The NCAA Hockey Tournament Could Be Better: 2018 Edition

Submitted by NastyIsland on March 21st, 2018 at 11:30 AM


This is the appropriate reaction to Plink-O. [ and]

I wrote this last year. It is more or less what I will say now, but with a couple of things shifted and an update to 2018. All of the block quotes are highlights from my previous piece. Later on this week, I will have a Northeastern/overall 2018 tournament preview. Let’s begin:

What Could Have Happened in 2018:

Final Top 16 (PairWise plus Conference Tournament Winners):

1 St Cloud State
2 Notre Dame
3 Cornell
4 Ohio State
5 Denver
6 Minnesota State
7 Providence
8 Michigan
9 Northeastern
10 Clarkson
11 Penn State
12 Minnesota-Duluth
13 Boston University
14 Princeton
15 Michigan Tech
16 Air Force

If we’re going to do Best-of-Three matchups at home sites, the format would follow the pattern of 1v16, 2v15, 3v14, 4v13, etc. We will need to take into account: 1.) no intra-conference matchups in the Round of 16 and 2.) travel costs versus bracket integrity.

Most of it seems fine. We’ll have to switch Penn State and Minn-Duluth, but the rest of it actually looks good, with a few already-close matchups. We could have St Cloud State and Notre Dame swap timeslots so that it's not as late in South Bend, but I’m guessing the Irish would rather be on national television. Obviously, there would still be an OCTO-BOX-esque RedZone channel, as well.

[After THE JUMP: what's broken and how to fix it]



First Round Matchups with Timeslots on Friday Night Frenzy:

6:00pm: (10) Clarkson AT (7) Providence ESPN2

6:30pm: (14) Princeton AT (4) Ohio State ESPN*

7:00pm: (9) Northeastern AT (8) Michigan ESPNU

7:30pm: (13) Boston University AT (3) Cornell ESPN3*

8:00pm: (16) Air Force AT (1) St Cloud State ESPN3

8:45pm: (15) Michigan Tech AT (2) Notre Dame ESPN2

9:15pm: (12) Minnesota-Duluth AT (6) Minnesota State ESPN

9:45pm:(11) Penn State AT (5) Denver ESPNU

[*: avoids ECAC matchup]

Weekend Games 2 and 3(if necessary):

…could follow a similar path or could break into multiple windows, such as 3pm, 6pm, and 9pm.  All games could still be channeled or streamed, and a RedZone could easily be implemented. Weekends provide more options for more eyeballs. If there is a concern about eight camera crews/announcing tandems, let local stations cover games and allow the national entity to tap-in. Or…let them send their own crew. Are there legal hiccups? Maybe, but this has been done repeatedly before, so it shouldn’t be a Shut-Down Obstacle.

Second Weekend: Round of 8

Let’s say the previous home teams advance– as the objective enthusiast would probably prefer.

There are now four series. This could be similarly scheduled or spread out -depending on the teams involved and times played.

-Friday could be 6pm, 7pm, 8pm, and 9pm - or 7pm, 7:30pm, 9:30pm, and 10pm. Channel and/or stream them, and have a RedZone if necessary. This would probably be lot better hockey, and there would hopefully not be as many blowouts as the first round could have.

-Saturday and Sunday could be similar. By the time the tournament reaches this point, each game will be worth focusing on, instead of the spectacle of mass hysteria.

First Round Matchups with Timeslots on Friday Night Frenzy Part 2:

6:00pm: (6) Minnesota State AT (3) Cornell ESPNU

7:00pm: (5) Denver AT (4) Ohio State ESPN

8:00pm: (7) Providence AT (2) Notre Dame ESPN2

9:00pm: (8) Michigan AT (1) St Cloud State ESPNU

This also looks awesome. Again, weekend games could be spread throughout the day, or we could do this all over again on Saturday evening. Either would work.

What about the Frozen Four?

Last year, I suggested a potential ‘Mini Tournament’ but the more I think about it, the more I like it the way that it is.

Essentially, everything about the current Frozen Four format would remain the same. Four teams, two semifinals, single elimination, a Championship Game, and a National Champion. That would be fine. It is interesting, well-attended, traditional, ‘Merican.

This might be the most popular part of college hockey. It is generally well-attended– and not just by fans of the qualified teams. I do think that there needs to be a bit of renovation to location, though.

image (2)image (5)

Thanks a ton to @The_Mathlete for making these charts

What are the four best locations geographically? The left is the No Alaska, Huntsville, or Arizona State: Unweighted. The right is the Core Footprint: Unweighted. Hmm. I assume no one wants to play in the Finger Lakes, so shift the New York dot to Buffalo or Pittsburgh and slide the Michigan dot a smidge to the east and voila! Also, add a fifth spot for Denver.

