As the calendar flips to 2021, Division I men's college hockey is about to embark on a nine-week sprint to the end of the regular season, all while navigating a COVID-19-impacted landscape. There are certain to be more postponements and cancelations, though programs and players steadfastly march toward the destination they seek every year: the NCAA tournament.
Just what that national tournament will look like remains to be seen. The usual 16-team field with four regional sites and the Frozen Four in Pittsburgh remains the hope, though which teams will fill those 16 berths will be a subject of much debate.
In usual times, the field would be filled by the tournament champions of the six conferences – Atlantic Hockey, Big Ten, ECAC, Hockey East, NCHC and WCHA – plus 10 at-large teams based on the PairWise Ratings, a mathematical formula that uses comparisons to rank teams.
This year, however, the PairWise isn't effective because there are so few games between teams of different conferences to supply comparisons needed for the RPI component of the ratings. The eight NCHC teams, for example, aren't scheduled to play outside of conference. The Big Ten's seven teams have only four nonconference games against Arizona State, an independent program that has adopted Big Ten COVID-19 testing protocols and is playing all 28 of its games on the road.
That will make selecting the NCAA tournament field more subjective.
Enter Josh Fenton, commissioner of the powerful NCHC, with his plan. In an interview with Brad Schlossman of the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald, Fenton said he's encouraging the NCAA tournament selection committee to distribute berths based on historical showing of the conferences. Fenton's conference has quite a strong history, winning the past four national titles and sending 10 teams to the Frozen Four over the past six tournaments.
Fenton's plan could work like this: Going back to the 2013-14 season, the first for the NCHC and Big Ten, and excluding 2019-20, which had no NCAA tournament, the average number of NCAA bids for each conference, with numbers rounded up or down, is: Hockey East, 4; NCHC, 4; ECAC, 3; Big Ten, 2; WCHA, 2; and Atlantic Hockey, 1. That adds up to 16 bids, though an adjustment down to one bid for the ECAC could be made for 2020-21 because the conference is fielding only four teams this year.
Clearly, the Big Ten and WCHA would have issues with such an allotment, with their leagues possibly getting only two bids each. It's been only three seasons since the Big Ten sent three teams to the Frozen Four in St. Paul.
"I respectfully disagree with that [historical] theory,'' WCHA men's league Commissioner Bill Robertson said. "I believe in a year where everything is unique, there needs to be careful thought in choosing the NCAA tournament teams, also realizing that the PairWise scenario with very few nonconference games being played, there needs to be a different system.''
Gophers coach Bob Motzko believes things will play out well and the right teams will be selected.
"The PairWise has been great, but if you even go back to any of the years, any of us who have been in it, you can kind of pick the teams without the PairWise,'' he said. "You're always going to debate those last few. … I'm not even think about that now. I've said all along, the committee's going to get it right.''
Robertson would like see conferences guaranteed two teams in the NCAA field, with the possible exception this season of the ECAC guaranteed one. That would leave five at-large spots. "I've talked to our coaches and our athletic directors, and I believe that is the fairest way to do it,'' Robertson said. "I don't agree it should be done on historical data. … Historically, we've had two teams get in. I believe this year we could have three and potentially four get in.''
The jockeying for conference positioning in the NCAA tournament has begun, with both Fenton and Robertson advocating for their leagues. We're sure to see others weigh in on the subject as March approaches.
And in a season affected so much by off-the-ice issues, a good, old-fashioned debate about who's better is a refreshing change of pace.