I've been patient.
My credentials as a certified college hockey fan are long. I have spent seasons seeing virtually every game Michigan has played. I have traveled to college hockey games in seven states, in venues as diverse as Omaha, Marquette, Minneapolis, Madison, and even Dayton. I come from one college hockey town (Ann Arbor) and I live in another (Duluth). I have attended two Frozen Fours and many NCAA regional games. I have written loving reports on great moments in the sport's history. So know I do not say this lightly:
I have a hard time calling myself a college hockey fan right now.
Yes, this is prompted by the recent, absolutely disgusting snub of Kyle Connor from the award. Jimmy Vesey is a nice player, but the Hobey Baker has allegedly never been a career award. Awarding it to Vesey this season on the strength of 46 points and 1.39 ppg over a player who scored 71 points and half a point more per game cannot be anything other than a career achievement award or a consolation for losing to another freshman who scored exactly the same number of points last year.
But it is far more than that.
College Hockey, as an institution, seems dead-set on destroying itself. And it does so with the eager approval of much of its groupthink intelligensia that exists east of Pennsylvania.
Let's consider, for example, the unjust and completely disastrous NCAA Tournament Regional system. Much effort has been wasted discussing it, including not inconsiderable amounts of my recreational time, because there is nothing quite so idiotic as broadcasting games on television that are alleged to be the most important of the season and seeing thousands upon thousands of empty seats on ESPN.
I used the word "unjust" advisedly, because the reason the regional system persists as it does is that it actually well serves two important constituents: Small, low-money schools, which predominantly exist in the East; and larger, bigger-money schools that are also in the East.
It serves the small schools well because an empty arena is an easier place to pull an upset, especially against a #1 seed that had to fly hundreds of miles because the closer arena happens to be reserved for the hosting team. And it serves the larger Eastern schools well because most of them are clustered in such close proximity that they have not one but two regionals that they may attend in easy driving distance.
Seriously. Since the four-regional system was introduced in 2003, all "Eastern" regionals save one (there are two per year; the sole exception is Rochester in 2007) have been located within in a quadrilateral encompassed by Albany, Bridgeport, Providence, and Manchester. (The favorite regional location, Worcester, is right in the middle of that space). The longest driving distance between those cities is 2.5 hours, between Manchester and Bridgeport; all other distances are shorter.
The result is that a team like Boston College almost never has to travel far for the NCAA tournament. In fact, since the four-regional system debuted, BC has attended a regional within an hour's drive of Boston in every season except two: 2011, when they had to travel to St. Louis, and 2009, when they did not make the tournament.
In contrast, teams like Minnesota-Duluth and Michigan Tech can NEVER hope for a Regional closer than 2.5 hours away and if they make the tournament almost invariably have to travel much further. The Colorado teams only have a hope of a close regional in those rare instances one is placed in Colorado, and a team like Minnesota State can have a dream season ruined by a "luck of the draw" regional where the only available "Western" Regional is in South Bend, 8 hours away. And in this context regionals have been awarded to places like St. Louis and Cincinnatti, cities with zero college hockey support.
Plenty of better alternatives have been proposed. I've proposed them. Others have proposed them. The reason they have not been taken can no longer be attributed to "neutrality" or "let's see how this works." The reason is that the people making the choices don't care about the teams and the fans that aren't near the Eastern Regionals.
But the Frozen Four is great, right?
I dunno. Plenty of tickets are available for the Frozen Four in Tampa, which is hosting its second FF in four years. Other college hockey non-hotbed destinations include cities like Washington DC, Philadelphia, and St. Louis. Since the turn of the century, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Boston, and Detroit (the three locii of regional college hockey, flagships of states that have most of the best teams and fanbases) have been granted five Frozen Fours total. It has been a couple of years since the FF has even sold out ahead of time; if they cared about casual fan interest, they might hold the event in places where fans actually cared.
There is a serious fanbase for the sport out "west." Despite the indignity of distant regionals, fanbases like North Dakota and Michigan regularly send thousands of people on drives of three hours or longer to watch their teams play. Michigan Tech sends large groups of fans 8 hours downstate for a holiday tournament. Places like Duluth build fancy new arenas and give their teams the star treatment.
