Geof F. Morris

Jun 202018
 

Proposed New Schedule Exemption

It is time for a new exemption in college hockey: If you play in a geographically diverse conference, all non-Alaska members can play one home series each season that can be exempted from the visitors’ schedule maximum.

The Alaska Exemption

College hockey fans generally know about “the Alaskan exemption” if you schedule games at either Alaska or Alaska-Anchorage, those games do not count against your 34-game maximum, and as such you can schedule 36 games against Division I opponents.  For men’s ice hockey, the relevant section of the 2017-18 NCAA Division I manual is 17.13.5.3 Annual Exemptions, item (i).

(i) Hawaii or Alaska.  Any games played in Hawaii or Alaska, respectively, against an active Division I member institution located in Hawaii or Alaska, by a member located outside the area in question;

which is to say that UAA and UAF can’t exempt their four games against each other.

This rule exists to maintain NCAA member school viability in far-flung locales (Puerto Rico is often included in these exemptions despite its geographic proximity to Florida).  The thinking goes that a team that makes the trip to Alaska, Hawaii, or Puerto Rico can then schedule an extra home game (or weekend), allowing it to recuperate some or all of the cost of the travel.  For the remote schools, it allows them to play a fuller Division I schedule without saddling them with a travel budget many times what their continental counterparts would require.

The Alaska Concentration

College hockey fans generally know that both UAA and UAF are in the same conference, which wasn’t the case as recently as five years ago, when the CCHA still existed and hated biscuits.  Now the WCHA has the worst far-flung travel schedule of all of the conferences, and it’s frankly not even close.  Behold:

Atlantic Hockey’s geographic midpoint is in Allegany, NY.

Atlantic Hockey Geographic Midpoint

The Big Ten’s geographic midpoint is in Climax, MI.

Big Ten Geographic Footprint

The ECAC’s geographic midpoint is in Rensselaer, NY.

ECAC Geographic Footprint

Hockey East’s geographic midpoint is Windham, NH.

Hockey East Geographic Footprint

The NCHC’s geographic midpoint is in Webb, IA.

NCHC Geographic Footprint

The WCHA’s geographic midpoint is Falcon Beach, MB.

WCHA Geographic Footprint

The Far-Flung Problem

The WCHA has all three of the longest road trips in the country: Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Huntsville.  Furthermore, all four Michigan schools are far from well-traveled airports, and Bemidji State is equidistant from Winnipeg and Minneapolis.  Only one WCHA member school — UAA — is served by a large airport with regularly scheduled flights capable of easily carrying a full hockey team and their gear.  If you travel to most any other school via air, you’ll be riding a bus for a couple of hours at minimum to and from the airport.  (Yes, this is true of Huntsville: despite being the conference’s largest metropolitan area, proximity to Atlanta, Nashville, and Birmingham means that HSV is pretty small.)

In theory, each non-Alaska WCHA school can exempt two games a season, and in some years, you get to exempt four. WCHA schools have had an issue getting home dates to make use of the exemption, largely nullifying the value of being in a conference with UAA and UAF.  The WCHA will have 63 (up to 65) non-conference games in 2018-19, and just 25 of those are at home.  The breakdown of those 25 games are: AHC (3), ASU (2), Bi7 (5), ECAC (2), HE (4), NCHC (9).  Just four of those (SCSU @ UAA 2x, CC @ UAF 2x) are exemption-sourcing games.

The availability of WCHA schools to schedule two or four extra games hasn’t proved to make it easier to get home dates.  Furthermore, the current constitution of the WCHA as the leftovers thrown into one western conference means that seven schools are saddled with the difficulties of traveling to three programs, costs that are difficult to offset without an incentive for schools to visit them (or to offer lucrative pay dates).  For the three eastern conferences: the three AHC games are with teams in the western half of the conference (MC, RMU); the HE trips are BU and Merrimack, and the ECAC trip is Cornell to NMU, which isn’t an arduous journey.  It’s telling that the two top-flight trips — BU-MSU, CU-NMU — are to teams at the top of the WCHA last season.

Proposed Solution

Simply put: Rather than a state-based solution, make it a geographic-based one.

  1. If you are at least 1,000 miles from your conference’s geographic center, you can award all visiting schools a one-series, two-game exemption from their schedule maximum.
  2. If at least half of a conference’s member schools are at least 500 miles from that conference’s geographic center, all non-Alaska schools can award one visiting school a one-series, two-game exemption from their schedule maximum.

The net effect of this proposal is as follows:

  1. Air Force and Alabama-Huntsville would additionally be able to enable visiting schools to exempt games as long as conference affiliations are in their current configuration.
  2. Atlantic Hockey and WCHA schools would become able to designate one home, non-conference series as eligible for exemption each season.

