On the Beanpot, North Star College Cup and stepping out of regional gridlock

Matt Dewkett

There are several similarities when it comes to regional tournaments throughout the country. That's also why it makes sense to show the biggest one nationally.

Minnesota State forward Johnny McInnis, the lone Boston native among five Minnesota Division 1 hockey teams, gave his thoughts a couple weeks back on the inaugural North Star College Cup. In doing so, he committed a hockey sin in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

McInnis had the audacity to say something one day could better than the Beanpot.

"It was a great experience," McInnis said about the NSCC, an in-season college hockey tournament featuring four Minnesota schools at the Xcel Energy Center. "I'm from Boston so we have the Beanpot. I think it's something that could be better - I'm probably going to get some heat for that back home - it's definitely, coming out here, I see the competitiveness between the schools."

In a way McInnis is right, but sadly, it's something most Minnesotans will just have to take his word. Regional gridlock continues in college hockey more than 30 years after East and West came together in "Miracle" with experiences and broadcasts rarely leaving our own localized tribes.

Each area of the college hockey landscape has something for teams to compete. Michigan has the decades-old Great Lakes Invitational in Detroit, Alaska has the Governor's Cup and Colorado has the Gold Pan series between Denver and CC in addition to Minnesota's new tournament. Each is important to those areas.

Yet the Beanpot, battled annually between Boston College, Boston University, Harvard and Northeastern, is given a type of pomp and circumstance which just doesn't exist elsewhere. (The closest from a historical comparison might be the Minnesota boy's state high school tournament every March. But it's also high school.)

For four fervent fan bases, February's first two Mondays are, as it seems from the outside, almost all that matters. Boston's bragging rights get settled in front of a sold-out TD Garden. History dictates.

It just does. Questioning any of the tournament's importance is not like ordering a Coke at a restaurant and being asked if Pepsi is okay. You will be shamed for even not understanding or thinking Coke was the better soft drink alternative.

At least that what's it feels like being someone not from Boston. Year-in, year-out being told that a tournament, which even has its own Hall of Fame for reasons that make no sense halfway across the country, was "something you can't understand" all the while "it's more than a game, it's a culture" was added.

"All parties involved are exciting," said Eagles head coach Jerry York at the Beanpot pre-tournament media luncheon. "I think it's something very special for these particular four teams.

"We cherish the opportunity that we're involved with this type of tournament."

They really do. Beanpot Mondays are the regional culture and events upon in which college hockey has been built. Get outside Route 128 or one of the four fanbases, however, and it's another Monday. The games aren't even on television outside the Northeast unless you have a great cable or satellite package that picks up NESN.

During a time when college hockey continues to grow, as national television partners broadcast more and more games, the Beanpot maintains its regional roots.

As impressive as that is, it also makes the Massachusetts tourney that much harder to understand.

It wasn't until this season when the North Star College Cup took place where Minnesota finally got to try. Part of that has to do with the Beanpot games not being on television. Part of it has to do with seeing what beating teams in which years of hatred are there for a trophy means to players.

Put them together and similarities arise between MN and MA. Yes, Rome wasn't built in a day. Matching that half-century of build up and nostalgia doesn't happen in year one. That said, while St. Cloud State's Nic Dowd, an Alabama native, said after the North Star College Cup that it gets put your blood to dislike the other Minnesota teams, the same is true, only with the Beanpot, for Boston College's Patrick Brown.

"You win it once as a freshman and you come here and learn the culture," Brown said Monday night after the Eagles won its fifth straight Beanpot 4-1. "It's 'we want to win trophies.' That's what everyone wants to do and you really can't get enough of it."

But that doesn't get through the regional gridlock. Neither does what beating the Gophers means to other Minnesota schools or even the symbolic brother vs. brother battle with the Brodzinskis with that tournament also on a regional sports network. (These are all examples from this year's North Star.)

In this case, the Bostonian McInnis is right when it comes locally to Minnesota's in-season tournament.

The stories, the importance of the Beanpot to the players stay in Boston, or St. Paul with the NSCC or Detroit with the GLI. What is meaningful for the people in TD Garden - a story like Northeastern's search for the first Beanpot title since 1988 getting dashed by a player who originally committed to the Huskies - mean more to them. That's the case anyways. The stories would end up, instead, being lost in the clutter nationally if it weren't for the rabid whispers.

This can be both a blessing and a curse, but it also leads to the present situation where no one gets a chance to understand. In fact more and more regions in the United States are getting the chance when it comes to hockey As the world expands and getting away from the sprawl means anyone can get hockey games on their phone, that is slowly making its way in the bright puck lights of college.

Interesting enough, on the surface, the Beanpot should be what college hockey is trying to do nationally.

Even if the rest of us don't "understand," and get reminded about that, we know about the Beanpot despite not being able to view on television elsewhere. It's on a date that sticks out from the traditional Friday-Saturday series. When Patrick Brown scores a highlight-reel goal on Monday, it doesn't get buried. There is  no mix of Dean Blais getting kicked out of a game and Bryan Rust scoring twice in the final minute (both of which happened Saturday) to contend.

Anywhere else a Monday game standing out would be grounds for "ruining." History dictates otherwise.

Still, having a Thursday-Friday series with the first game on national TV makes sense for some big match-ups. That has been the case in the Big Ten this year with TV dictating odd times for rivalries (or Michigan-Penn State).

The non-traditional start is not perfect because the trade-off of having all college hockey eyes on TV for one game can give way to attendance when fans are used to making trips or plans for Friday night. Wisconsin's Kohl Center only had 9,000 in a building that seats 15K for a Thursday night game against Minnesota before selling out Friday's traditional start. The Gophers also had a few empty seats during a 4 p.m. start when it hosted the Badgers back in November.

The Beanpot doesn't have that problem, having sold out for generations on a non-traditional date. Being able to do something only the NCAA Tournament has at times pulled off throughout the country without national television is great for New England, but not for college hockey in 2014. It's an event people can, and should, watch throughout the nationally if only to understand first-hand. It shouldn't take having to build an entirely new tournament to make a (fair or not) comparison when the alternative is easily seeing the passion on television.

Maybe there will be similarities to other regional tournaments. Maybe the rest of us will understand why the four fan bases unleash the pomp and circumstance and go nuts for the Beanpot. Maybe not. That's always an option for other national sports.

It's good to have some regional pride. Outside of a gold medal, 2014 college hockey shouldn't hearken so closely back to the days of bringing Boston University and Minnesota together for a different Cold War.

So much has changed in the world since then.

--

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

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