On College Hockey

Rather short-sighted on choosing site

Yet York, Eagles try to stay above the fray

By John Powers
March 21, 2011

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There’s lots to do in St. Louis. You can ride to the top of the Gateway Arch, check out the Clydesdales at the Anheuser-Busch brewery, listen to ragtime inside Scott Joplin’s house, and sample the toasted ravioli at Charlie Gitto’s on The Hill.

But there’s no way in the world that Boston College’s hockey team should have to go there for this week’s NCAA regionals. Not as the defending champions. Not as the second-ranked team in the country. Not as a No. 1 seed.

Jerry York, as is his style, has been diplomatic about it and his Eagles can fly wherever you unleash them.

“We knew going in how the brackets work,’’ he said yesterday after his varsity had been assigned to the West Regional and given the undesirable late game on the first night. “We’re fine with it.’’

But there is something wrong with a system in which a No. 4 seed scrambles everything because it happens to be a host school.

BC has to travel more than 1,000 miles each way because New Hampshire has to play in Manchester and because the rules prevent two teams from the same conference meeting in the first round. Since Yale is hosting in Bridgeport (and will again next year), BC has to go to St. Louis and a Western No. 1 — CCHA champion Miami — has to come to Manchester.

Not that a plane ride is going to wreck the Eagles’ chances of getting to the Frozen Four in St. Paul and winning their third national title in four years. They’re in a survivable bracket with Colorado College and Michigan. But their draw sets them up for a semifinal date with North Dakota, a most distasteful dancing partner, one BC has faced seven times in its last 10 appearances. Had the Eagles been assigned to Manchester, they’d be lined up with Yale.

That wouldn’t have been any waltz, as York’s varsity can testify after last year’s shootout in Worcester, which BC won, 9-7, after leading by five goals with seven minutes to play. The Bulldogs, who have the top overall seed based on their PairWise rankings, still have considerable bite. They chewed up St. Lawrence, Colgate, and Cornell on their way to the ECAC title.

What they have to prove now is that they belong with the elite; the last time Yale made it to the Frozen Four, Harry Truman was president. Getting out of the regional won’t be automatic. Air Force, which knocked off Michigan two years ago and pushed Vermont into double overtime, beat Yale in November and Union, which is in the tournament for the first time, was the ECAC regular-season champion.

Still, the Bulldogs have the lovely advantage of playing 20 miles from campus in front of thousands of blue-clad supporters. BC’s fan contingent in St. Louis will consist of Pike’s Peak Club diehards, local Bald Eagles, parents and siblings, and leftover Sox celebrants who spent their bus fare home on Budweiser seven years ago and are living in pup tents along the Mississippi.

If the tournament worked the way that its basketball counterpart does, the Eagles would be in Manchester along with Merrimack, and New Hampshire would be in St. Louis for a date with Miami, whom they’re facing anyway. Playing close to home is a privilege that should be earned, not awarded, and UNH is the least deserving of any of the Hockey East teams.

Let’s leave aside the Wildcats’ woeful history on the national stage. (Since they played in the 2003 final, they’ve lost in the first round four times. Last year, with a trip to the Frozen Four on the line, they were flogged by RIT by four goals.) This season, they lost twice to BC on the final weekend to give up the conference regular-season crown, then were bounced in the tournament semis by Merrimack, which had been 0-8 against them in the postseason.

So UNH, which has won only four of its last 11 games, slipped from a No. 3 seed to a No. 4, which meant that two of the nation’s top four teams have to travel a combined 3,500 miles while the Wildcats drive 73 miles round trip to an arena that’s their second home.

It’s not New Hampshire’s fault that the NCAA gives host schools such a precious perk or that it doesn’t want league rivals meeting in regional openers. But there’s something screwy about a format that punishes the best teams, and it could have been even worse. Had Merrimack beaten BC in Saturday’s final and Miami lost to Western Michigan, the Warriors likely would have been a No. 1 seed as well and would have been jetting off to Green Bay and North Dakota would have come East.

“I’ve been around smoke-filled rooms where the decisions were made and now it’s pure math with a couple of priorities mixed in,’’ says Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy, whose squad will meet Notre Dame in Manchester. “I don’t think either is close to perfect.’’

What undeniably would be better is to have conferences, not schools, host the regionals as the CCHA is doing in St. Louis. That way the No. 1s stay local and the No. 4s hit the road and the Frozen Four is determined by Darwin.

That may well be the format in the future, but this week the Eagles are packing their shaving kits. It shouldn’t be that way, but York is philosophical about the zigzag path to St. Paul.

“It’s March and we’re still playing,’’ he figures. “And there’s a trophy down the road.’’

John Powers can be reached at