Tuesday, July 29, 2008

WCHA, Best in College Hockey?

I've been thinking about the topic of the supremacy of the WCHA in the College Hockey landscape since last season following the debacle in Denver where Randy Schmidt presumably cost Wisconsin points on Matt Ford's late disallowed goal. Obviously there was no guarantee that Wisconsin would have won or tied in OT, but they had Denver on their heels, and the WCHA officials took that chance away.

Those thoughts were revived last week when the WCHA killed a potential Camp Randall game between Wisconsin and minnesota. In the Badger Blog, Andy Baggot has more on this after talking w/ the minnesota's athletic director. More on this toward the end.

So lets take a look at why the WCHA should be considered the elite conference of NCAA Hockey, starting w/ the positives.

The obvious start to this discussion is the WCHA's dominance in NCAA Championships. Sure the CCHA and HE took the last two, but the WCHA took the 5 before that. Out of 61 NCAA Championships starting in 1948, current WCHA teams have notched 31 of those by my count, so basically half, and doesn't include the combined 7 from Michigan, Michigan State and Northern Michigan when they were part of the WCHA. North Dakota and Denver lead w/ 7, while Wisconsin has 6. Over those 61 seasons, current WCHA teams have made 86 Frozen Four appearances or roughly 35% of the spots including the all-WCHA Frozen Four in 2005. Since 2000, the WCHA has not missed the Frozen Four.

None of that even mentions the success WCHA Women's teams have had dominating College Hockey.

The WCHA features 5 traditional powerhouses: North Dakota, Denver, Colorado College, Wisconsin and minnesota. CC hasn't done much in the post season lately, but they sure are a regular season contender, so I'll throw them in. Duluth has had some good teams in the recent past, and St. Cloud may someday actually win an NCAA tourney game, but are a rising program. The depth of the WCHA is unbelievable. Last season, the WCHA had 8 legitimate teams for most of the season, until Duluth really tanked in the 2nd half. The WCHA sent a record 6 teams to the NCAA tourney. While UAA will probably never amount to much, Mankato has been moving in the right direction, and Michigan Tech has slowly been turning the program around. Night in and night out, there are no easy match ups on the schedule.

Off the top of my head, I can only name 5 other traditional powerhouses in College Hockey: Michigan, Michigan State, Boston U., Maine and Boston College. There are some other great teams out there on the rise that are of similar caliber to the better teams of the WCHA including Miami (OH), Notre Dame, New Hampshire, perhaps even Clarkson. That is 9 other teams across the country in comparison to 6 or 7 teams alone in the WCHA that have the same status. While B.C. or Miami (OH) get to play cupcakes half their schedule, Wisconsin rarely gets a night off in conference play.

Behind the 10 teams in the WCHA, are arguably a large percentage of the best players in the entire country and those who choose the NCAA route from Canada. Roughly 6 or 7 of those teams listed above outside the WCHA regularly produce a decent amount of pro talent. In the WCHA, North Dakota, Denver, Wisconsin and minnesota alone are regularly sending kids to the pros. Every spring the feeding frenzy of kids leaving early for the pros hits which conference the hardest? That's right the WCHA by far. I think this past season, every single WCHA team, including UAA, had someone leave early. Michigan, Michigan State and Boston College seem to get hit hard as well, but not most of their conference mates. Its constantly a struggle for the WCHA powerhouses to stay on top w/ the mass migration of talent to the pros, but the various coaching staff keep reloading.

In addition, the WCHA has done rather well in Hobey Baker award winners. While I don't hold much stock in the award (no Badger has ever won the award started by some rodent to the NW) it still shows that a lot of talented young men have came through the WCHA and succeeded at a high level. Approximately 25% of the Hobey finalist are WCHA kids, featuring 13 winners out of 28, just under 50%, including 6 in a row between 2002 and 2007.

The next aspect separating the WCHA from the rest of College Hockey is the quality of arenas that are featured throughout the league. Though I've haven't been to many arenas east of here, I would think the CCHA and HE have a hard time comparing to the Kohl Center, Ralph Engelstad Arena and Mariucci. I have been to Notre Dame's rink; what a dump. I know it will be getting a face lift in the near future, but they obviously aren't selling recruits on the excitement of playing there currently. Even the World Arena, Magness Arena and the National Hockey Center sound like decent enough rinks though I haven't been to any to confirm this (give me a few more seasons). I'm sure the new DECC in Duluth will be a top notch facility as well.