Rotation among Six. The Frozen Four has been rotated all over the country, mostly settling in the Midwest/Northeast. Some of these sites have been great, others have been head-scratchers. I think that there are five great sites: Denver, Minneapolis/St Paul, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Boston. All five are known as great hockey cities, and almost all of the current DI hockey programs are located near-ish to one of these five locations. The sixth site can be random. Grow the sport. Go to Phoenix, Nashville, Anaheim, New York, or even Anchorage. Just make sure the five strongest mini-regions get to host and then go on a whim for the sixth.

Only go to Anchorage if Kentucky gets a DI program. I’ve also heard the Toronto idea floated. Maybe? Would anyone care? Isn’t there already tons of hockey bandy up there? Anyway, I am open to this as a sixth site if the research seems to reinforce the idea. I suppose passports could be a problem, etc.

Wait For Basketball to End. I still say this is the best idea.

-First Round would take place on weekend of April 6-8th

-Second Round would be April 13th-15th

-Frozen Four would be April 19th-21st

Even if the Round Robin element was implemented, the championship game would be in late April. This would result in conflicts with MLB, NHL/NBA Playoffs, but whaddaya gonna do? There are always sports. If there are concerns about stretching out the season, add more games; non-conference series are fun. Or schedule more Bye Weeks. These are all viable options, so the April schedule shouldn’t be a problem.

Being the college sports enthusiast that I am, I wouldn’t mind seeing the latter implemented. Give hockey its own month with no inherent basketball competition. March Madness followed by April Absurdity.

Let’s just start the season later. Why do official camps/practices have to start in September? Why does the season have to start in October? Do you know what dominates the Fall? Football. Did you see Penn State’s normally packed Pegula Ice Arena right after their huge gridiron showdown against Ohio State? It was emmmmmptyyyyyyyy. And I don’t blame a single Nittany Lion fan. Let’s try NOT competing against the most popular sport in America. Start a month later, add a week of games in December– or eliminate a Bye Week- and all of a sudden there is less competition with football or head-to-head between the NCAA basketball and hockey tournaments.

It could happen.



March 21st, 2018 at 10:56 AM ^

It is too much of an advantage for the higher seeded teams to have a 3 game series at home.

It's not as well fleshed out as your system, but I think I would borrow the NCAA baseball tournament model.

Take the top 4 seeds and let them host a double elimination touranment baseball style. For those that complain about having some teams play two games in a day, you must have zero knowlege of youth hockey and what we require from them their whole lives from age 5 on in tournament play.

You can keep the Frozen Four as is, or also go double elimination as your preference.

Huge bonus: the entire thing wraps up in two weekends.


March 21st, 2018 at 11:59 AM ^

And it is very similar to a Bantam tournament if you think about it.

Or Pee Wees, Squirts, Midgets etc.

If a ten year old kid can do this, college kids can too.

Bonus: this means the deeper team has the advantage.


March 21st, 2018 at 12:31 PM ^

This is not bantam hockey. Or pee wee, squirt, or midget.

Lower levels of hockey are not the same thing. Intensity is different, speed and momentum are different, timing is different. The players skate around with "stop" signs on their backs.

College hockey is a full-throttle four-line top-line sport played by fully-grown adults skating much harder and faster and enduring much fiercer physical forces. This is not the same thing at all. 

If you're hosting a regional at a higher seed, just make it single elimination like the regionals they have now. It's not great, but it's better than the current system and it's better than some weird double-elimination or round-robin tournament. They don't need participation trophies and they don't need to play multiple games to justify the investment of families taking a whole weekend and getting a hotel to watch their kid play. 

Blue In NC

March 21st, 2018 at 2:59 PM ^

I respect your hockey knowledge greatly but I am not sure I agree with all your points above.  I think that the lack of two a days at college and pro levels have to do much with less intensity at lower ranks and more to do with putting the best product on the ice at the upper levels given the fans and money involved.  We have all seen that, even at the youth levels after a tough first game, sometimes the second game lacks the crispness of the first.  So at higher levels of college and pros where "more is at stake" we want the players at their best.  I don't know that a 20 year old doesn't recover just as well as a 17 year old (at least for athletes).

