A Guide To College Hockey Comment Count

Brian May 27th, 2016 at 3:22 PM

Afternoon guys,

I’ve been mulling this over for a bit and I don’t know it makes for a mailbag question, a separate post or even just a “here are some helpful links Dana” reply but here goes;

How would you guys explain (REALLY explain) college hockey to someone new to the sport?  I’m not a complete layman, I follow the team through MGoBlog and even spent a couple summers at Red Berenson camp years ago, but when it comes to Michigan athletics it’s definitely Football, Basketball and Hockey in that order that I follow.

So again, how would you guys explain college hockey to a layman or someone who wanted to know more;

- Conference makeup and where the power in college hockey lies (who is the SEC of hockey, etc) -

- RPI (convenient way to rank all 60 teams or nah?)

- Recruiting (where do US College Hockey players come from I guess…did I mention I’m Canadian?)

- Scheduling

Etc, etc.


Time to break out some bigger headers.



Penn State blew it up, but it needed to blow up [Bill Rapai]

College hockey is a bifurcated sport with two main areas of interest: the East, which consists mostly of New England and the occasional Pennsylvania team, and the West, which is concentrated in Minnesota and Michigan with scattered outposts in Nebraska, Colorado, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, and elsewhere. There are also a couple of Alaska teams funded largely by the state's desire to have local sports of any variety and two weird outliers: Arizona State just started a program, and Alabama-Huntsville has one for… reasons.

The East is more or less static with some minor movement. From top to bottom:

  1. Hockey East contains almost all of the big state schools in New England plus various private institutions that fit in for historical reasons. BU and BC are the perennial powers with a rotating cast of other teams who are good enough to make the tournament. UNH and Maine used to be powers but have fallen off a bunch recently. ND joined up and is quickly departing because HE is kind of perfect.
  2. The ECAC is about half Ivy League schools and half academically respectable schools in upstate New York and environs. Historically they've been a weak league with one bid more often than not, but in recent years surges from Union, Quinnipiac, Yale, and Harvard have seen them lock down high seeds in the national tournament and even a couple of national titles. Sustainability of this surge is in question.
  3. Atlantic Hockey is a one-bid league that does not offer the full scholarship complement of 18—I think it's 12 for them. They're the Horizon League, basically.

The vast majority of these teams are smack on top of each other. HE and the ECAC are bus leagues in which most weekends see two different teams come to town. AH is a little more spread out with teams in Pittsburgh (Robert Morris, Mercyhurst) and Colorado Springs (Air Force, which wants to be in the same conference as Army and Navy).

The West is now all over the place. There used to be two conferences, the WHCA and CCHA. The CCHA was all the Michigan teams save Tech and everything else in the Midwest. The WCHA was all the Minnesota teams, Wisconsin, North Dakota, and the two Colorado teams. Those conferences split the Alaska teams. The Big Ten blew this all apart a couple years ago, and now:

  1. The NCHC is more or less the top half of the old WCHA (minus Minnesota and Wisconsin) plus WMU and Miami from the old CCHA. This means they have a couple of major powers and a large number of respectable outfits. They are probably the best conference in college hockey at the moment. They just added Arizona State, an upstart program that just finished its first season.
  2. The Big Ten is a six-team league consisting of Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Penn State, and Ohio State. It is currently in a down phase since Michigan is in Berenson limbo, Minnesota had an off year, Wisconsin took too long to replace Mike Eaves, and Michigan State spends every day of every year spitting on their rich heritage. Wisconsin is going to get real good real quick here and once Mel Pearson (knock on wood) comes back from Tech, Michigan will also get back to what it was. ND, who will be good as long as Jeff Jackson is around, joins next year.
  3. The WCHA got stuck with the leftovers from both the CCHA and WCHA. There are some good teams in there, but it's more mid-major than major.

The West is far more spread out than the East. The addition of the Big Ten was deeply controversial, especially in Minnesota, but once Penn State added a program it was a fait accompli.

One benefit of shakeup: the addition of a conference now gives new programs a landing spot. Previously the WCHA and CCHA were both full at 12 teams; new programs eked out an existence as an independent or in the ever-shifting, now-defunct College Hockey America. Many of them failed. Without the Big Ten it's tough to see an Arizona State adding a program. Also, Penn State has been a great success. They just missed the tournament this year and play to a sold-out rink.


I believe hockey is unique amongst NCAA sports in that they select and seed their tournament exclusively by a formula. The Pairwise used to be a complicated pile of factors that overweighted some things (recent games, nonconference schedule) and underweighted others (how good you are at hockey). Elements of it were gradually pared away until the current version, in which there are three factors. One of those, head to head, usually doesn't apply. RPI breaks ties when it disagrees with the other factor, common opponents. So these days with very limited exceptions RPI == Pairwise.

