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Campbell's Cuts: Growing NCAA hockey a tough task

The Boston College Golden Eagles celebrate their victory over the Notre Dame
Fighting Irish in the 2008 NCAA Frozen Four championship.
(Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

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The Boston College Golden Eagles celebrate their victory over the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the 2008 NCAA Frozen Four championship. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

As those who run college hockey cast an eye to Monday night’s basketball Final Four finale in front of 72,000 fans at Ford Field in Detroit, they hope to get a glimpse of the future of their own sport.

That’s because the Frozen Four – which goes this weekend in Washington – will move to Ford Field next year in a configuration much the same as the Final Four in basketball. Filling more than 70,000 seats for college hockey is a tall order to be sure, but with the event being held in a hockey hotbed so close to the Canadian border, officials are hoping to rival the numbers the round-ballers are getting.

Should they do so, it will be another indication college hockey is thriving, but there are underlying problems in the sport, most of them associated with the cost of running a men’s hockey team. In fact, longtime hockey power Bowling Green is currently conducting a thorough review of all its athletic programs and men’s hockey could very well be on the chopping block.

College hockey in the United States actually faces many of the same problems the NHL encounters every day. There are pockets of loyal fans, but not enough to make college hockey a galvanizing collegiate force nationally. And while there have been inroads made in television, there is no national exposure for the game. CBS Sports owns the television rights to all NCAA sports and stands to make a killing with the basketball Final Four. For hockey, it sold off the rights to the Frozen Four to ESPN, which will televise the two semifinals on ESPN2 and the championship game on ESPN.

It’s a great feel-good story that a school such as Bemidji State has found its way into the Frozen Four, but the problem is there are too many small schools that are good at hockey and not enough large ones in conferences such as the ACC and Pac-10.

“We don’t have the size and we don’t have the geography,” said CCHA commissioner Tom Anastos. “In that way, we’re almost a microcosm of the NHL and we have a lot of the same problems as the NHL.”

And that includes a huge disparity between so-called large- and small-market teams. Just as the NHL have-nots are encountering challenges spending up to the minimum of the salary cap, smaller schools are having a more difficult time keeping pace. That’s because it costs between $1- and $2-million to run a men’s hockey program. While that isn’t a problem for a school such as Ohio State, which has an athletic budget in excess of $100 million, for a smaller school whose athletic budget is less than $5 million, it represents an enormous chunk of the program’s costs.

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It also causes problems for the smaller schools when it comes to recruiting players. Observers say if a promising recruit shows interest in one of Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State or Notre Dame, any of the smaller schools might as well forget about even trying to recruit him. That’s because if one of those schools goes after a player, all of them will and since a recruit is allowed only four campus visits, it’s almost certain those will be the four schools he visits.

That’s what prompted tiny Ferris State to offer a full scholarship to defenseman Beau Schmitz, who ultimately decided to eschew the college route to play for the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario League. There are those who think if Schmitz did decide to play college hockey, he would have found a way to get out of his commitment with Ferris State to play at a bigger school.

Part of the issue is almost half of the schools that play in the top tier of men’s hockey are Div. II schools when it comes to all of their other teams. Bemidji State is an example of that.

And while it does make college hockey unique in some respects, it also poses some challenges that other sports represented by bigger schools don’t face.

Even if college hockey wanted to expand its base, it isn’t quite that easy. NCAA rules stipulate female athletes must have the same opportunities as male athletes, which makes starting a men’s hockey program from scratch a little difficult. The NCAA also allows teams to play only a finite number of games and adding more schools, especially small ones, would cause a problem.

“We can’t just add games to our schedule,” Anastos said. “If you add a team or two to the mix, it will impact schools who draw their best crowds when Ohio State, Notre Dame, Michigan and Michigan State come into their buildings.”

For all of those reasons, it looks as though hockey will remain something of a niche sport on the U.S. college scene. Special events such as huge outdoor games or boffo numbers at next year’s Frozen Four notwithstanding, college hockey is a regional sport played too well by too many small schools. That’s why it remains one of the collegiate sporting world’s unearthed gems.

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