My plan is to spend as little of my summertime as possible in front of this thing. But on my way out the door, I thought I'd take one last look at some of the issues with WCHA expansion. The WCHA will be holding it's annual meetings in Florida beginning April 27th. WCHA Commish Bruce McLeod made a fairly extensive set of comments earlier in the week to the Bemidji Pioneer Press when he was touring their facilities.
I think he's said some pretty nuanced things which are certainly worth analyzing. I'll start with the least interesting part, when asked "Does the WCHA have a strong application from BSU?" McLeod said, "Yes, we do,” and then added,
"Quistgaard emphasized and showed us in black and white of the commitment that the institution has to the program, both men and women, and I’m sure that message will be loud and clear to all of our constituents in their presentation on the 27th.”Far out; pretty much just garden variety political nice-speak . I don't think anyone reasonably familiar with College Hockey would doubt whether Bemidji "fits" with the other programs in the WCHA. They're as good a "fit" as anyone already in the league.
McLeod makes the challenge clear with his observations about scheduling saying,
“I have put together an 11-team 28-game schedule for three years out. You can put it together. … But there’s no model to it. I have yet to figure out a way – I’ve been in NHL offices, every place I can to try to find some model that works with some fairness, some balance to it and I have yet to come up with it. It’s not fair to the institutions that are in the league right now, that they have no idea what their opponents' schedule is going to look like from year to year. It has no recognition of traditional opponents we have in the league.”The important stuff here are the last two sentences. Conventional wisdom says that when Minnesota, Wisconsin or UND come to your barn then you're likely to sell more seats. More than one WCHA school actually increases their ticket prices when these programs come to town to play. An extra team in the league means that Minnesota, Wisconsin and UND ain't coming to any rink as often. McLeod is recognizing that schools like DU, CC, SCSU and Mankato don't want to lose that "prime" date. They will lose money. McLeod is publicly recognizing the fairness issue in scheduling here. He knows that cluster-fucked unbalanced schedules that use faux-rival set-ups aren't a good solution.
So the next thing that Bruce talks about is a 12 team league. And here's where he gets all subtle. He said,
“Obviously the answer to an 11-team league is a 12-team league. We are doing a lot of homework in that area. … There are some interests. I can’t mention them, but there are definitively possibilities for us but we have to come up with the right circumstances, the right way to approach, etc. etc.”I think nobody should underestimate what this means. I think McLeod is clearly saying that a solution which results in 12 teams is the preference. Bruce goes on to intimate that pushing back any decision to a later time is probably an option that everyone will agree to while they figure it out. It's a bit of an assumption but perhaps the "approach" of dropping the league schedule from 28 games is in play? With a 12 team league you can drop the number of league games down to 22 instead of 20 and leave it up to the individual schools to maintain their rivalries as they see fit using the extra non-conference games. I think there are measurable positives for pretty much every WCHA program to favor reducing the schedule when considering expansion.
Don't be surprised if it all turns out pretty much like that. It just as easily might not, they'll have to lure another school into joining or perhaps some other entirely different creative solution will pop up. Folks down in Fargo/Moorhead think they have a solution. They've apparently got alumni with big bucks just waiting in the wings to fund a hockey program at Minnesota State-Moorhead. The catch is that they want in the WCHA. These rich alumni aren't interested enough to start a hockey program and join Bemidji in the CHA. But if they can opportunistically swoop in and get in because the WCHA is trying to do it's part for college hockey then they step forward? They're even waving Dean Blais' name around as their coach. He's currently coaching a USHL team across the river so they must have got him onboard.
I'd hope the WCHA would find Alabama-Huntsville a more suitable team than Minnesota State-Moorhead. UAH has a long standing firm committment to the college game. They have as good a fanbase as Bemidji. They deserve to find a conference home just as much as Bemidji. I find the Moorhead proposal distasteful for it's opportunism.
A twelve team league with a 22 game conference schedule would be a great thing. An 11 team league with a 20 game conference schedule would be fine. Either 11 or 12 team league with a 28 game conference schedule is fully beyond even being unappealing.
As a UAA fan I don't want to play Mankato four times a year much less Bemidji. Every UAA fan would rather have the flexibility to play our only real rival 4 times a year. The UAA and UAF tournaments would be more than happy to invite a couple of WCHA schools that otherwise wouldn't get the NCAA exemptions. Playing each opponent in the league only twice would enhance the competitive nature of those games. Every fan of every school would get to see every team once every two years in their barn. Completely and totally fair. And wouldn't it be nice if the Seawolves could travel to some tournament outside? Reduction of the league schedule MUST be part of the expansion debate.
I'm sure there are some legitimate concerns for certain schools in a reduction. Mankato, SCSU, UMD and CC in particular might have a more difficult time finding non-conference games than UAA, Tech, Minnesota, Wisconsin, UND, and DU. Tech can easily pick up the majority of the extra 8 games with Michigan schools. They already use pretty much their entire non-conference schedule on in state "rivals". Minnesota, Wisconsin, UND and DU are "premiere" opponents for any rink to host and always juicy non-conference opponents for an eastern team that wants an RPI boost just by having them on the schedule. UAA has the exemption. Plenty of non-WCHA schools would love to get a series up here and get the gate from the two extra home games they'll be able to schedule.
The Minnesota schools could easily set-up something like a "Beanpot West/Governors Cup/Dairy Queen Cup" tournament which would help fill UMD, SCSU and Mankato's schedule. They've all been dying for something like that down there for years. They could do that with a 20 or 22 game conference schedule.
Don't think for a moment that I don't know I've been droning on and on about this subject the last few weeks. I know I have. I just wanted to make one more effort to put out there what I believe is a solid workable soltuion for the scheduling problems.
Now here's a reward for everyone that read this far down.