College hockey RPI is okay. They do some home/away weighting that is out of whack with stats and they have a quality win bonus for beating top 20 teams. (This is approximately the top third of D-I.) That latter plus the relative lack of true tomato cans means a lot of the issues basketball RPI has do not apply. The end result makes enough sense that people don't complain about it much.

There is a competing ranking system called KRACH that is more mathematically rigorous but tends to overrate schedule strength; the differences between the two are a lot more muted now that the WCHA, which was by far the best conference before the shakeup, is no longer in its Voltron form.


Teams play 34 or 36 regular season games plus a conference tournament and an NCAA tournament. (You get a couple extra games if you go to Alaska.) Games are usually on Friday and Saturday nights with the occasional midweek or Sunday game. Somewhere between 20 and 28 of these are conference games, depending on the number of teams in each. Conference tournaments generally have a round or two of best-two-of-three matchups and then a single-elimination final 4 (or 5).

TV coverage is poor unless you're Minnesota or Notre Dame. Regional sports networks were generally carry a handful of games. FSN covers every Minnesota game that the BTN does not; NBCSN picked up a bunch of ND games because ND. The Big Ten Network covers a reasonable number. Full coverage is rare, and smaller schools often rely on streaming. Even megapower North Dakota struggles to get TV coverage, with only 4 national games a year ago.

The Tournament

Hockey has a 16-team single elimination tournament held at four regional sites and then a Frozen Four modeled after… well, you know. The Frozen Four is a successful and well-attended event that will draw a full house or something near to it even when it's thousands of miles away from the nearest hockey program. The regionals are half meh and half a disaster.

The meh half is in the East, where the teams are so close together that the NCAA can rotate through a more or less defined collection of mid-sized arenas that will all be reasonably full because at least two fanbases will be right on top of them. Atmospheres are still muted for the most part.


Neutral site college hockey is not well attended [Jason Coller]

The West is the disaster. Michigan has seven college hockey teams and hasn't seen more than one NCAA regional in a decade; instead the committee keeps putting regionals in places like Fort Wayne, St. Louis, and even Omaha, in buildings way too big and with ticket prices way too high. A second West regional is generally in the WCHA footprint, Minneapolis as often as not. These regionals are almost universally attended by marching bands and crickets and are loathed by literally everyone in the college hockey world except a plurality of coaches who either think playing in a tomb gives them a better chance to win or are in the East and therefore don't care.

There have been some rumbles that the NCAA will finally move away from the failed regional model in the next few years, but I'll believe it when I see it. It's a shame, because Yost hosted a couple of regionals a decade ago, and they were insane. So insane that the rest of college hockey got mad and more or less banned campus sites. The leadership of college hockey has failed massively in this department.

The Rules

On the other hand, college hockey has pioneered most of the rules that the NHL adopted over the course of the past decade. These include no-touch icing*, two refs, and getting rid of two-line passes. The main differences between the NHL and the NCAA that remain are

  • fighting is five, a game, and a suspension in college
  • there is no goalie trapezoid behind the nets
  • five-on-five OT, with shootouts only applicable to conference standings**
  • no handpasses, anywhere
  • Olympic rinks are allowed

Also you have to wear a full shield.

*[The NCAA had pure no-touch icing until a few years ago, when they went to the same hybrid icing the NHL did.]

**[A game that ends in a shootout is treated as a tie for RPI purposes.]


These days a plurality of players come from the USHL, a "Tier 1" junior league spread throughout the Midwest. The USHL and NAHL, another junior circuit with two main hubs in the upper Midwest and Texas, were about on par until a decade or so ago when USA Hockey created the Tier 1 designation and the USHL went after it. In general this means a higher level of facilities and support for the players. If you believe in point equivalences—ie the idea that a league can be judged by how well its players' scoring translates to higher leagues—USHL to AHL/NHL point transitions are more or less on par with the CHL. The NAHL is some distance back and their players usually populate lower-tier teams and fourth lines.

USA Hockey's National Team Development Program also plays in the USHL but is a thing apart. They have U17 and U18 teams that play a variety of international tournaments and, for the U18s, a ~30-game schedule of exhibitions against college teams. The U17s draw the majority of USHL games and generally get cranked due to the age gap. The NTDP gets about 80% of the first round NHL draft picks who are headed to college.