Rationale

If the goal is to increase the amount of teams playing Division I sports in general, including supporting programs outside of the traditional geographic footprints of those sports, schedule exemptions are a great way to increase travel to these far-flung member schools.  Adding Air Force and UAH to the list of schools that grant exemptions not only allows them to schedule more home games, but it allows members of their parent conferences to offset the costs of having a distant member in their midst.  The costs of travel to these distant destinations can be offset with a home weekend, but if your program struggles to get home weekends — and AHC and WCHA schools do — this gives you another arrow in your quiver.

Let us again consider this season.  Would WCHA schools be seeing just 18 games against top-four leagues, most of those between in-state teams that are long-standing foes?  If you’re Ohio State, don’t you consider a two-and-two rather than a one-and-one with BG because you could pick up another three home games out of the deal?  If you’re Western, don’t you try to play Ferris State every year?

Exemptions for all WCHA and AHC members allow them to get bigger schools to schedule them for games.  While these two leagues are pretty widespread, the hearts of each league are near hockey hotbeds, so getting exempt games generated locally will help these schools.

As for Air Force and Alabama-Huntsville, they both benefit greatly.

Air Force would cement its place in AHC, because it moving somewhere else collapses the league into a footprint centered on Binghamton, NY, one that takes the exemption away from all of those schools.  Air Force would be virtually guaranteed home games with in-state foes DU and CC every season, and it’s likely that some schools would make a Colorado trip and do single games with Air Force and either Denver or Colorado, using the exemption on the other in-Colorado game and keeping a home seris in pocket.

Alabama-Huntsville has historically struggled to get quality home opponents; its best such series came only when local boy Nic Dowd was a senior at St. Cloud and got Bob Motzko to bring him down.  A full-exemption home non-conference slate would likely see the team playing 18-20 home dates a season, which would greatly help attendance and send a message that Huntsville is a home for hockey.  UAH could even have seasons where its only road series were in conference play.

Atlantic Hockey members would benefit as well, as many of these schools are short bus rides away from HE, ECAC, and Bi7 schools, who would be much likelier to schedule road dates to those schools.

A Survey of the Distances of Each School to their Conference’s Geographic Midpoint

All distances courtesy of Daft Logic’s Distance Calculator.  They are direct-line distances between each and do not reflect road availability or travel times.

In short, four schools (Air Force, Alabama-Huntsville, Alaska-Anchorage, and Alaska) are more than 1,000 miles from their league’s geographic midpoint, and two conferences (Atlantic Hockey, WCHA) have at least half of member schools playing at least 500 miles from the geographic center.

Atlantic Hockey (average distance 648 miles, standard deviation 333 miles)

  • Air Force, 1,398 miles
  • American International, 302 miles
  • Army, 239 miles
  • Bentley, 372 miles
  • Canisius, 763 miles
  • Holy Cross, 402 miles
  • Mercyhurst, 825 miles
  • Niagara, 769 miles
  • Robert Morris, 855 miles
  • RIT, 700 miles
  • Sacred Heart, 507 miles

Big Ten (206, 157):

  • Michigan, 82 miles
  • Michigan State, 55 miles
  • Minnesota, 431 miles
  • Notre Dame, 61 miles
  • Ohio State, 199 miles
  • Penn State, 400 miles
  • Wisconsin, 215 miles

ECAC (108, 52):

  • Brown, 132 miles
  • Clarkson, 153 miles
  • Colgate, 92 miles
  • Cornell, 141 miles
  • Dartmouth, 104 miles
  • Harvard, 136 miles
  • Princeton, 165 miles
  • Quinnipiac, 97 miles
  • RPI, 6 miles
  • St. Lawrence, 153 miles
  • Union, 15 miles
  • Yale, 101 miles

Hockey East (65, 59):

  • Boston College, 33 miles
  • Boston University, 32 miles
  • Connecticut, 84 miles
  • Maine, 195 miles
  • Massachusetts, 69 miles
  • Massachusetts-Lowell, 12 miles
  • Merrimack, 11 miles
  • New Hampshire, 30 miles
  • Northeastern, 32 miles
  • Providence, 68 miles
  • Vermont, 150 miles

NCHC (398, 183):

  • Colorado College, 586 miles
  • Denver, 563 miles
  • Miami, 584 miles
  • Minnesota-Duluth, 301 miles
  • Nebraska-Omaha, 126 miles
  • North Dakota, 358 miles
  • St. Cloud State, 185 miles
  • Western Michigan, 482 miles

WCHA (877, 733):

  • Alabama-Huntsville, 1125 miles
  • Alaska-Anchorage, 2207 miles
  • Alaska, 2138 miles
  • Bemidji State, 155 miles
  • Bowling Green, 804 miles
  • Ferris State, 623 miles
  • Lake Superior, 552 miles
  • Michigan Tech, 357 miles
  • Minnesota State, 387 miles
  • Northern Michigan, 425 miles

What about realignment?