Lastly, I think the fans that fill those arenas each weekend make the WCHA what it is. According to this article (College Hockey vs College Baseball attendance), the WCHA has 6 of the top 10 average attendances in College Hockey w/ Wisconsin leading the way. Nebraska-Omaha really doesn't belong on that list, their arena is still not even half full on average. Wisconsin, minnesota and North Dakota fans will travel a long way to see their teams play. How many of us traveled to Dayton, OH last year for the Lefty McFadden to watch our Badgers? All I know is their beer supply was not ready for the influx of thirsty Wisconsin fans. The Final Five is always packed w/ fans from all over the WCHA, well maybe not UAA and there are way too many goofs in attendance, but a good showing overall.

All in all, those 4 reasons make the WCHA pretty hard to beat overall. Two main things are holding the WCHA back though: officials and administration.

Officiating, what can I say about the Sheppard family. Not much in the way of positive things really, which is kinda sad. That is not just for people named Sheppard though, Adams, Schmidt. I can't think of one on ice official who I really like in the WCHA, and by like I mean that I wouldn't want to see fired immediately.

There really is no need to rehash the past w/ these jokers. I can count more than one game where a blown call decided the outcome of the game last season, and one is probably too many to begin with. It goes way beyond that though. How many games got out of hand last year due to the officials losing control of the game? Joe Finley pulling Blake Wheeler out of the handshake line and all the BS that led up to that event. The fights in the DU/North Dakota series where a NoDak player threw a punch and wasn't ejected. Beyond that even to the complete inconsistency in which they call the games. You never know what you are going to get on any given night. Is it time for obsessive obstruction calls destroying the flow of the game, or perhaps is it a good night to shallow the whistle, burn a few calories and call it a night letting the game get out of hand. Probably somewhere in between or to one side or the other. I'm honestly shocked that Bill Howard is still as vital as he is watching this mess over the years from the press box.

You don't hear about these kind of problems in other conferences, at least not on a nightly basis.

On top of that, the WCHA is lucky enough to have Bruce McLeod, our fearless leader who guides the WCHA from his chair at Denver University. Bruce really doesn't do much, he created a standardized apology letter a long time ago to send out to schools like Wisconsin and St. Cloud when his officials make mistakes that could cost a team an NCAA berth or home ice in the WCHA 1st round. When the WCHA has a chance to really do something spectacular, like an outdoor game at Camp Randall, he squashes it because he is worried about the Herb Brooks Foundation screwing something up. Like Chris posted over on Western College Hockey, "if anybody is going to screw-up a WCHA game...it's going to be the WCHA." Some quotes from Baggot's article linked earlier in the article:

"Maturi said McLeod was concerned about the fact the game would count toward the MacNaughton Cup. Why would that be a problem when NHL teams are playing outdoor games that count in the league standings?

Maturi said he spoke with McLeod, whose reply was that the NHL has an 82-game schedule and the WCHA plays 28 games. In other words, there is a much smaller margin for error in the WCHA."

So if there is a small margin for error, why does Bruce continue to allow the WCHA to be officiated by the biggest bunch of clowns this side of Circus World Museum? Does he not realize that literally every fan in the WCHA thinks the zebras out there are consistently good at doing one thing and that is a horrible job officiating WCHA hockey games? Its funny that while WCHA fans have some bitter disdain toward each other (I'm pretty sure DU fans will leave a lost CC fan for dead on a lonely highway), when it comes to thinking Bruce McLeod, Greg Sheppard and the officials of the WCHA are idiots, it doesn't matter what colors you wear, we all nod our heads in agreement and raise a toast like we are all long lost friends.

One last beef I have w/ McLeod, is that he works for a WCHA institution. The WCHA is big enough now, and important enough in the landscape of NCAA Sports, that it should have its own independent league commissioner and staff. The WCHA Final Five alone should be able to pay the wages of these people. I know the Big 10 is gigantic compared to the WCHA, but for the best of the conference, its time for the league to be run by persons not directly affiliated with any WCHA school. Jim Delaney, Big 10 Commissioner, went to North Carolina and was a commissioner of smaller conferences before landing in the Big 10. A little outside opinion and perspective is never a bad thing, and the WCHA really needs that right now in the worst way, along with a whole new set of officials.

Well, let's try to sum this whole thing up. At the end of the day, I still think the teams, their collective traditions and fans that support them, out weigh the idiocy of the WCHA administration and officials, making the WCHA the elite conference in College Hockey. But every season that gap is growing smaller and smaller. How many more games are going to have to be screwed up and how many big events to promote not only the WCHA, but College Hockey, have to be squashed by the people who run this conference before things are going to change. Its hard for the top teams in the WCHA to be wholly prepared for the NCAA tourney, when the officials in other conferences are calling games consistently and well, compared to the side show Greg Sheppard allows to exist every weekend in arenas throughout the WCHA. I'm glad Wisconsin is part of the WCHA, and I'm glad that all the games they play in conference mean something, I just hope that someday that the quality of the administrative heads of the conference catch up with the bodies making it so much money and bringing it so much success.