Commentary: It's time to revisit the idea of home regionals at the NCAA men's hockey tournament
Crowds were again an issue during the 2022 event, but most of the country's coaches have been hesitant to bring regionals home.
GRAND FORKS — Nine years ago, UND played Yale in the NCAA West Regional final. A trip to the NCAA Frozen Four was at stake. It was one of the biggest games of the college hockey season.
The game, played in Grand Rapids, Mich., drew the smallest crowd to watch any UND men's hockey game in seven years.
Down the road in Toledo, Ohio, St. Cloud State reached its first-ever Frozen Four by winning a game in front of the smallest crowd to watch the Huskies all season outside of a series at Alaska Anchorage.
The NCAA men's hockey regionals were a highly debated topic at the time because of the attendance issues.
But the overwhelming majority of Division-I men's hockey coaches remained steadfast in their belief that regionals should be played at neutral sites — not on campus or in home arenas. It's too big of an advantage to play NCAA tournament games at home, the vast majority of coaches said.
They vowed to explore other avenues to improve regional attendance — ticket prices, fan experience, locations and more.
But here we are, a decade later, and nothing has changed.
When Minnesota State and Harvard took the ice to open this year's NCAA tournament in Albany, N.Y., there were roughly 500 fans in the stands.
The nightcap in Albany featured two of college hockey's heavyweights — North Dakota vs. Notre Dame. It drew 2,345 fans, the smallest crowd to watch a North Dakota hockey game all year and second smallest to see Notre Dame.
This is not a slight at Albany. The people there did a fine job running the regional. But with three participating teams more than 700 miles from home, there was no saving it — not game times, not ticket prices, not fan experience.
The NCAA men's hockey coaching body will meet this week in Naples, Fla. to discuss issues facing the sport. The regionals should be a priority. Coaches and administrators cannot avert their eyes from this recurring problem or pretend that it's not bad and will go away.
Is there another sport, anywhere, that accepts playing its biggest games in front of its smallest crowds?
There are a number of college hockey players and fans who have stories similar to the one Mike Commodore tells.
The towering defenseman from Alberta had no plans to play college hockey. He took a visit to North Dakota because it was a free trip. When he got to the arena and experienced the packed crowd, the students, the band, the chants — everything that makes a college hockey atmosphere like nothing else in the sport — Commodore was hooked.
He went to UND, won an NCAA national championship and remained so tied to the school and city that he brought the Stanley Cup back to campus after winning it in 2006.
Every fan probably has their own story of how they got hooked.
But when college hockey gets to the national tournament, it does away with much of what makes it special.
The players, competing in what should be the most memorable games of their lives, too often do it in front of empty stadiums with no atmosphere.
The fans, who pack arenas all season along, too often don't have a chance to attend. If it requires a plane flight, few are booking tickets on less than a week's notice. They'll wait for the Frozen Four instead.
And there's little chance to win over new fans.
The NCAA tournament games are on national television in both the United States and Canada. When casual fans or NHL prospect followers flip it on, they too often see empty seats.
Some will turn the channel immediately and understandably so. Look at TV sports ratings during the pandemic, when teams were playing in limited-capacity buildings. They plummeted across the board. Great atmospheres are a huge part of what makes sports compelling.
The fans who don't turn the channel watch a version of college hockey that's completely foreign to what we witness all season long.
Men's hockey coaches, administrators and the NCAA don't need to make any big decisions this week or this summer. The tournament format will remain the same for at least the next four years, because regional sites are locked in for 2023, 2024, 2025 and 2026.
But the debates, research and discussions need to begin now, so college hockey is prepared to make a well-informed decision on the regionals when bids come up again in two or three years.
Home sites revisited
One idea college hockey needs to seriously explore is going to home sites for the NCAA regionals.
We've seen the potential in the Big Ten and the WCHA/CCHA, which recently moved their postseason conference tournaments entirely to home sites.
The Mayo Clinic Event Center in Mankato, Minn., was packed for the CCHA title game between Minnesota State and Bemidji State. Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis set an attendance record for Minnesota's Big Ten title game against Michigan this season.
The raucous atmospheres at both of those games is how you get new fans hooked on the sport and it's how you create longtime memories for the players and coaches.
Considering that, the idea that makes the most sense to me is opening the 16-team with eight best-of-three series at the home site of the higher seed. That guarantees incredible atmospheres for every game, revenue for the NCAA and a reward for teams that finish in the top eight of the Pairwise Rankings.
The following week, there could be a super regional, much like the NCAA does for its postseason baseball tournament. The higher seeds could once again host either a series or a single game to go to the Frozen Four.
If you want the week off heading into the Frozen Four to remain in place, the calendar would have to be adjusted or else teams would have to get rid of a bye week to fit it in.
If not, the other option is rolling right into the Frozen Four with no week off, just like basketball does for the Final Four.
The Frozen Four itself can remain the same. It continues to be very successful at pre-determined NHL arenas — whether local teams make it or not, as this year proved.
The biggest pushback will be from coaches who think the home regional setup is too big of an advantage for the home teams. It certainly is an advantage. But at least it's an advantage earned through five months of regular-season play — not because their administration submitted a good bid four years ago.
There will be pushback from those who think this stacks the deck in favor of the bigger and more prominent schools. But under the current system, UND could bid for a regional in Fargo every year and play de facto home games annually en route to the NCAA Frozen Four. Right now, UND has been bidding every other year for Scheels Arena — and winning every bid.
There will be pushback from those who thinks this format eliminates upsets and the Cinderella story. But is there even such thing under the current format anymore? No. 4 seeds beat No. 1 seeds so often that it barely creates a ripple anymore.
When it comes down to voting on potential new regional formats, most coaches and administrators will vote based on what they think gives their teams the best shot to get to the Frozen Four. Some programs quietly don't mind the idea of playing in an empty building. It's better than playing a road game from their perspective.
But that's not good for the sport.
In the meantime, the new day off between the regional semifinals and the regional championship was a big hit with the coaches — even those that played Thursday and had a quick turnaround from their conference championship the week prior.
The day off also allowed all 15 NCAA tournament games to have their own timeslot and spotlight — a great development for college hockey fans.
While both of those were big wins for the tournament, attendance was again a problem — and not one NCAA coaches and administrators should overlook.