Minnesota and New England both have high school hockey that is good enough to produce a lot of recruits, and the NCAA recruits from various non-CHL junior leagues across Canada, the most prominent of which are the BCHL and OPJHL, if the latter is still called that. Per the most recent NCAA data 24% of NCAA hockey is played by "nonresident aliens," the vast majority of whom are Canadian.

One key difference between Canada and the US is that US players will often stick with their junior teams after high school. USHL teams can have players up to 20 and for many teams their answer to recruiting deficiencies is to bring in older and older players. There was a recent kerfuffle when the Big Ten, which generally recruits right out of high school, introduced a proposal to reduce eligibility for players who enter college older than 20. Everyone yelled at them and it was withdrawn.

Level of Play

More variable than the CHL but likely to be better overall. In large part this is due to age. College hockey players are on average much older than CHL players, and now college alums make up about 30% of the NHL. While the CHL has more NHL prospects per team—both leagues have about 60 teams total—the NCAA's are more concentrated, so unless you have a lot of Atlantic Hockey teams on the schedule that gap between future NHLers is smaller. The NCAA also has a significant edge in point equivalencies. Three years is apparently more than enough to bridge the gap in relative NHL draft status.



May 27th, 2016 at 3:25 PM ^

THIS is the mailbag question you answer and not mine about how you look like the dude from Being John Malkovich and would you go within Harbaugh's body if you found a similar magic tunnel? REALLY, BRIAN!?


May 27th, 2016 at 4:55 PM ^

College hockey was so much better in the 1990s. Not only was Michigan THE dominant program, but Yost was more lively and the NCAA regionals were at much better locales.

Gucci Mane

May 27th, 2016 at 5:24 PM ^

Not sure why but it bugged me when it said "have to wear a full shield" because a player could also wear a cage. Very little thing I know.


May 27th, 2016 at 6:43 PM ^

The regional situation and the bifurcation issue are closely intertwined, as Brian says. The "West" includes a large number of teams that are pretty far East in the view of the nation at large, but in hockey terms it's a different world.

And the proximity is a huge issue. One of my beefs with college hockey leadership is that people with an Eastern orientation really think that the whole world is exactly like their own experience of it. But it's not at all the same. It astonishes me to see games from the East where the arenas are half empty and both teams live within an hour of each other--why aren't visiting fans packing the arena out? Michigan's closest opponents are a minimum of an hour away; a team like BC has 7 or 8 teams within that distance.

So you get situations where the two eastern regionals are less than two hours from each other, while a regional in Green Bay (drove four hours to take the wife and kids, FWIW) is a minimum of four hours from any of the participating teams.

This is a very good primer. It will probably get dated fast if the NCAA ever gets around to changing its regional format and if the B1G expands some more, but this will be useful to link to for a long time.


May 28th, 2016 at 12:59 PM ^

BC is a tough one.  They have come close to dynasty status, and have easily been the most dominant program in the East.  But they just don't have a big fanbase.  Total student body size is probably a third of Michigan, and like you said there are so many colleges nearby that they don't get the general public to become fans like Michigan does.


May 28th, 2016 at 1:40 AM ^

I moved to Huntsville in 1989 and lived there for six years. Not long after I arrived some co-workers asked if I wanted to go to the hockey game. I was shocked to discover hockey in Alabama.

UAH used to be a DII powerhouse when there was DII hockey. UAH is a good engineering school with ties to NASA, Marshall Space Flight Center and they play at the Werner VonBraun Civic Center. The recruiting plan was to find Canadians who wanted to be engineers, were not DI or OHL skill level, and wanted a warm climate.

When the NCAA whacked DII (due to too few teams), UAH moved up to DI but they have struggled mightily at that level. At one point UHA decided to end the hockey program, but it was revived by popular demand. If NCAA hockey can continue to grow to bring back the DII level, UAH should return there.


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Wolverine Convert

May 29th, 2016 at 8:31 AM ^

Thanks for the great article. Have have been a hockey season ticket holder for several years but still found this very useful. The more that the casual fan can learn the more they will become a more rabid fan.

Sent from MGoBlog HD for iPhone & iPad


May 30th, 2016 at 7:28 PM ^

This was very well done. A couple comments. Of the various ratings I do like KRACH. Seems to be the most on the mark. College hockey is maybe the most objective of all college sports when it comes to picking teams for the tourney. As for Regional sites in the West, the state of Michigan really only has JLA and Van Andel in GR. At either, unless you have UM or Moo U you won't come close to filling them. State hasn't been going much recently. Hard to fill arenas without the big names. WCHA has been forced to abandon neutral site league playoffs because attendance was horrible. I'd say two issues to watch are whether the sport grows. The BIG could use more teams. Also, if the price of oil doesn't go back up the two teams from Alaska might cease to exist.


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