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State of the Conference Tournaments Year Four

big ten tournament Nathan Wells

We’re now four years in to the Grand Experiment of college hockey’s western realignment, and while the shake-up continues to solidify a little more every year, things are still very much in flux when it comes to the conferences trying to figure out what to do with their conference tournaments.

This was an important year because the WCHA was the first conference to take the plunge and play their conference tournament entirely at home venues—something I’ve advocated for for a long time. It was an unqualified success. The atmosphere for the championship game was terrific, and I would suspect it was much, much better for the league’s coffers than playing at the XCel Center.

One of the arguments against using home venues for the playoffs as opposed to neutral sites is that playoff games that aren’t included in regular season ticket packages tend to not draw as well as regular season games. Last Saturday helped prove something I have maintained for a while though, which is that hosting multi-week playoffs allows momentum and excitement to build in a community by keeping fans involved. That’s how you build interest in the sport, rather than trying to milk as much as possible out of an increasingly shrinking number of diehard fans willing to travel to games. It was great for the WCHA, and likely something they have gone to from the beginning of realigned conference.

The success of the WCHA’s move is good news for the Big Ten, which will switch to a similar format next season after a fourth straight disaster of a conference tournament. There’s not much to be said since we already knew this was a failure, other than whatever gravesite tapdancing you wish to do because of the hubris of the whole thing.

The future of the NCHC’s Frozen Faceoff is very interesting. They announced crowds of 8168 on Friday, and 10,297 on Saturday, and both of those numbers are at least believable. That’s down from just over 21,000 combined last year, though that’s mostly trading St. Cloud State’s fanbase last year for Western Michigan’s fan that attended this year.

Four years in, the Frozen Faceoff pretty much is what it is at this point. Once again, I thought the league did an absolutely first-class job of hosting. The league puts a lot of effort into their event, and does a great job of taking feedback and making changes to improve it every year to try to give it the feel of the old Final Five.

It’s a fun tournament, but ultimately, the one ingredient missing from recapturing that old Final Five magic is the teams. North Dakota fans make up the heavy majority of the crowd, similar to Minnesota did at the old Final Five, but the difference is that at the old Final Five, three or four other fanbases combined to make up the difference and even things out. That never really happens at the Frozen Faceoff because half of the teams in the league don’t send anyone to the tournament(which isn’t to blame them, that’s an insanely expensive trip). There’s still the dream scenario out there of North Dakota, St. Cloud, Minnesota Duluth, and Omaha all playing in the tournament, which might be pretty cool, but that’s not something you can count on every year.

I’d love to see an event run like that in a league that makes a little more sense geographically though, because I think it could be terrific.

The question now is what does the future hold for the event. There is one more year left on the league’s deal with the Target Center. The league could extend their deal with the Target Center. The XCel Energy Center across town is now available. Or they could follow the lead of the WCHA and Big Ten.

The X is a great hockey arena, but moving to a bigger venue when the NCHC is only half-filling the Target Center doesn’t seem like much of a solution. It’s a sad reality, but college hockey has put itself in a position where it just isn’t a big enough deal to justify playing at a building like that.

Target Center has been an enthusiastic and accommodating host for the past four years. It’s still not a terrific hockey venue. Even with putting the ice in extremely early this year, there were still some complaints about the ice(and who knows how this year’s debacle with the ice forcing the cancellation of a Timberwolves game will play into things in the future). The building is still kind of a maze to get around. But they are making improvements. The giant scoreboard this year was a nice addition, and there are more renovations coming. It’s not perfect, but it’s certainly a good enough venue.

Home venues would also likely work great for the league, and I have to wonder if the WCHA’s success this year doesn’t push them in that direction. I talked about this a bit last year, but the NCHC claimed about a 50/50 split in revenue between the first round of their playoffs and the conference tournament. Revenues were down for the conference tournament this year, but also likely down for the first round too with Western Michigan hosting instead of St. Cloud State. I have no clue which side was hurt more proportionally.

Now that there’s evidence that rounds two and three of home playoff series likely draw a little better than the first round, maybe that tips the scale a little more towards home playoffs. But there’s still a lot of pros and cons on both sides, and none strong enough to really tilt things in one sides favor, at least in my estimation.

Overall, the most important point though, and one that I don’t think can be debated, is that there is a lot of money being left on the table because of the illogical geography of the three conferences involved, and too much dependence on the right teams being successful for any format to be sustainable.