Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Strange Bedfellows: Why a Big Ten Hockey Conference Could Push UND Hockey and UND Football to Join Forces

Strange as this may sound, a Big Ten Hockey Conference (BTHC) could benefit UND Football. Here’s how:

Big Ten (BT) commissioner Delaney seems to be pushing for it. He has some backing. Wisconsin Athletic Director (AD) Alvarez has threatened to move Wisconsin from the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) to the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA). Speculation on this subject is that Wisconsin wants to play more “name” opponents and fewer {town name here} State University type schools. A BTHC would solve that issue for Wisconsin as it would be made up of CCHA members Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State plus WCHA member Minnesota. However, Minnesota seems to have put a halt to those efforts, for now.

How do we know this isn’t just more speculative BTHC chatter that’s raged for well over a decade? Delaney used names of potential affiliate members for a BTHC. That means the commissioner has thought about this, and not just with a fan in a pub after a contest. Why affiliates? The BT does not have enough hockey playing full members (just five) to fill a conference. You really need six to eight to make it work.

Delaney is looking for Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) based affiliate members. Names used were Miami of Ohio, Western Michigan, and Bowling Green. All are presently CCHA members and all presently play FBS football in the Mid-America Conference (MAC). The MAC has a scheduling arrangement with the BT in football today. Finding hockey affiliates in the MAC would only seem logical given that.

(Side note: Does Minnesota, or Wisconsin for that matter, really want those MAC schools? Or would they rather have affiliates that have better potential to put fans into their football and hockey venues? MAC based affiliates only seems to really benefit Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State in that regard.)

If all of this were to happen, UND would be left in a “no Minnesota, no Wisconsin” WCHA. Some may be fine with that. However, is that what is best for UND Hockey and the University of North Dakota?

In this case, I’ll side with the Alvarez point of view. I’d rather UND be playing hockey peers like Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan.

So, to team with the BT, per the words of BT commissioner Delaney, UND would need to move from the Division I Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) level that it is presently at to the FBS level. And which group of UND fans would be pushing for this? As strange as this sounds, hockey fans would be pushing. Would they have any other backing?

Well, some UND Football fans and friends questioned making the leap only to FCS, and not going the full way to FBS. They’d be in support. Also importantly, UND Hockey fans would also have a vested interest in the growth and success of UND Football as it could be their ticket, and continuing relationship, to a BTHC membership.

This is a scenario where both UND Football and UND Hockey would be working together for an outcome that would end up benefitting both, but for different reasons. I’m not sure if this has ever happened. I must say: strange bedfellows indeed.

What would be required? The move from FCS to FBS is not as large as the move from Division II to Division I FCS. Roughly 20 mens and 20 womens (don’t forget Title IX) scholarships would need to be added. Otherwise, most of the Division I requirements overlap as the FBS/FCS designators only apply to football.

However, the move is far larger. The key stumbling block would be having a football stadium large enough to meet the 15000 average attendance minimum of FBS. Alerus Center is limited at about 13000. Some will say “Average 15000? No way.” But that’s not the real issue as other schools have come up with creative ways to meet that minimum and UND could follow suit. And a schedule with interesting teams on it would bring out football fans of all sorts.

The keys come down to what any shift in UND Athletics comes down to: Money (scholarships and stadium) and Conference. That’s where the combined benefits of hockey and football working for a mutually beneficial outcome would work to the benefit of both, and seemingly all of UND as it would become even more prominent nationally.

Yes, it seems that there is a scenario where a BTHC would make strange bedfellows of UND Football and UND Hockey.

And who would have believed it would come from Jim Delaney and Barry Alvarez.

Closing Disclaimer: Before you, gentle reader, start shooting this to ribbons for thousands of good and logical reasons allow me to state that there are lots of issues that would need to be addressed and overcome to make this work. I’m not ignoring those; I’m just too lazy to bring them all up and address them all here.

Monday, June 29, 2009

It's a 400?