Yet, it is harder for these fans to engage with the way the sport is structured. Right when a dedicated fan of the sport should be getting most engaged, the games are taken away from them.
Burn It All Down
I could engage in serious western suspicion of "Eastern Bias." It's getting harder, in the wake of decisions like today's, to overlook it. But Occam's Razor suggests that the conclusions I should draw as a frustrated fan are less sinister, but more discouraging: A lot of people making decisions about college hockey honestly don't care. They don't care about the product, they don't care about the teams, and they don't care about the fans.
The truly dreadful thing about this is that even corrupt leagues like the OHL seem to be better run and more authentic. They even took strong steps in a situation like what happened in Flint, leadership that does not exist in college hockey. And it sickens me to say it.
I'm never going to stop rooting for Michigan Hockey. And I'll probably continue to follow what goes on nationwide.
But I care less about the sport as a whole than I used to. And as long as the sport continues to wreck itself, many will feel the same way.
Do stupid stuff. Ruin the NCAA tournament. Choke out the Frozen Four. Let small schools with decent fans struggle and die. It's not worth my effort to pay attention. It's tempting to just say, "let it burn."
It's hard to care anymore.
Michigan State, you're our rival. We love to snipe at each other; we hate losing to each other; we look forward to games between our schools in all sports with a burning fervency.
You have a proud hockey program. You have won three national titles. You have multiple Hobey Baker Award winners. You had one of the most consistent, dedicated fanbases in the sport. Michigan-Michigan State hockey games were red-letter dates on any sports schedule, capable of selling out not only Joe Louis Arena but also our respective FOOTBALL stadiums.
Why are you deliberately killing your hockey program? News breaks today that Tom Anastos is being retained as coach for a sixth season. Your AD says, "I feel really good about where we're at."
Really? Your team went 10-23-4 this year. This season's sole accomplishment is successfully avoiding last place in a terrible hockey conference, and the only team you beat just fired its coach and hired a program guy with serious NHL chops. Your once-proud fanbase, which used to sell out literally every game at Munn Ice Arena, is so shattered that even games against your arch-rival Michigan offer plenty of available seats. And those seats are taken by Michigan fans, who watch Michigan win at Munn, a lot.
The worst moment may have been your team getting carved up like a Thanksgiving Turkey by Michigan at Munn, a 9-2 drubbing in which Michigan did basically whatever it wanted. But the score wasn't the worst part of that game. The worst part was the reaction of Michigan fans to the rapidly growing scoreline:
Long gone are the days when a positive result at Munn was the highlight of Michigan's season. Now, a winning record against MSU isn't just hoped for--it is taken for granted. I and several other long-time Michigan hockey fans stared at the abyss that was the MSU bench that day, and I felt unmitigated pity for the lifeless husk of a program wearing uniforms that once belonged to a college hockey power.
Your program is so bad that it cannot even elicit distaste from its biggest rival.
Now, I have nothing personally against Tom Anastos. I think he was a decent commissioner of the CCHA, and I have no reason to believe that he is not a decent person. But "decent" does not mean "qualified to coach a major college hockey program."
Tom Anastos has produced disastrous win totals of 19, 11, 11, 17, and 10 in his five seasons. The only NCAA tournament appearance in that span was a first-round loss in his first season, playing predominantly with players recruited and developed by his predecessor, Rick Comley. The only other significant coaching on Tom's resume is a short, unremarkable stint at UM-Dearborn that ended in 1990.
There is zero evidence that Tom Anastos is a good hockey coach.
Decent guy? Sure. Able conference administrator? Seems that way. Capable of winning at a level that befits one of the winningest programs in college hockey history?
Michigan State, something must be done. You cannot seriously believe that Tom Anastos is the answer. And now, you can no longer believe that Mark Hollis has the interests of the hockey program in mind. There must be a change in Michigan State's hockey program. Continued inaction condemns Michigan State Hockey to exile, never to be more than a relic of distant memory.
The greatest shame is not that Michigan State is holding steady with a losing program. It is not that Michigan, in a serious down period, is playing on a a vastly higher level. It is not that Michigan State cannot succeed in a conference in which every single program is either brand new or seriously underachieving.