As an aside, there is no use in including the picture of the stop sign on the sweater.  As you know, those signs are placed on the sweaters at an age where kids are just being exposed to checking for the first time.  That doesn't indicate any lack of competitiveness or intensity, it's simply as a safety mechanism during an adjustment period.  I don't think your overall point stands that college players are necessarily going harder or more intense than teens at the highest level and I certainly don't think it has anything to do with what they are wearing on their sweaters.

That said, I agree with the general point that we should not do two a days for college level hockey.


March 21st, 2018 at 3:39 PM ^

I think you're absolutely right about the effect two-a-days would have on second games. And I think that's a big deal, playing into my points about it above. Could players go out and actually play three more periods? Well, on rare occasions they have to anyway, for long overtime games. But those are unique circumstances that are not planned to be that way. If a team expects to play twice in a day, coaches will have to juggle lineups and change strategies in a way that fundamentally changes the way the game is played on the ice. 

It's simply not the same thing. 

Regarding the stop signs: The stop sign point is not meant to illustrate some specific difference that makes two-a-days less practical, but rather to help illustrate that the game is different at lower levels. Because it is.


March 21st, 2018 at 10:57 AM ^

Pigs could sprout wings.
Hell might freeze over.
The NCAA could hammer serious cheaters like OSU, Louisville, and UNC.

It makes sense and would be welcomed by the teams and fans alike. I doubt it happens.


March 21st, 2018 at 11:19 AM ^

Let's take this a little slower.  I think the NCAA is not very likely to allow two straight weeks of best-of-three any more, especially when it causes serious tournament bloat, going from 15 games to potentially 39.

There are two other models for 16-team tournaments that the NCAA has already found acceptable:  lacrosse and field hockey.  Once home sites are accepted, the NCAA might find that best-of-three is better than single elimimation.  But that's unlikely.  It will be more expensive, and there won't be a return on investment.  TV won't pay any more for 8 best-of-three series than they will for 8 single games, because there are really only about 8-10 time slots for hockey in a weekend, and ESPN isn't really all that enthusiastic about showing the first round of the NCAA tournament already.  There will be more fans, yes, but also more nights in hotels for the visiting team.

Also, there is no need for any kind of rotation in the frozen four.  It's one of the most successful things the NCAA does, in any sport.  The current system is fine.  If they want to put the finals in Tampa 2 times in 4 years, then great--I enjoyed it both times I was there.  I look forward to when it returns there. 

The only change I would make is to move the semifinals to Saturday and the championship game to Monday night, just like men's basketball.  It's a pretty "bush league" thing to have a semifinal start at 5:00 on a weekday.



March 21st, 2018 at 11:39 AM ^

not going to make those huge changes and your also right a best of three in the first round is not going to bring in anymore TV money. Although I do think a best of three at top 8 teams homes would be a good start. You could do the same thing for the next round, only draw back is best of three is probably going to eliminate that occassional huge upset, like Holy Cross beating Minnesota a few years back. If that had been best of three Minny probably wins it. I do enjoy seeing that big upset every once in a while, it add a little more excitement and intrigue to the tourney.

I do like the idea of starting the season a little later and maybe adding a weekend in there to get the tourney in April so it doesn't conflict with basketball.  Also think it would be great to do the same as basketball and play the semifinals on Saturday and the NC game Monday night. I think that would be the only change I would make to the frozen four.



March 21st, 2018 at 11:36 AM ^…

The next to the last paragraph:

"Meanwhile, every year, the issue comes up, still, of whether the tournament should go back on campus for the first two rounds. And every year, it doesn't happen. Likewise, this year, there remains very little appetite for such a thing. The large majority of coaches still like things the way they are, and so things are unlikely to change, McGinnis said."

Why in the world do we care about what the coaches think?  If it were put to a vote of the coaches, the NCAA would draw a team out of a hat and give that team the national championship trophy.  Hey, at least fans would stop blaming the coach for not winning the tournament.

On this subject, I would care more about the opinion of the guy who scrubs the urinals at Ewigleben Ice Arena than I care about the opinion of the coaches.  The coaches are self interested in promoting randomness, and not only do they not care about the enjoyment of the players and fans, they are actively opposed to the enjoyment of the players and fans.



March 21st, 2018 at 11:50 AM ^

This suggests that the sports is under control of the coaches. And that the coaches are entrenched in solid, substantial jobs that provide very good money without making them instant millionaires. The jobs are cushy enough that a decent coach can work for 10+ years and make six figures and never produce a national title contender.

And that continues to work so long as national titles aren't too highly emphasized. 