Discussions of the effects of this proposal on realignment (or realignment on this proposal) might be done at a later date.

Give It Up for Alabama’s Favorite Fighting Frenchman

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Nov 122016
 

“Why isn’t Carmine Guerriero playing?”

This is a common question to Michael and me, and since we’ve never addressed it here, let’s do this:

  1. Carmine Guerriero told me back in September that he didn’t think that he’d play Division I hockey.  He was bound for D-III or CIS hockey.  UAH needed a third, and they knew the truth as well as anyone: with our favorite fighting Frenchman (okay, French-Canadian) having been born on 1992-02-20, would be ineligible for a year of NCAA hockey for having played 12 games for the CCHL’s Hawkesbury Hawks in his final year in juniors.
  2. Carmine came here anyway and has had a couple okay games along the way.  True, last year’s campaign was not what he or anyone else wanted, but he’s a fine young man, a valuable part of the team, and a good student.
  3. UAH and Guerriero appealed to the NCAA in the offseason for Carmine to get some eligibility for this season.  The argument was effective, but Guerriero’s grant of a fourth year came at the cost of missing 12 games at the beginning of the season, one for each of the games played over age.

UAH was never at risk of forfeiting games, as some have feared — Guerriero was simply awarded more eligibility than would otherwise have been afforded him by NCAA rules.  All parties involved recognized this: giving Carmine another year of hockey eligibility allows him to hone his skills for play at any further level but far more importantly gives him a chance to complete his degree on time.

I’d say that Jordan Uhelski earned the Friday start based on his body of work during those 12 games, but I expect that we’ll see 35 soon enough.  This isn’t a situation where the NCAA missed the ball (that one still completely boggles me because hockeydb is right over there, bro) but is one where everyone went in with clear eyes and good intentions, both in the past and this summer.

See ya soon, Carm.  Don’t throw away your shot.

NCHC: No to Minnesota State, Arizona State

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Aug 312016
 

The NCHC said no today to expansion bids from Arizona and Minnesota State.

The word on the street is that the Alaska situation is a concern, although not a primary one.

This obviates the recovery for a 7-team WCHA that I proposed the other day, but an 8-team WCHA would have some travel issues as well.  The question is going to be very simple: if the Alaska schools drop Division I athletics at both campuses, will the WCHA be comfortable with an 8-team scheduling matrix?

Eight teams drives you to play your seven opponents home-and-away: Huntsville every year, Bemidji every year, everyone every year.  Do you add two teams to ameliorate that travel?  You’d consider it, but who could come aboard?  The exit fee to leave the NCHC is $1.5MM per Brad E. Schlossman, and that means that you’re not going to see Western Michigan and Miami come back to a league that would look increasingly like the old CCHA.  [Also not happening: WMU and MU for BSU and MSU.  This isn’t a Yahoo! college hockey fantasy league.]

What about Arizona State?

Good question!  I know that the WCHA really wanted to get a name school into the league, and even with an uncertain arena situation (see the first link up top from CHN), it may be a good fit for the league.  I noted earlier today that the WCHA may want to get them and make it hard for them to leave.  While it may look bad to add a geographical outlier like the Sun Devils, the matter of fact is that a 9-team WCHA that loses the Alaska schools but adds Arizona State can easily put in a system where you generally don’t play in Tempe and Huntsville every year, the biggest flight for most schools.

Would the WCHA want to add Arizona State and another team to go stay at 10 teams?

That’s a big maybe.  Robert Morris is probably the most sensible option, as you can make UAH-ASU a scheduling pair and make BGSU-RMU a travel pair.  From Sunday:

BGSU-RMU: The two schools aren’t terribly far apart, and Ohioans largely hate Pittsburgh.  Also, losing the pairing with UAH keeps their travel costs down.  Keeping BGSU is key for the health of the league — probably moreso than any other team.

The resulting geographic pattern isn’t a terrible one:

WCHA - Alaskas + ASU + RMU

What if the Alaska schools survive?  Will Arizona State get in anyway?

I’m going to bet yes, and I think that they’d look at add a 12th (e.g., RMU) to keep a core in the arc of the Midwest in order to keep travel costs down for schools that aren’t far-flung.

