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Thursday, April 23, 2009

UAA Takes 1st Step To Improve Attendance

Former Seawolf Derek Donald has been hired by UAA as Assistant Director of Marketing and Promotions. This press release from UAA announced to move earlier in the week. This article in the Anchorage Daily News expands some on Derek's new role.

First, welcome back to Derek. He was one of the most tenacious players to ever don a Seawolf sweater. He knew how to get the puck on somebody else's stick for a goal and he knew how to put the puck in the net. His skills on the ice earned him a spot in the Seawolf Hall-of-Fame; one of seven hockey players to be so honored.

For several years Seawolf fans on the Internet have been calling for the University to do something specific with regard to putting more butts in the seats. Hiring Derek is the 1st (and perhaps biggest) step toward achieving that goal.

We fans today are lucky enough to have the most talented group of Seawolf hockey players in the schools history. Yet, we go to the rink every other weekend and are lucky to see 4,000 other fans there?

Derek will have to be creative and apply the same tenacity as a player to improve attendance. In the early 90's the team had no competition for the hockey entertainment dollar. But then former Seawolf players hungry to continue playing competitive hockey started the Anchorage Aces. 15 years later Seawolf hockey plays second fiddle in this town.

I think there are two reasons for that. The biggest reason is that the ECHL is a fighting league. A quick reference to a random selection of Aces home boxscores shows an average of nearly 2 fights per game (some had as many as 5 fights). The casual fan can toddle over there and watch gong-show hockey pretty much any night. Sure there are some good players and not every game is filled with goonery. But the possibility that goonery will happen is there and casual hockey fans respond to that. Who is one of the most beloved Aces of all-time? Chad Richards. I know Chad. He's told me more than once exactly what his job was with the Aces and every other pro team he played for. Pretty much every ECHL team has 2 of that sort of player. But that isn't what college hockey is about.  The 2nd less important reason is the availability of alcohol.

These days the alcohol issue shouldn't be a factor. You can get beer in your seat now at Seawolf games. You have to sit in a specific section but that's the case at Aces games as well. The UAA beer section is small compared to the Aces "wet side". But I see no reason that the Seawolves can't expand the section. Other WCHA rinks allow it arena-wide.

The bigger problem is what faces Derek. I don't think you are going to attract the Carhart-wearing beer-drinking crowd to UAA hockey games. I don't think we want those yahoos at our games anyway, do we? But there is a large group of hockey fans that don't come to UAA games; the folks whose kids play hockey in this town. There is a strong hockey culture in Anchorage that spans the gamut from house leagues to comp hockey at every age group. On any given night during the high school season you'll find 1,500 fans right next door at Ben Boeke. If Derek can find a creative way to involve that part of the Anchorage hockey community then the days of full houses at the Sully could return.

It is a daunting task but focusing on people that appreciate hockey for the beauty and excitement of the game and forgetting about Joe-Sixpack is the perhaps the first way to proceed. I hope every Seawolf fan gives Derek their support in filling up the Sully. As Derek told the Daily News ... "The players deserve it."

Sunday, April 12, 2009

An Important Off-Season for WCHA

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.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Sunday Potpourri: Leave it to the Beavers

I played my first game of cash poker in many many many years this past week. While I'm sure the winners (I spread it around ya know) enjoyed or at least appreciated raping a virgin, let me assure you that this victim didn't. I won't do that again for a very very very long time. All their exhortations that I didn't play badly are nothing more than pleas for me to step up and spread em again. I won't though. Be assured dear readers that your favorite blogger is safe from such future harm. Seriously, it sucked.

We're a couple of weeks into the off-season today. There hasn't been any real jonesing moments for me. A couple of times last weekend while watching the NCAA regionals, I was envious of teams that I knew weren't as good as the Seawolves. But hey, I know my team didn't get there honestly so I accepted it gracefully and cheered for UMD and Bemidji. The Bulldogs didn't have enough interest in satisfying my need to see someone do well. But the Beavers did.

Bemidji State's success in the tournament this season shows that the talent margin is thin enough in Division 1 hockey to allow just about anything to happen come tourney time. Certainly, it tells us all that any WCHA team could get to the Frozen Four in pretty much any year. Getting to the tournament is a whole other problem of course.

Good on Bemidji, here's hoping they give a good enough showing to keep any naysayers quiet. The excitement of their fanbase doesn't deserve to be diminished by negative nellies. They're there and they got there honestly. I find nothing compelling enough about the other participants so next weekend I'm a Beaver fan.

I don't think their success will have much if any bearing on the admittance to the league issue. Their success against WCHA teams the last few years has been enough for the WCHA to realize they'd compete well. But the quality of Beaver hockey isn't the issue. There are probably still four "no" votes. DU and CC don't want to lose dates with teams that pack their arenas. League expansion advocates will use "clustering and designated rivals" to appease those Colorado fears. You can count on DU and CC being named primary designated rivals (or some such term) with the biggest draws which are typically Minnesota, Wisconsin and UND. Only a guarantee that Magness and World Arena attendance numbers wouldn't suffer will get CC or DU to vote yes.

MTU and UAA have valid questions about how adding Bemidji benefits them. Neither MTU or UAA have to worry about attendance. In UAA's case there aren't big changes in attendance that are connected to the opponent. And they're both "state" schools so athletic department budgets don't feel the same pressures as at private schools like DU and CC. I don't see any tangible benefit to admitting an 11th (or 12th) team for UAA unless it comes with a reduction of the league mandated 28 game schedule.

I continue to advocate that measure because it would be very positive for UAA as well as a positive for the league come tournament time. The "Alaska exemption" provides UAA with a strong advantage when it comes to scheduling. It's one that UAA hasn't been able to really use to it's advantage because of the overwhelmingly obtuse rule of playing 28 league games.

With 8 additonal non-conference games the WCHA's perennial domination of other leagues would become a strong RPI/PWR determining factor. Note to WCHA: Play only 20 league regular season contests and you'll see 5 teams from the WCHA in the NCAA tournament every year. Yes, it might dimish the shine on winning a WCHA regular season title by some small amount. Small price to pay to get more league teams into the bigger NCAA show.

Yes, coaches will have to make more phone calls in the off-season. Yes, you can still play your rival four times a year. Two of the games won't count in the regular season standings. Big deal. You still beat them 4 times. Does it really matter that it isn't reflected in the standings? Isn't playing every team once a season more fair than some subjective preconcieved regional designated rival cluster-fuck? Duh ... of course it is. Then lets not have some bullshit 3 or 5 year rotation with 11 teams and 28 games. Keep it simple stupids.

I've got a good lead on someone to add alumni content to the blog. In case you haven't heard me say it, I limit the content to current Seawolves because it works for the amount of time I desire to put into the blog. If this association comes to fruition you can expect regular updates about all your former Seawolf hockey favorites.

And as always, if you've got something to contribute then send me an email and we'll work out getting it onto the blog in post form. Next season is going to be a good one for the team and I anticipate more traffic here. I'll start with "please" but I'll also do whatever I can to encourage those of you with knowledge and/or information and/or quality opinion and analysis to share that here with a growing community of Seawolf fans. As always psuedonyms will be perfectly acceptable.