With Wednesday’s announcement, the 2015 Western Regional sites pose two different futures

Justin K. Aller

While the Frozen Four locations have stolen the headlines, there is an underlying issue with Fargo, North Dakota and South Bend, Indiana hosting the West and Midwest Regions, respectively.

Yesterday the NCAA and Men's Ice Hockey Committee announced hosts for the 2015-18 editions of the Frozen Four with Boston (2015), Tampa Bay (2016), Chicago (2017) and St. Paul (2018) getting the nods.

The more intriguing announcement Wednesday is that out west both NCAA Hockey Tournament regional sites in 2015 are in new and different locations. Under the current tournament structure, hosts Fargo and South Bend pose two distinct futures.

The four Frozen Four locations, chosen from a pool of ten finalists, perfectly represent the landscape of recent hosts. With maybe the exception of Tampa getting a second Frozen Four before other cities - causing the 2012-2016 editions to all be east of Ohio - the NCAA got the big ones right. There are plenty of arguments to be made for the cities that bid and didn't receive yet the Frozen Four is in a good place.

Two (Boston, St. Paul) are traditional college hockey locales that should always be in the mix. One (Tampa) is on its way to becoming an old standby in a non-traditional market with a second hosting gig in four years. The fourth (Chicago) is much like this year's Frozen Four host Philadelphia: an unknown in a growing college hockey market.

At this point the Frozen Four has become an event regardless of location.

More importantly, it's a good one based on the number of cities which previously hosted recently bidding. College hockey at times just wants to be loved in the sports world. Little things are celebrated. Having so many recent first-time hosts, many in NHL cities, wanting to bring back the Frozen Four to their city does that and more.

It's much better than the earlier era of one and done hosts, smaller cities or even some regional sites.

That last point has been one of contention for several years. Although Frozen Four attendance consistently nears or exceeds NHL building sellouts, regional sites often have less energy than Eeyore. Many neutral regional sites depend on a single team for attendance or worse, high price points.

Last year was the worst case scenario for the two western region sites. Both were within 150 miles of one another, small cities for flights and failed to feature host teams on Easter weekend. Michigan missed the tournament for the first time in over two decades while Western Michigan also watched from home. Toledo, site of the Midwest Region, had Miami and Notre Dame (both within 200 miles) as the top two seeds yet the top two seeds each played St. Cloud State in front of less than 3,000 people.

Despite featuring two of the largest college hockey fanbases in Minnesota and North Dakota, who played one another in a regional final in front of 10,000 fans the year prior, both ended seasons in front of empty seats at the "West" Regional in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

It's a bad sign for neutral regional sites when teams with two of the largest attendance markers are playing the biggest games in front of 2,000 fans.

Even worse is that has become the norm. In an age of parity, one team is essentially being counted on to bring all the fans. When it doesn't happen, as in Grand Rapids and Toledo last year or Green Bay two seasons ago, empty seats prevail. Few fans will take a flight for a hockey regional.

Fewer in the area will buy expensive tickets to watch college hockey.

The attendance issue isn't as bad for the two eastern regional sites. Teams are more compact and driving distances are cut down where several AHL buildings have rotated in an out hosting over the years. Either Manchester, New Hampshire or Worcester, Massachusetts (both within 60 miles of Boston) has hosted a college hockey regional every year since 2001. This streak continues until at least 2016 with Worcester hosting in 2014 & 2016 and Manchester hosting in 2015.

Out west there is no escaping from neutral sites. It's awkward. While New England has Worcester and Manchester (and Bridgeport and Providence and enough rinks to cut down on college hockey-heavy Western New York getting a shot), the Upper Midwest has Minneapolis and St. Paul. Both of which have large 18,000 seat arena buildings and border one another.

There really aren't alternatives. There's a reason the hockey-mad area now hosts 3 conference championships. Other large neutral site buildings don't exist.

(Okay, technically there is also the Resch Center in Green Bay - a nearly 3 hour drive from Madison and host Northern Michigan - Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, and Bradley Center in Milwaukee, but the point remains. College hockey exists in the areas where AHL teams would be in New England.)

The mid-tier buildings within a few hours of the Twin Cities are all college hockey buildings. When it comes to Minnesota, only Rochester is a large metro area without a D1 hockey team.

Michigan, the third traditional big area of college hockey, is a mixture of "M" brothers Minnesota and Massachusetts. The AHL does exist with Grand Rapids and nearby Cleveland, but not to the extent around Detroit like Boston has in New England.

That's one reason why the 2015 regional sites of Fargo (Scheels Arena) and South Bend (Compton Family Ice Arena) are intriguing. Both buildings are on the small side, seating just over the 5,000 seats bare minimum for a bid.

In theory, it can be a great change. Smaller buildings mean better postseason atmosphere which has been lacking. In Fargo's case, being within 90 minutes of host North Dakota and driving distance for a half-dozen schools could make the 2015 West Regional a tough ticket. Even 2000 fans in South Bend, the first on-campus site since 2009, looks and sounds better than 2000 in a nearly 11,000 seat arena in Grand Rapids.

5,000 fans in Fargo are definitely better than the same number at Scottrade Center in St. Louis.

And thus is the issue out west in the college hockey landscape. It's time to acknowledge this hasn't worked in the way going out to new areas have for championship rounds. With the exception of the Xcel Energy Center (and honestly even that building isn't the best for regional atmosphere), no neutral building can hold a crowd. Many are in the vein of 2010 host Fort Wayne; a city that likes hockey yet is without a nearby college team. Honestly, the regular season Hockey City Classic outdoor attempt in Chicago worked better.

The big traditional cities aren't capable of being permanent hosts. St. Paul can't host a regional every year, even if it feels like it, and both Denver and Detroit, which didn't make a bid for a Frozen Four at Joe Louis Arena, doesn't seem to have much interest.

If Grand Forks Herald beat writer Brad Schlossman is correct, no one does.

Maybe arenas and bidders are finally getting wise to the problem, but at the end of the day holding a regional in an AHL building has been a losing proposition over the last few seasons.

Unlike the Frozen Four, featuring multiple repeat bidders, NCAA Hockey regional locations are scraping the bottom of the barrel. Two of the next three years feature the same pair of western regional hosts in successful St. Paul and unknown Cincinnati. The third features the only bids for 2015.

Smaller arenas in the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes have advantages despite in this case being out of necessity. In fact, it's probably for the best if the tournament keeps its current format. Even if the Olympic ice sheets are taken out of the equation, there are plenty of smaller, on-campus buildings in the area too. Why can't Mankato and Duluth be added to an Upper Midwest rotation that includes Fargo, St. Paul and even Madison? Why shouldn't Compton and Yost host alongside Grand Rapids?

It's not a perfect solution. There are flaws. Still, a small arena and going back to both on-campus and neutral sites near college hockey fans could be a good compromise out West after 2016 where travel and the college hockey landscape is different than out East.

Or maybe a look at where the next step should go permanently.

--

Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation and College Hockey News. You can also follow him on Twitter --

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