The Big Ten introduced legislation that would prevent 21-year-old freshmen from having full eligibility, according to a report from College Hockey News. People are upset about the proposed rule, as they absolutely should be. Much of the anger is being directed at the coaches of the Big Ten, again, as it absolutely should be. But on a deeper level, this is just latest example of a much deeper institutional problem that has plagued college hockey and held the sport back for many years now.
NCAA hockey coaches are largely allowed to govern and police themselves when it comes to making rules for the sport. There is technically a rules committee above them, but they mostly rubber stamp whatever the coaching body suggests. After all, who would know and understand the sport better than the coaches? In theory it makes sense. In practice, it is terrible for the sport..
The problem is that no coach is willing to think beyond his next contract extension when it comes to these types of decisions. That means every decision is based on that short-term goal regardless of, or even at the expense of, what should be long-term goals for the game. This instance is significant because the six coaches in the Big Ten were able to bypass the wishes of the other coaches in college hockey through a loophole, but the bigger principle is the same.
Take last summer's discussion of potentially changing the format/venues for the NCAA tournament. On one hand, the current system creates an awful fan experience that has turned many off from the sport by taking away the most meaningful games from fans. On the other hand, Providence's Nate Leaman, whose team was a major disappointment last season--picked to win Hockey East and yet didn't finish the regular season in the top 25% of the country--is in line for a huge contract extension thanks to the random bullshit of the current tournament format. Guess which one the coaches overwhelmingly chose?
There are problems with college hockey right now. Major ones. Many blame conference realignment, but that mostly serves as a scapegoat for people's growing anathema toward the sport. You can see it every weekend in the swaths of empty seats in buildings all around the country. You can see it when television networks--the Big Ten Network most notably--slowly decrease their television coverage due to abysmal ratings, trying to back away from their mistake slow enough that nobody notices. This is what attendance looked like at the Big Ten Tournament last year. The WCHA Final Five didn't look much better, nor did the NCHC's Frozen Face-Off in the third period of a one-goal semifinal game between Denver and Miami . We endlessly debate how to fix the last five minutes of a 1-1 game, refusing to recognize that anyone not indentured by habit tuned out long before that.
This proposed legislation doesn't fix that. It doesn't even begin to acknowledge it. It's just another short-sighted plan that has zero benefit except to help a select few guys stack the deck in their favor to help keep their job. Any discussion of it is a complete waste of time at the expense of fixing the real issues of why fans just aren't engaged with the sport in the same way they once were.
It's tough to even blame the coaches. The pressures they face are real. The only reason Don Lucia will have a job next season is because his old boss was a drunk. Four other Big Ten coaches are on the hot seat to varying degrees. It's completely understandable why they'd want to do anything and everything to hold on to their positions.
But that is precisely why they shouldn't be in charge of these types of decisions. Somebody out there needs to look out for the long-term interests of college hockey, because right now, they do not look pretty and nobody seems to care.