So then the interests of the coaches are for the sport to continue its regional balkanization, to remain small, to have a national tournament that is actively substandard. All in order to make sure their fans never get too upset that they don't win a national title, so that they can keep their jobs.

I'm not sure how accurate this interpretation is, but it is compelling and it fits the facts.


March 21st, 2018 at 11:46 AM ^

Princeton and Cornell are both ECAC teams.

Also, it's amazing that the NCAA is so resistant to home sites, given that the northeast regional is effectively a home site every year. That regional will always have one or two teams within a 45 minute drive, and so will always be well-attended. Same with a Minneapolis regional, with so many successful programs in Minnesota. But suddenly Michigan wins regionals at Yost and now teams can't host regionals on campus?


March 21st, 2018 at 12:01 PM ^

There's some really radical stuff floating around in this thread that has zero chance of ever occurring. Double elimination? Lengthening what is already the NCAA's longest season? This stuff isn't going to happen.

Neither are best-of-3 series at home sites. Yes, they did happen once, so the idea isn't absurd. But it is both a practical challenge for the home arenas and a struggle for television. With so many games occurring at the same time, televising every game would be impossible. 

And the NCAA tends to use single-elimination tournaments except where the nature of the sport (baseball and softball, specifically) renders it impractical. 

A format featuring single-elimination games at the site of the higher seed is practical, fair, and entertaining. It has the best chance of actually occurring. It allows for television. It allows for upsets. It protects higher-ranked teams from playing in bizarre and unfair locations.

It's the right thing to do. 

(BTW, the Frozen Four is the one thing that college hockey unquestionably gets right. I'm not as much of a fan of the exotic locations as Alton is, but Alton and fans like him are the ones actually shelling out to go to the games, and as long as they continue to draw good crowds, more power to them.)


March 21st, 2018 at 12:08 PM ^

Judging by the reaction of many people from Minnesota to the recent list of Frozen Four cities, Buffalo and Pittsburgh are exotic locations to them.

And anyway, the 6-year stretch of Tampa, St. Paul, Buffalo, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Boston pretty much fits the 6-year rotation in the OP.  It seems that we don't really need a rule here; everything is functioning fine as is.


March 21st, 2018 at 1:35 PM ^

School is in session, and you are asking players on 3 of the 4 regional teams to miss a week of classes (presumably the host team players can keep attending class as the tournament drags on).

You are also asking fans to commit to following a 10-day regional tournament that has nothing more than a trip to the frozen four at the end--not even a trophy or anything.  Just a qualifying tournament.  Who is going to these games?  You might as well play them in Allentown, Pennsylvania, or Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

(To address your inevitable reply, the College World Series is held after classes are over).


March 21st, 2018 at 12:44 PM ^

The Frozen Four is a better event than the Memorial Cup and it doesn't require the home team to participate to sell out. The Memorial Cup has problems getting good attendance for non-local games as it is. 

It's not that it's bad--it's nice for what it is, and it does a good job of balancing the needs of a sport that stretches from the Maritimes to Puget Sound--but it's not a good format for college hockey.

The key here is that the dream scenarios we get when we say "let's draw up the ideal format for determining a champion" aren't going to happen. College hockey has a certain paradigm in which championships have to fit in. There are certain principles that NCAA tournaments tend to follow that cut across all sports. Certain areas of balance that limit how many games are played, how long a season is, etc. We laugh at student-athlete talk sometimes but these kids still are students and that informs much of the structure of NCAA competition.

Because the best championship format in a vacuum would obviously be a tournament that featured 7-game playoff series in each round in a 2-2-1-1-1 format. It makes for great hockey, great action, and it fairly determines a winner.

But that could add up to 28 games to a schedule. For perspective, only two conferences even have a conference schedule that is that many games. That would increase the length of a typical season by 75%. And the travel requirements would be absolutely brutal, particularly in the context of semesters that are approaching final exams.

Week-long round robin tournaments are neither practical nor particularly desirable. Nor is a double-elimination format, not in hockey. Real change requires consideration of the dynamics of the sport and the practical issues that face the teams.

A single-elimination tournament with the first two rounds held at the homes of high seeds is practical, fair, and exciting. It fixes the problems while adding few or no new ones. Travel is limited, especially when moving lower-seeded teams to closer games. Attendance is maximized. There is an opportunity available for upsets, while preserving the earned advantages of high seeds. 

It's the best option.


March 21st, 2018 at 12:42 PM ^

I like tournaments that heavily weight the higher seeds. It's bad to have an entire season washed out by one bouncing bad puck. I've said before I want to give the top seeds a bonus game.