The greatest shame for Michigan State's hockey program is that Michigan fans feel they have to say something to you. And not for our own pride or satisfaction. Not for our own benefit.
But for yours.
Michigan isn't going to the playoff.
No shame in that; we're building this year. The team is as good as we could have hoped for. The pathway is open for Michigan to win its way into Indianapolis, assuming Ohio State (or Penn State, I guess) knocks of MSU.
But the playoff discussion naturally came up tonight's playoff ranking post. And a good point was made--sooner or later a 2-loss team will make it.
What would it take for it to be Michigan? We've all thought about it. We've talked about it. Yeah, it's bats, but #14 won the title last year and stuff. How could it happen now?
Well, let's start by saying that the unusually strong roster of undefeated and one-loss teams makes this a less likely season for this sort of event; this is not 2007 where LSU was the best of many, many 2-loss squads in a year where upsets started strong and never stopped.
Ok, but what it would take?
There are six "lanes" to get to the place where four teams are picked for the playoff. X (as used by others on the board) represents the number of losses, for reference.
|B1G||Big 12||SEC||Pac 12||ACC||"Other"|
X=0 Ohio State
|X=0 Baylor||X=1 Alabama||X=1 Stanford||X=0 Clemson||X=1 Notre Dame|
|X=0 Oklahoma State||X=1 Florida||X=1 Utah||X=1 North Carolina||X=0 Houston|
X=1 Michigan State
|X=1 Oklahoma||X=1 LSU|
Out of the Big Ten, Michigan has the best chance of any current 2-loss team in the country to make the playoff. They are already the highest ranked team with such a record and a hypothetical B1G championship would involve beating both Ohio State and Iowa, both probably undefeated--an unimpeachable record. This scenario would also involve MSU losing at least once more, probably to Ohio State.
Such a result would, even with a worse record, probably propel Michigan to the top of the B1G "lane." Beating OSU and Iowa head-to-head should be enough to pass them in the minds of the committee with our resume (losses aren't that significant, but neither are at all bad and Utah was on the road).
Verdict: I WANT TO BELIEVE
What would then be needed is for two more lanes to fail to produce a team with a better resume; except for Houston and possibly UNC, this probably requires no team to finish with fewer than 2 losses. Also, let's assume for a moment that no conference gets two teams in, since I have hundreds of words of text already written that would be useless if that did occur. (Besides, I think the committee would rather have a strong 2-loss team than, say, LSU sneaking in on Alabama's coattails).
So, how could that happen? Let's assume, not unreasonably, that a Michigan team that accomplishes this will have the best rating of any 2-loss team in the country. Now, let's look at our "lanes" and see what our chances are:
The Big 12 is still very much up in the air, and the "big boys" still have a lot of games against each other, but it is hard to find a scenario where all teams end with at least 2 losses short of a highly improbably series of dramatic upsets to lesser foes. We're looking for realism here. A 1-loss or 0-loss Big 12 team will have wins over at least two of the power teams in the conference, both of which are high quality wins. That should be enough of a resume to get into the playoff over a 2-loss team. Jumping the Big 12's best candidate is unlikely.
Verdict: Highly Improbable
The SEC is probably going to be won by Alabama going away; I am not enthusiastic about their chances of losing again before the playoff. However, there is at least a small possibility that Florida could lose to arch-rival Florida State and then beat Alabama in the SEC championship, which would leave them with 2 losses but a resume pretty similar to ours. Also, LSU is still hanging around with 1 loss, and they have a win over Florida; barring an upset (say, at Ole Miss) they are hard to ignore as well. The chances of the SEC getting left out are always small, and right now nearly nonexistent.
Verdict: Highly Improbable
The ACC has fewer candidates, but its best candidate is the #1 team in the country with huge wins at home against Notre Dame and Florida State. Their three remaining regular season opponents should be walkovers; the ACC championship beckons, probably against a surging North Carolina team whose best win is... uh, Duke. Frankly, it is hard to see Clemson dropping two games the rest of the way; in the odd scenario where they did, their second loss is probably to North Carolina, and a (likely) 1-loss North Carolina team with a win over Clemson has a decent chance of jumping Michigan. Let's face it, Clemson is close to a lock.