There's an old line about baseball: It's a marathon, not a sprint.

The same could be said of the NHL season, but the NHL really has two seasons: one for post-season seedings and one for winning.

I'm looking at college hockey and trying to decide what it is. It's too long to be a sprint, but it's not a marathon either. At most, college teams will play 48 games. So, what's between a sprint and a marathon? Track legend Edwin Moses would tell you, "The 400." Folks in the track world say you can't run the 400 like a distance race or like a sprint. It's a hybrid of getting off to a decent start, setting a pace, and a dash to the finish. And that sounds like a college hockey season to me.

It also sounds a lot like the Stanley Cup playoffs. You need to get out and set a pace. And you have to maintain that pace well and long enough that a strong finish will let you hit the tape first.

The Cup playoffs are at most 28 (bone-jarring, grinding, gut-wrenching) games.

Sometimes I wonder if Dave Hakstol isn't building his UND teams to look and act like the college season is a Stanley Cup season. You really don't want to dig an 0-2 series hole in any situation, you can't get away with being below 0.500 for any stretch (Cup series loss in the NHL, or buried too deep in the PWR in college) but defeats along the way are going to come. Don't believe me? The conference finals losers post-season records were 8-10 (Carolina) and 9-8 (Chicago) and no one would say they had bad post-seasons. Pittsburgh was 16-8 on their way to the Cup; Detroit was 15-7 in coming up just short.

The masters of Cup play in recent memory are the Detroit Red Wings. And what's their formula for success? First ... as a side thought ...

Who are the best players in the NHL? When I ask that question most of you came up with a list of three to five names, and no Red Wings names were on it I'm guessing. (Ovchekin, Crosby, Malkin are probably the first thoughts.) I'm not sure many of you came up with Datsyuk, Franzen, or Zetterberg right away. And there was a point to that. We'll get there.

The Red Wings do it fairly simply by their formula:

- They have a top line that is lethal and can make opponent lesser lines look foolish, but they really don't have that "Ovchekin" or "Crosby".
- They have a second line that can score but can also neutralize the opponent top line. (Guys on these top two lines are virtually interchangable as everyone understands the roles and goals.)
- They have a "grind line" that shuts down everyone (and this tradition goes back to the original "Grinders" of Cleary, Draper, and Maltby).
- They have a fourth line made up of role guys (usually younger folks who are learning the Cup trade), where one of them may be skilled enough to show up on a second power play unit (Jiri Hudler anyone?) or able to "spot" a top six guy who misses a shift.
- Their defense is asked to make all the steady plays and really not much else. They'll occassionally have one "mover" but normally they play smart and tough (think: Lidstrom, Chelios).
- Their goaltender is expected to make all the "ordinary" stops, and maybe one or two more.

And then I think of the teams Dave Hakstol seems to build each year. And then I realized the formula.

It appears to this (admittedly far from expert eye) that Dave is building a team in the same mindset and framework.

Now let's again jump to a strange question ...

Who are the best individual skill players in college hockey? Have your list? Did you come up with Chris Vande Velde right away? Dare I call him the UND "mule" (tip of cap to Johan Franzen).

UND doesn't have the names that jump out at you right now, but they do have names that have shown they know how to, or are quickly learning to, play in the college "Cup-season ... season": Vande Velde, Brad Malone, Jason Gregoire's emergence.

These aren't the names that jump out at you as "the best in the game" but they are names that know how to play and seem to be playing to a system and philosophy that has taken Hakstol and UND to Frozen Fours four of the last five seasons.

I'm not saying UND is Detroit (although if Datsyuk, Franzen, Zetterberg, or Lidstrom had eligibility I'm sure we could find a jersey).

I am saying I think I see some of Hakstol's philosophy and where it may come from: The college season looks more like a Cup season so create a college team that looks like a team that does well in Cup season.

Where it may break down is the lack of margin for a loss in the last four games of a college season, as all of us learned, in some cases harshly, in the last few seconds of many games college games this spring.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Let's try this "roster prediction" thing again ...