There’s a lotta ins, a lotta outs, a lotta what-have-yous.  I did a lot of work on this the other night, and I’m sure that I’ll do more. But I’ll probably be pulling it off this site and onto another one.

What Comes Next — Will Some Come West?

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Aug 282016
 

Now to be clear, we want none of these things to happen, but it’s entirely possible that Minnesota State may leave the WCHA (a stronger bet now that Arizona State is angling for a slot in the NCHC) and that the Alaska schools don’t survive the chopping block.  What comes next?

At that point, the WCHA is a 7-team league: four teams in Michigan (Michigan Tech, Northern Michigan, Lake Superior, and Ferris State), and one each in Minnesota (Bemidji State), Ohio (Bowling Green), and Alabama.  That league looks something a bit like this, geographically:

Midpoint, 7-team WCHA

The only thing that league would have going for it would be a killer postseason tournament on a frozen Lake Michigan (or, failing that, one of those crazy Space-X rocket-landing barges flooded with an ice sheet).  A 7-team league would be a hard sell, because the only sensible scheduling mechanism, a 24-game league schedule where you play each team home-and-away, would be brutal on travel for six small schools and Bowling Green.  That’s a league that the Falcons would try to quickly exit if no new teams come in.  It’s also a modestly-upgraded College Hockey America.

But what if another shift in tectonic plates involves some Eastern teams on the western edge of things?  I’m specifically thinking of three schools who have had success in Atlantic Hockey, two of whom were previously in the CHA: Niagara, Robert Morris, and RIT.  Here’s what a geographic footprint with those teams looks like:

Raiding Atlantic Hockey

Now Niagara has been down on its luck the last three seasons, losing 20+ games in each of those campaigns.  RIT has faded a little bit, too, but they’re consistently a solid team.  Lastly, RMU has been scorching hot since the demise of the CHA, winning at least 17 games in every campaign.

Here’s how you make that setup work.  Remember that the WCHA has had a 28-game league schedule for 10 teams: one team you play as a travel pair, and the other eight alternate in a two- or four-game fashion.  Here are your sensible pairings:

  1. UAH – Bemidji.  Neither team has another WCHA team in their state or a neighboring one, the two are rivals, and the Beavers aren’t going to horn in on a rivalry with Tech, the team closest to them.  This is the toughest travel pairing in the league, but someone is going to lose out in any deal like this.
  2. Tech – Northern.  This is an established pairing from the current WCHA setup.
  3. Lake – Ferris.  This is also an established pairing.
  4. BG – RMU.  The two schools aren’t terribly far apart, and Ohioans largely hate Pittsburgh.  Also, losing the pairing with UAH keeps their travel costs down.  Keeping BGSU is key for the health of the league — probably moreso than any other team.
  5. Niagara – RIT.  The two NY schools make sense to put together, especially for those snowy upstate winter weekends.

Pairing UAH and Bemidji also puts teams into a situation where it’s rare that a team will have to make both trips in a season — just once in every four seasons.  Even better, you can do your two-game/four-game flip on the pairings: UAH plays Tech four times and Northern twice, then flips the next season, etc.  That lowers travel costs pretty significantly for everyone save Bemidji and UAH, who unfortunately (for them) don’t fit into any other league.

Let’s do a thought experiment with Bowling Green as the key.  Say it’s the Falcons’ year to travel to Pittsburgh, Huntsville, Tech, Niagara, Ferris, Rochester, and the Soo.

Bowling Green Travel 2018-19

Those all look like bus trips to me.


Losing Minnesota State, Alaska, and Alaska-Anchorage while adding Niagara, RIT, and Robert Morris moves the WCHA from WCHA Lite to CCHA Lite.  Better still, Bowling Green owns the rights to the name of the CCHA.  If we’re going to lose Mankato, I propose that we sell the NCHC the name WCHA and revive the CCHA name.  Half of the league’s teams have a CCHA pedigree (counting Tech’s brief presence in the league), and the CCHA is strongly associated with Michigan and Ohio, if not these schools.  Playing closer to the middle of the country may allow the W(C)CHA to get non-conference games with the schools in that area.  (Emphasis on may.)

If the WCHA loses the Alaska schools, they are on the knife edge of being able to schedule a far-flung league, even one without the long trips to the 49th.  Playing a 28-game league schedule with eight teams means that everyone travels everywhere else in a season.  The Michigan and Ohio teams have to be unenthusiastic about that.  Yes, you travel to Huntsville three years in four, but that’s better than going to Alaska three years in four and twice once every four.