Verdict: Highly Improbable
Three conferences, three near-locks for bids. What's left?
The Pac 12 has two reasonable playoff candidates: Stanford and our old friends at Utah. These two teams are the leading candidates to meet in the Pac-12 title game, which may be a playoff-elimination contest. However, these teams have something the previous scenarios do not: both have multiple losable games remaining on their schedule.
Utah travels to a struggling Arizona team this weekend, and while Arizona has been poor this is a very losable game for Utah. Next week they host a good UCLA team. If they somehow get by both of those (and Colorado the week following) they will be serious underdogs to Stanford in almost any scenario. There is a very good chance that they will lose again; and I believe Michigan at 2-losses with its quality of wins would jump them here despite head-to-head.
Stanford hosts Oregon, which now looks more like the Oregon we've expected the past few years, and travels to Cal. Those are not as dangerous as Utah's contests, but both are good teams and either could pull off the upset. Stanford also hosts Notre Dame... which, see below. It's possible that Stanford could lose the Pac 12 title game, but I don't consider it likely; the best scenario is for them to drop one of the next two games and then win out. Not assured, but... neither this nor the Utah scenario are at all ridiculous.
Verdict: Somewhat Plausible
Which brings us to "Other." I have Houston listed here because they could theoretically go undefeated with wins against Memphis and Navy and get at least some consideration if one-win teams aren't available, but I think it is unlikely.
But that leaves Notre Dame. And that's where Stanford again comes in, because after Wake and BC, Stanford is the conclusion to Notre Dame's season. At Stanford. Win and they're probably in. Lose and they have 2 (good) losses, but their best win is probably USC; they're out. Stanford is playing very well; there is a good chance they win here.
Verdict: Very Plausible
So Stanford getting upset once but winning the Pac 12 vaults Michigan past that lane; Stanford beating Notre Dame likely jumps them above that one as well.
Michigan is not making the playoff. But, is there a scenario where they sneak in? The likeliest, by far, involves Stanford suffering an upset against a good team this Saturday or next, and then winning out. Not likely, exactly, but it could happen.
If, at the end of November 21, Michigan and Stanford both have two losses, I believe Michigan is very much alive in the playoff race. If not, Michigan would require a series of upsets so improbable that Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect themselves would appear in person to witness it.
I don't think Michigan is ready for the playoff yet. They probably won't get in. But... it's not impossible. I welcome other scenarios.
In today's Unverified Voracity Brian brings up the dreaded, controversial "maize" issue. And in this column he asserts something utterly shocking: that Michigan's color of "maize" is actually an orangey yellow
I like Brian's writing. He is spot-on in a lot of areas. But this is not one of them.
One of the problems with this debate is that proper photographic color identification is impossible. Colors vary across photographs and across screens. However, there is one area where pictures can be helpful: single picture like-to-like comparisons. So let's do some.
I've grown up on Michigan. I have images of Michigan games burned into my mind from the time I was five. I remember how incredible it was to sit in Michigan Stadium in person and see the team rush under the banner onto the field, the brilliant winged helmets swarming together in crystal clear real life definition.
I also remember watching games in person and in television, and being struck by the significance of the colors being worn by the teams. Particularly my team.
Take Iowa, for example.
You might think that this visible contrast in yellows is merely a product of Adidas color work.
You would be wrong.
Hey, look, it's the eighties.
I vividly remember watching a game in Iowa City on television and being struck by how stark the contrast was between Michigan's lighter maize and Iowa's orangey yellow. And that memory struck me in the late 80s.
Is there another team that uses a yellow that could be described as orangey? Why yes, there is.
Again, Michigan's contrast with Minnesota's "gold" color of yellow is not a recent Adidas innovation.
And into antiquity.
A couple of Rose Bowls:
I've made my point. Now, there is some valid objection to this: I've featured exclusively football. And that's notable, because one of Michigan's peculiarities is that the colors of "maize" are not the same across all sports or garments.