Another season has come and gone. This can only bring one thing: Speculation about recruits and what the team roster will look like in the fall. I gave it a shot a year ago and missed badly in one area: I picked Andrew MacWilliam, not Corey Fienhage, to come in for 2008-09.

Part of last year was also not knowing if there would be early departures. That's been answered: The team won't be facing early departures as it has for the last decade.

So, with that backdrop we'll begin to look at what I project as the ins-and-outs of the UND Hockey roster for 2009-2010.

For openers, thanks to Aaron Walski and welcome to Aaron Dell. (There's nothing like starting out with the gimme-of-gimmes to improve the prediction average.)

Moving to defense, Joe Finley and Zach Jones graduate and Andrew MacWilliam and Joe Gleason are the obvious replacements. We'll see Nick Mattson and Derek Forbort at some later date.

Forward is where the confusion and questions come in when I try to prognosticate the roster. Initially, do we consider Brad Miller a forward or a defenseman? For this conversation, and under the Hobey Baker caliber statement of Ryan "the Brad Miller I know is a forward" Duncan, I'm considering Brad Miller as a forward. That leaves UND with five holes at forward: Ryan Duncan, Matt Watkins, Andrew Kozek, Ryan Martens, and Brad Miller.

So, which five forward recruits in the UND pipeline do I expect to see skating in REA in the fall? Allow me to list them in my expected order:

1. Mike Cichy - Mike dominated the USHL Clark Cup playoffs, including taking home the playoff MVP award. That's the last checkbox on his "ready for the WCHA" punch list.

2. Dan Kristo - Dan's seen the World Junior Tournament for Team USA. Next question.

3. Brett Bruneteau - Brett was projected to come in during fall of 2008 but injuries led him back to the USHL for 2008-09 to help ensure he is ready for the next level.

4. Michael Forney - This is the first real question on my list. Is Michael returning to UND? He's coming off an outstanding, and healthy, season for Green Bay (USHL). I'd be very interested in seeing what a healthy Michael Forney would do for the home team in REA.

5. Corbin Knight - Here's another case of "Team Hak Recruiting". Knight wasn't highly known, touted, or visible before his commitment to UND. However, Knight went from that anonymity (unranked by NHL Central Scouting at mid-season) to being the 64th ranked North American forward as season's end. Team Hak Recruiting finds another gem in the coal mine.

6. Carter Rowney - Rowney, by being named AJHL playoff MVP, has put his name next to the likes of Dany (stinkin' Badger) Heatley, Mike (no-good Wolverine) Comrie, and Joe (dirty Pioneers) Colborne. That's pretty good hockey company, even though in my opinion they chose poorly when it came to collegiate squads. Most consider Rowney a late-bloomer but also a guy who does the hard work that's not always the glamorous part of the game. For some reason, that makes me smile.

7. Danny Mattson - I know some will call me a sinner for not expecting the Holy Angels (sinner, angel, get it?) star at UND this fall but I don't see him coming to Grand Forks until 2010. A year in the USHL would help a guy used to skating in open ice get ready for that part of the rink called "the corners" which is where the WCHA seems to play.

8. "The Rest" - meaning (still in order) Mike Fink, Derek Rodwell, Matt White, Michael Parks, Brendan O'Donnell - these folks, with maybe the exception of Fink, have all been recruited for 2010 or 2011 so to see them in Grand Forks this fall would be a true shock.

I'm pretty sure of 1 through 3, and like I stated, Forney, until something becomes official, is my biggest question. If Forney doesn't return to UND that would make 2009 space for the reigning AJHL playoff MVP.

Now, all we have to do is wait until September to see how well I did.

Enjoy your summer.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The anatomy of a game-winning goal: Kozek to Malone to Zajac?

One fact that went largely unnoticed following Darcy Zajac's dramatic overtime goal against Colorado College last Sunday was that none of the three forwards involved in setting up and scoring the goal had been playing together on the same line.

