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.