of that mindset is simply attributable to my obsession with the sport, but the odd timing has its own explanation. 

Last night my traditional Independence Day festivities with family, including a deep-fried turkey dinner and an amateur fireworks display, were disrupted when my phone was besieged with Twitter-related texts. It was a sign of something big.

As America celebrates its national independence and honors those whose sacrifices made it possible let us not forget the subject of those tweets; a certain Czech Republic native rejoicing in his own freedom on this very day.

Sunday night’s trade between the Minnesota Wild and the San Jose Sharks sending Martin Havlat to the Sharks in exchange for Dany Heatley—the second such blockbuster deal between the two teams in just over a week—finally makes right a wrong that Havlat, in my mind, feels he committed two years ago.

Havlat, who never seemed truly comfortable with his decision to sign with the Wild and whose abrasive relationship with former Wild coach Todd Richards was well documented, likely had the shackles of playoff futility removed with the change of scenery. Havlat was an enigma to me throughout his tenure in Minnesota with his maddening inconsistency and his insistence on passing the puck in clear shooting situations.

Those like me who salivated 24 months ago at the thought of an explosive pairing of Havlat and Mikko Koivu providing offensive fireworks were, sadly, treated to a dud. With neither being what you would call a pure scorer the combination, like Havlat’s with the Wild as a whole, was not a good fit.

In Heatley, the Wild gets a shooter with a scorer’s touch who may not fly down the wing with Havlat’s electrifying flair, but will use his 6’4”, 220 Lb. frame to go to the net and finish. But Heatley’s not without his flaws as his sub-par playoff performances with the Sharks (five goals and 22 points in 32 games) would indicate and, of the three times Heatley’s been traded in his career, this is the first he hasn’t forced upon his team.

On the other hand, Heatley has proven in the past he can score in the post season. With Ottawa in 2005-06 he notched 12 points (3 goals, 9 assists) in 10 games and followed that up with 22 points (7, 15) over 20 games in 2006-07. So, like Havlat, maybe a change of uniform does Heatley good and allows him to regain his post-season scoring touch.

That’s assuming, however, Minnesota makes a return to the playoffs sometime before Heatley’s contract expires three seasons from now. This move, in conjunction with the Wild’s recent acquisition of Heatley’s San Jose teammate Devin Setoguchi and prospect Charlie Coyle, is a step in that direction.