While it's not unusual in the process of changing lines on the fly for a few players from different lines to be on the ice when a goal is scored, I couldn't recall an instance when teams were playing 5-on-5 in which all three forwards involved in a goal had each been playing on different lines during a game (Zajac third line center, Brad Malone fourth line center and Andrew Kozek first line wing).

When I asked Fighting Sioux coach Dave Hakstol how this happened, here's how he explained the situation:
When (Brett) Hextall came out of the box, he had an opportunity to join in the play, so he ended up staying out on the ice for about 30+ seconds, which made him unavailable for the next shift. With Rau up for CC, I wanted to get Duncan's line back on the ice. Malone was out in place of Hextall on the right wing. In the meantime, Duncan took a fairly short shift. Zajac's line was up next, so he took Duncan on the fly. After the partial change on the fly, instead of Kozek-Duncan-Malone, we had Kozek-Zajac-Malone. It made sense at the time, but I'm not sure if it does when I look at it in print!
Hakstol emphasized that the key element in making this work was Malone's reliability in playing any position in any situation, a trust he has gained over the past couple of months.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Who Is Running the WCHA?

Just when you think the WCHA can't get any more screwed up, they challenge that notion, again.

We're aware of the Wandering Coach Hockey Association (courtesy PCM) merely rubber-stamping a wrist-slap on George "The Dashing Dasher Dancer" Gwozdecky by Denver University. Coach Gwoz got a one-game suspension for: a) standing on the dasher and delaying play, b) a stroll across the ice attempt to intimidate a uniformed league game official, and c) violation of the "no contact with team until the contest is complete" rule that is part of a game ejection. (Did I mention that Coach Gwoz was part of the rules committee not that long ago?)

We're aware of the WCHA rubber-stamping another DU action when they suspended Mullen for a vicious, and near bench-clearning brawl triggering, slash at the end of a game at UM-Duluth.

We're aware of the league doing nothing about MSU-Mankato's Trevor Bruess (who should have been called for checking from behind after a vicious hit on UND's Jason Gregoire but it was called "boarding"). Before that, Bruess had been penalized for kneeing. The next night, in a game he probably shouldn't have been playing in due to the check from behind, he ends up (I'm going to say it) slew footing UND's Derrick LaPoint, breaking LaPoint's leg in two places in the process. The league rubber-stamped the MSU-Mankato "no reason given" suspension of Bruess for a game.

Oh, and MSU-M's Geoff Irwin laid just as vicious of a slash on a UND player as the one that got Mullen suspended by DU (not by the league remember). And like Mullen, Irwin's was at the end of a game and could've trigged a post-game brawl. Irwin received no sanction for that: Thank you MSU-M and WCHA.

The WCHA doesn't lead when it comes to player safety. It appears to have abdicated that role completely.

Turns out the WCHA doesn't even have a contingency plan for the (given recent seismic activity) likely event of a volcanic eruption affecting games and travel with Alaska-Anchorage. Don't get me wrong, volcano plans aren't the norm, but the league has no "act of God" (think: blizzard) contingency plan that applies?

Now we find out that the penalty to Wisconsin's Mitchell (at the end of the Saturday game with DU) is a major and game DQ, no, a double-minor, no, wait, a major but only a game misconduct. (Dear Wisconsin president, after you decide what to do with Mitchell, make sure the WCHA gets a chance to rubber-stamp it.)

Read all about Mitchell and the "no reason given" MSU-M suspension of Bruess at USCHO.

If Milewski's blog is correct the change appears to fly in the face of the NCAA (you've heard of them I'd guess) rule that penalties after games can only be INCREASED, not reduced. Then again, the WCHA didn't seem to care about the Dashing Dasher Dancer violating the NCAA "team contact" rule.

Then again, the league seems to not care about NCAA points of emphasis regarding checking from behind and obstruction much either.