  • 1vs16: Lower seed has to win 3 games to advance, higher seed needs just one.
  • 2vs15 and 3vs14: Lower seed has to win 2 games to advance, higher seed needs just one (ie lower seed must go 2-0)
  • 4vs13, 5vs12, 6vs11, 7vs10, 8vs9: Best 2/3 advances

Make the regular season count right up to the end! Best team in the country is nearly guaranteed a trip to the next round, top three teams can win a game and advance.


March 21st, 2018 at 1:15 PM ^

I don't understand this apparent desire to gaurantee the top seed advances. Upsets happen. It is what makes sports amazing. Did you see this site when UMBC beat Virginia? A team shouldn't have to work their ass off all season to earn the top seed only to get to take a break once the Championshp tourney starts. 

The benefit of earning the top seed should be home ice advantage and playing a supposedly lesser opponent than whoever earns seeds 2-8. 

In general, I like the idea of higher seeds advance with one win while lower seeds require two. That allows for an upset while normalizing the game. Unfortuntaely, it is almost impossible to create a schedule which accomodates that format.


March 21st, 2018 at 1:56 PM ^

I dont want to be a 16 seeded team with a near zero chance of advancing. I think this also kills any interest for anyone other than the higher seeds fans. The arena may be packed but nobody will be watching on TV to know it.

I think Stephen is on the right track.


March 21st, 2018 at 1:20 PM ^

The thing I do enjoy about hockey and football playing at the same time is you can go to an afternoon football game, have an adult beverage and dinner and then go to a hockey game the same day. A great double header!


March 21st, 2018 at 2:14 PM ^

Both of these are models that the NCAA already uses for tournaments.  One of those tournaments, the Lacrosse tournament, has the highest-attended NCAA championship game most years.

So...format #1--Lacrosse Format.

First weekend, top 8 seeds host the bottom 8.  Minimize flights, avoid intraconference matchups.

Michigan Tech at #1 St. Cloud State
Northeastern at #8 Michigan
Boston University at #4 Ohio State
Air Force at #5 Denver
Princeton at #2 Notre Dame
Clarkson at #7 Providence
Penn State at #3 Cornell
Minnesota-Duluth at #6 Minnesota State
Second weekend, 2 neutral site quarterfinal doubleheaders.  Let's say at Milwaukee and Manchester, more or less the centers of the two regions.
Third weekend, frozen four.
Format #2--Field Hockey Format
First weekend, 4 regionals hosted by the top 4 teams.  Minimize flights, avoid first-round intraconference matchups.
St Cloud Regional:  1 St Cloud State v Michigan Tech; Minnesota State v Minnesota-Duluth
Columbus Regional:  4 Ohio State v Princeton, Denver v Penn State
South Bend Regional:  2 Notre Dame v Air Force, Michigan v Northeastern
Ithaca Regional:  3 Cornell v Boston University, Providence v Clarkson
Everybody's off the second weekend, and the frozen four is the third weekend.
Frozen four has no changes, except it will be Saturday-Monday instead of Thursday-Saturday.
Fans?  Happier with either format, but especially #1
ESPN?  Happier with either format, but especially #1
NCAA "money people"?  Happier with either format, but especially #1
Coaches?  Annoyed that they actually have to play games in front of people who care about the outcome.
You don't even have to make the games best-of-three.  That's a side distraction from the real issue, which is giving fans access to their tournament.

Michigan Arrogance

March 21st, 2018 at 5:48 PM ^

the dude advocating for double elim is bonkers, I threw that out there in a thread a week or 2 ago and it's not really feasible. This isn't mite hockey. you'd never see any real compeditive league play a team 2 games per day - for over 16 ultra compeditive leagues it's wholely inapproriate. ignore the crackpot.


My only other suggestion is - what about the olympic model of pool play? have 2 6 team pools, top 3 advance from each pool to be reseeded vs the top 4 who get a bye. logistically, the pool play would need to extend into week days of course.

 probably wouldn't work, but i'm just throwing stuff out there trying to see what sticks.


March 21st, 2018 at 6:19 PM ^

The little schools (and their coaches) are always going to be more in favor of getting a chance against the bigger schools in an empty Midwest Regional arena rather than say a full house in a single- or best-of-three series at a Michigan, Notre Dame, BU or Denver.  Won't ever change.  Schools such as Tech, and in other years, Ferris, LSSU, BG, etc, believe they would never be high enough in the rankings to host, so they would rather take their chances in an empty out-of-the-way regional arena.