When the NCAA men’s ice hockey committee met on Sunday to seed the Division I men’s national championship tournament, bracket integrity was of top importance, according to committee chair Mike Kemp, associate athletic director at Omaha.
“We felt the seeding read for itself,” said Kemp, who noted when you took the 16 teams that had earned a spot in the tournament and seeded each, 1 through 16, you had just one instance of two teams from the same conference being matched up in the first round: No. 7 North Dakota and No. 10 St. Cloud State. “We felt it was important to keep the bracket and the integrity of the bracket the way it is. We would be able to say that we followed the numbers, followed the criteria, and did it the right way.”
In doing so, that forced the committee to move UMass Lowell, which this season had the top average attendance of any team in the three eastern conferences, to the furthest west region in Loveland, Colo. The River Hawks average 4,532 fans per home game, more than 2,000 fans per game more than Northeastern, which was seeded in the Worcester Region, less than an hour from campus.
The matchups, though, in each region are directly in correlation to what the PairWise Rankings established. UMass Lowell, the 13th-seeded team and the highest of the No. 4 seeds, will face Denver, the fourth seed and lowest of the No. 1 seeds. Northeastern’s overall seed is 14th and they face Western Michigan, the third overall seed.
The only major decision for the committee was which teams in the band of No. 3 seeds would move to avoid a first-round matchup of North Dakota and St. Cloud State. In the end, the committee decided to swap Notre Dame with St. Cloud State. That helped create a 3-14 and 6-11 matchup that placed both Northeastern and Massachusetts in Worcester, something that will certainly bolster attendance.
Though not 100 percent intentional, the Albany Regional has three western teams but arguably the one western school whose fans travel the best: North Dakota. Between the Fighting Hawks and Harvard, there should be a decent atmosphere.
The Loveland, Colo., region will feature host Denver and will be guaranteed to be close to – if not completely – sold out.
That left attendance concerns only in Allentown, Pa., something that was almost unavoidable after neither of the state’s teams – Penn State and Mercyhurst – qualified for the tournament.
Many question why three of the four regionals are so far east, and Kemp explained that qualifying bids for this year’s regional tournaments were somewhat limited. He did note that the most recent bid cycle featured sites further west like Fargo, N.D., Sioux Falls., S.D., and one of this this year’s hosts, Loveland.
When asked if there would be considerations in the future to possibly allow schools to host in venues on their actual campus instead of a completely neutral site, Kemp said he’d like to see that.
“Optimistically, we’ll be able to get more west sites so we have a true east/west feel [to the regionals],” said Kemp. “Do I think it’s a problem to let campus sites bid? That might work well. I’d love to host [a regional] in Omaha at Baxter Arena. So far we haven’t been allowed to do that. That’s going to be one of those ongoing discussions we’ll all have and some day it may change.”
This year’s tournament marks the first time that regionals will be played over three days, allowing for an off-day between the opening round and regional final game. Kemp says that’s a topic that the committee has looked to address for years and after last year’s five-overtime game between North Dakota and Minnesota Duluth, there was a decision to finally implement it for student-athlete safety.
“From a standpoint of student-athlete safety and health, we felt it was the right time to make a decision to push for a day off in between,” Kemp said. “If you have a second game of the night [in a regional] that gets over at say, 11:30, the disadvantage to that team is significant both from a standpoint of competitiveness and student athlete safety.”