Just when you think the WCHA can't get more screwed up it shows its consistency:

The WCHA lacks consistent leadership, and worse, consistently just lacks leadership.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

A good example of a bad precedent

Perhaps I shouldn't attempt to paraphrase from memory what UND hockey coach Dave Hakstol said on Wednesday night's Fighting Sioux coaches show, but he made some good points worth examining. He noted that it wasn't up to him to determine what should happen to Denver University coach George Gwozdecky after last Saturday's game. Therefore, he wouldn't address that issue.

However, Hakstol was concerned about what happened during the game and how the officials handled it. He said that Gwozdecky's actions were calculated to fire up his team. Gwozdecky also admitted that he wanted "to get the attention of our officials."

Hakstol understood why Gwozdecky did this, but he believes that the in-game consequences should have been more severe than they were. Hakstol said that at a minimum, DU should have received a delay of game penalty for Gwozdecky's stroll across the ice, which would have resulted in a UND 5-on-3 power play.

Hakstol believes that when a coach resorts to such drastic action, his team should suffer the consequences. He didn't think the penalties assessed matched the level of the offenses committed by Gwozdecky, and I agree.

Of course, this begs the question as to whether UND could have capitalized on the two-man advantage. As bad as the Sioux power play was that game, I have my doubts. But if UND had scored at that point, it would have been a momentum swing in their favor and might have had a demoralizing effect on DU's bench. On the other hand, if DU had killed the penalties, the momentum might well have gone completely in the Pioneers' direction. Perhaps they would have won the game rather than settling for a 2-2 tie.

From my perspective, it's clear that the officiating crew was intimidated by Gwozdecky's actions. After he was tossed from the game, they refused to call the penalty on him that he richly deserved when he failed to comply with the ejection. The officials then proceeded to call five straight penalties on UND and none on DU. It was a shameful performance on many levels. Both coaches are justified in believing that they were shortchanged by the officiating.

During the post-game session with Gwozdecky, it became obvious that going into the series, there were issues between him and referee Todd Anderson related to the Mike Prpich-Geoff Paukovich incident in Denver a few seasons ago. In retrospect, having Anderson work this important series was an unwise decision.

What troubles me most is that Gwozdecky not only received no penalty for going out on to the ice to confront officials during the game, but that he also received no further discipline from Denver University or the WCHA (now known as the Wandering Coach Hockey Association) for this particular action. (He was later suspended a game by DU for communicating with the team during the game following his ejection.) Is this an appropriate message to send?

In hockey, as with all athletic contests, scarcely a game goes by in which a coach either disputes an official's call against his/her team or objects to a penalty or foul not being called. While coaches frequently display anger with officials, there must be limits on how far they go in acting on it. UND wasted no time in setting that standard when Hakstol made an obscene gesture toward officials during a game in Minnesota last season.

If neither DU nor the WCHA nor the NCAA will discipline Gwozdecky for his temper tantrum, his failure to obey a referee's decision, his willful interruption of a game attended by 11,800 paying fans or his display of poor sportsmanship witnessed by thousands of TV viewers across the Upper Midwest, who will?

A disturbing precedent is set when a league doesn't respond effectively to the intimidation of its officials during an athletic event and then refuses to discipline the coach who purposely engaged in the intimidation tactic. Does this mean that any WCHA coach who disagrees with an official's call during a game is now free to go berserk and storm on to the ice to debate the matter? Because that's exactly what happened here – and it worked. So why shouldn’t other WCHA coaches feel free to emulate Gwozdecky’s example?

In the end, it goes back to inconsistent, low-quality officiating in the WCHA and the inability of the organization's leadership to make prudent decisions. Until those issues are addressed, embarrassing episodes such as this will continue to happen and player safety will continue to suffer. Unfortunately, I fear that it will take a catastrophic event for any of this to change. Sadly, Robbie Bina’s broken neck wasn’t enough to transform the manner in which the WCHA operates.