If you’re interested, I’ve developed the CCHA Lite Schedule Format (PDF) of my thinking for this.  I used the template of the home / away / home & home setup of the current WCHA, substituting UAH and BSU for UAA and UAF (figuring that the schedule had worked out for the long travel), RMU for UAH (making the shorter trip for the Falcons), and NU and RIT for BSU and MSU (keeping an in-state pair of schools a bit removed from the rest of the league paired together).  I think that this works pretty well, at least for a start.

There are two pretty big IFs here, but they’re realistic, and if they come to fruition, the WCHA needs to be ready.

Aug 212016
 

These are grim days for college hockey in Alaska, as UAA and UAF hockey look to be on the chopping block in a period that UAA athletic director Keith Hackett called “very, very trying times” on Thursday.  The University of Alaska system released a report on Thursday that seeks to confront the potential complete general fund cut in athletics across the system.  The report’s options aren’t crystal clear, but I’ll give the rundown as I best understand it:

  1.  Athletics at either Fairbanks or Anchorage could have a complete cut — or both could be cut altogether.  These cuts are driven by a $50MM shortfall in the UA system that would likely cut General Fund contributions to Athletics by 50% in FY 2020 from FY 2016 levels and remove those contributions altogether by 2025.  College Hockey News reports that UAA will have to trim $1.7MM from its budget by July 2017 after already absorbing a $1MM cut last year.  UAA’s hockey operating budget is $1.9MM per Hackett, while the News Miner reports that UAF hockey costs are around $2.1MM.
  2. The UA system might approach the NCAA with a consortium model for athletics, with some sports playing in Fairbanks while others play in Anchorage.  This would allow UAF to keep skiing and rifle while UAA could keep basketball.  The issue with this is that teams would play under the Alaska banner, but students seeking to play these sports would have their academic choices limited by their sport assignment.  The two schools are 300 miles apart, so one can’t argue that playing and studying could be separated easily.  The two schools field teams in 23 sports, and the cuts would be down to “10+”, the NCAA minimum for Division II.  Ice hockey, skiing, and rifle are not sanctioned at the Division II level.
  3. Both schools would drop to Division II, ending the Division I-only programs and having all competition in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference.  The expensive sports — mainly hockey — would be replaced by less-expensive ones (1/3 – 1/2 the cost) per the Alaska Dispatch News.

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All is not bleak:

Hackett, though clearly frustrated by the impact budget cuts handed down by the Legislature will have on athletics, was quick to say that nothing in the report is finalized and actions by the Board of Regents aren’t limited to just those options.

“Everything is on the table, but there is no decision about programs at this time,” he said.

UA President Jim Johnsen released a statement:

“There is a lot to think about here with the options presented, but I am particularly pleased that these groups have stepped up, stayed with the charge, and generated not only what I asked them to evaluate, but they have put forward some innovative ideas to realign university resources.”

Graeme Strukoff looks toward the net from the point with Doug Reid low in the slot.  (Photo credit: Chris Brightwell)

Graeme Strukoff looks toward the net from the point with Doug Reid low in the slot. (Photo credit: Chris Brightwell)

If there’s a school that understands this situation, it’s UAH.  Alabama doesn’t have the same kind of fiscal problems that the State of Alaska does, but a $25MM cut was levied for the most recent budget by the Alaska state legislature and signed by the governor.  That decision is driving these cuts, which are not limited by any means to just athletics — academic programs are on the block as well.  All of this reminds me of a lot of the rumblings that I’ve heard from Tuscaloosa about how the programs shouldn’t try to compete and that UAH should keep athletics costs down.  I don’t think that this attitude has prevailed — UAH has added lacrosse, so cost containment overall wouldn’t appear to be an issue — but dividing and conquering has always seemed to be the way of the Alabama system.

It’s also very clear that state apportionments to education have steadily dropped over the last 20 years.  I remember when I was an undergraduate at UAH (I started 19 falls ago) that UAH’s general fund was sourced around 50% from money from Montgomery; for FY 2015, it was 21.3%.  (Note, that page is a rolling entry, so if you look at this in three years, the numbers will be different.)

It’s a difficult time for public higher education.  Our three schools have high travel costs due to being geographic outliers. We nearly lost our program; it would be a tragedy if UAA and/or UAF lost theirs.  With two of the three options ending hockey for at least one campus, this is pretty grim.  I don’t really see a reading of this where neither program is lost unless the general fun cuts come from other areas.  It feels very much like one program will go down, and I honestly expect both to be axed.

Public comment on Pathways has been sparse, especially in support of athletics.  Alaskans who love hockey, get out and make your voice heard — don’t confine your frustration to the USCHO Fan Forum.