Alaska Plan Flawed But Not Wrong
College hockey in the United States is probably the most unique sport to compete at the Division I level. It’s one of the smallest sports with only 59 teams as of the start of next season, and of those competing, a number are not “Division I” schools. The majority compete at the Division II or Division III level, grandfathered in by the importance of their hockey tradition and lack of an intermediate championship awarded by the governing body.
It’s the one sport where Merrimack and UMass-Lowell can be every bit as good as Boston College, and it’s the only place where tiny Bentley University can travel to Ann Arbor, Michigan to play Big Blue and the Wolverines with a realistic chance at a victory. It’s the true “manifest destiny” of the sporting world, reaching as far south as Alabama but as far north as Alaska.
For years, Alaska represented the mythical heights of the college hockey game. Two teams, one at the University of Alaska’s Anchorage campus and one at its Fairbanks campus, compete in Division I hockey. For years, they competed in separate conferences, united only in their Arctic Circle rivalry perch. But as a result of college hockey’s extensive realignment, the two Alaska teams will play in the same conference for the first time since the failed experiment of the Great West Hockey Conference in 1988.
With this comes the unenviable task of scheduling. Alaska-Anchorage is currently already in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, a member since 1994. Fairbanks, meanwhile, will join as the WCHA merges with the collapsing Central Collegiate Hockey Association. Where teams historically avoided traveling to Anchorage or Fairbanks because of increased travel costs and the difficulty of actually getting to the great northwest, they’ll now have no choice but to do so each year.
Normally, this wouldn’t be as big of a deal except that the most lucrative teams from the WCHA and CCHA are leaving. The new WCHA won’t have the money and power of a North Dakota or Miami University. They’ll have a conference of, in comparison, have-nots, the likes of which are Minnesota State-Mankato, Northern Michigan, and Michigan Tech. And with this came a larger issue of forcing teams to make expensive travel arrangements at a time when money for hockey teams is hard to come by.
As such, the WCHA unveiled a cost-containment structure in its recent conference meetings. In it’s conference game scheduling, it’s easier to figure out travel arrangements to get to Alaska with months of preparation time. The biggest issue revolved around the conference tournament, where opponents can be unclear right up through the final day of the regular season. In that instance, the season could end on a Saturday, only for a team to find out they have to travel on the following Thursday to Alaska. That would give the athletic department only four days to complete travel arrangements for upwards of 25 tickets and hotel rooms in the Great White North.
This isn’t unlike what happened to Michigan State last year. The Spartans finished as the 10th place finisher in the CCHA, drawing a trip to Fairbanks for the playoffs. On short notice, they couldn’t arrange to fly from Detroit, which is but 90 minutes from Lansing. Instead, they were forced to take a bus four hours to Chicago, then fly in staggered flights out to Alaska. All of this happened on the Thursday before the first game of the playoffs.
So the WCHA drew up a contingency plan for the playoffs referred to as the “Alaska Plan.” With Fairbanks and Anchorage in the same conference starting in 2013-2014, they will automatically play each other in the first round of the playoffs, regardless of seed or position in the standings. The remaining teams in the standings will seed accordingly, with the top two seeds earning a bye to the championship weekend. This gets scrapped in the event one or both of the Alaska teams earn a bye.
The format is the second radical playoff format implemented in college hockey with a “cost containment” intention. When Atlantic Hockey expanded to 12 teams in 2010-2011 with the addition of Niagara and Robert Morris (in Niagara Falls and Pittsburgh, respectively), the league sought to contain costs of the teams located in the east. For the AHA, they spent a year with divisional formats, where the top two teams from both the east and west division earned first round byes, regardless of schedule position. They then reseeded in the second round, creating a scenario where the fourth and fifth place teams (Niagara and RMU) played in the first round but the sixth-place team (UConn) had a bye.
This was implemented as a cost-cutting measure to try and prevent teams like AIC or Bentley from having to travel too far for both rounds of the playoffs. With Air Force in the conference, the league sought to create a first round format where the eastern teams, located no further than four hours from each other via bus ride, would play each other, reducing the need for 25 plane tickets or hotel rooms. It would also be a one-game playoff, meaning a team like AIC wouldn’t need to travel out to Buffalo on a Thursday and pay for 25 hotel rooms over a three-night stay.
It was successful in cutting costs, but the on-ice product was cheapened. The four lowest teams in the conference were all from the east, ensuring two of the worst four teams would qualify for the second round. It also meant two of those eastern teams would be forced to go to RIT and Air Force regardless of what happened in the first round, and, when the cookies crumbled, get smashed by the league’s two best teams.
In the end, the AHA scrapped its playoff format for a more traditional setting, where the top four teams got byes and 5-12 played off in the first round, best-of-three series. For scheduling purposes in the regular season, they maintained a pod-based structure, ensuring the eastern teams would only need to go to Air Force every other year.
For the WCHA, the term “cost containment” led them to this muddled format where, if Alaska and UA-Fairbanks are the third and fourth place teams int he conference, they’ll still play each other in the first round of the playoffs. In a format designed to showcase the best teams, the conference instead will have a marquee matchup eliminate a good team well before the Final Five. It’s not even remotely close to ideal, and the league is already looking for an idea to scrap it and come up with a new plan.
But it’s a start. The WCHA is rising out of the ashes from teams jilted, scorned, and left for dead by their richer, more powerful brethren. With television deals and board room politics prevailing in college hockey these days, the WCHA brand, which was once one of the most powerful, is one year away from being relegated to mid-major status. Even if the NCAA doesn’t count games played at Alaska towards the maximum number of games, the league is still stuck between a rock and a hard place in terms of getting teams to go there, lest they end up with two teams in a situation similar to Alabama-Huntsville playing roughly six games at home over the course of the year.
In this, the WCHA found some type of mojo. It’s not perfect, and they’ll admit as such. But it shows they’re trying, and it shows they’re going to do whatever it takes to become a viable hockey conference. It shows they’re not remotely close to ready to admit a team like Alabama-Huntsville, and it shows they’re back fledgling with their product to work around a unique scenario with the two Alaska teams. It’s showing a commitment to the Division I product despite the fact it’ll be left with only one team that’s a legitimate D1 program (and, at that, Bowling Green is in the Mid-American Conference, not exactly on par with the Big East or Atlantic Coast Conferece). It’ll be run with a number of Division II schools still trying to make it as a D1 hockey program, trying to reboot in the fact of overwhelming odds. And while it’s admittedly a bad structure, it’s a step and a base towards possibly making a post-NCHC, post-Big Ten Hockey world work.