And I think that's where a lot of the confusion comes from. What Brian describes sounds suspiciously like the all-too-common "maize" t-shirts sold at places like Steve & Berry's that were, in fact, rather orangey, and bore little resemblance to the actual color of "maize" worn on playing surfaces. Other products (including those kid football costumes that I had in 1986) had similar issues. They were wrong but they were there.
And that color also appeared in other areas. For example, the playing field of Michigan Stadium, notably after the first installation of fieldturf. And, very prominently, the M Go Blue banner.
The fact is that Michigan has long had a bit of a "maize" problem. Now, in my opinion, the maize that has been traditionally worn by the football team is the ideal standard, but it has also long been true that many of the other teams wear a slightly different color. The Fab Five era basketball team, for example.
Don't believe me? There's a handy way to tell for sure: The hockey team has long had its helmets painted the same color as the football team, but the fabric of its uniforms is made to the non-football "maize" color. How did that turn out?
Again, this is across Nike and Adidas. It is slightly less noticeable when the superior-looking dazzle fabrics are used on the hockey jersey, but it's still a problem (the once-worn maize non-dazzle non-underlined script jersey that was introduced in the fall of 2002 was the clearest example of this and was quickly scrapped for a series of dazzle jerseys).
This is not to say that the worst of the "highlighter" colors Adidas has produced have not also been a problem. Indeed, my time away from Ann Arbor in the last ten years has kept the "real" colors of "maize" alive in my mind, and when the hockey team emerged from the locker room for the hockey regional in Green Bay that I attended, I was absolutely and unpleasantly shocked by the color of the jerseys in person.
However, the early responses have been disappointing. The recent darkening of the helmet stripes was absolutely the wrong way to go and it looks terrible, even on television. It needs to be flipped back right away. If there need to be two different colors of "maize," fine. The late-90s/early 00s colors were fine. But an "orangey" color would be a travesty.
Go Blue. Go Maize. And may it always look like this.
There is a special fondness for one’s earliest sports memories. They form the backdrop of experience against which all future events are contextualized.
My earliest datable memory is Kirk Gibson hitting a home run in the bottom of the 8th inning in Game Five of the 1984 World Series; from that day until his retirement he was my favorite baseball player. I learned to cheer for Isiah Thomas and Gary Grant. I cheered for Yzerman, and accepted that the Lions were always bad. And I rooted for Michigan football, with Jamie Morris and Mark Messner.
And Jim Harbaugh.
He won the Fiesta Bowl. He beat Ohio State with clutch play. He guaranteed a victory in ’86, and then beat Ohio State again.* He led Michigan to a Rose Bowl. To a young boy, he was a hero, everything that the winged helmet was supposed to be about. To everyone at Michigan, he was a Michigan Man.
*Someone recently argued on the board that Harbaugh essentially rode the coattails of Jamie Morris to the win, belittling his role in the game. That’s acceptable logic, if you’re willing to assert that Denard rode the coattails of Junior Hemingway to wins over Virginia Tech and Notre Dame last season--any takers?
* * * * *
Fast Forward to 2007. I was visiting Michigan from California, where I was attending school. I was enjoying one of the things I really missed about Ann Arbor--walking around the Ann Arbor-Saline Road Meijer after midnight. As I ambled past the U-Scan lanes, I happened to glance at the newspaper display. And there it was, front page.
Jim Harbaugh Criticizes Michigan Academics
“Jim,” I muttered to myself. “You fool. What are you doing?”
* * * * *
Jim Harbaugh was calling out the academic integrity of Michigan Athletics. He was dropping Bo’s name (after Bo died, something that sat poorly with myself and others) and using it as a cudgel against Michigan. And, by all appearances, he was doing so in an arrogant way to burnish his own program’s reputation.
Nobody in the Michigan camp liked it. Now, I suppose there could be discussion about whether or not he had any legitimate points. Many blogs, including this one, vehemently refuted his accusations and sharply criticized him for making them. I believe it can safely be said that the vast majority of the Michigan family disagreed with both the content and the method of his message.
But this is not about what he said in 2007. This is not about whether or not he wanted to “come home” after Rich Rodriguez left.* I want to address a debate that has bounced around the Michigan family for more than five years now:
Is Jim Harbaugh one of us?