NCAA Men’s Ice Hockey Tournament: Past Should Not Be Prologue

(Photo Credit: Kelsey Lee-Violet Turtle Photography)

Recently, National Collegiate Hockey Conference Commissioner (NCHC) Josh Fenton gave Grand Forks Herald sportswriter Brad Schlossman some thoughts on how to select a 16 team field in this pandemic-truncated season we are playing through.

In that interview Fenton lays out reasoning for why historical data going back to the formation of the Big 10 and NCHC should be used to provide an allocation of at large teams for each conference this year. Even after limiting the number of teams the ECAC teams gets to one , that at most would give two other conferences one extra bid.

As Fenton says

“We’ve got historical data going back seven years now, if you want to go back to when the NCHC and Big Ten first started, where we have an understanding, on average, how many institutions from each conference have been in the NCAA tournament, That’s data that could be used. I fully understand and respect that this year is not the same as last year, a team this year is not the same as a team last year. But when you’re presented with a circumstance of potentially just using an eye test of a committee that I think is watching hockey, but I don’t know is watching hockey across the country to the level to be able to say this team is better than that team.”

We disagree with this reasoning strongly

The eye test as a metric is used in some measure by every other Division One Committee in some way, outside of Hockey and it seems to work. It worked in selecting a four team College Football Playoff Field this year when most of the teams involved played no non conference games at all. Every conference in this game is a little different, but the ability to play good defense and get timely scoring enough to be at or near the top of your league are easy to spot traits. Every team has a record and stats by the end of the year that show who they are in a comparable way. We compare quantitative data on teams all the time even when they have no common opponents, finding enough quantitative data to prime the eye test should not be a hard task to do at all.

While Fenton makes some good points throughout this interview and provides some reasoning for historical data, Fenton does not explicitly state that past postseason performance should be used. If it did, then one would wonder how many more bids Atlantic Hockey could justify given Air Force and AIC’s wins over St. Cloud State in two consecutive tournaments. In addition, allotments raise another concern. Let’s say that given the lack of a meaningful pairwise due to limited non-conference games we have a situation where Lake Superior State finishes third in the WCHA. Using the allotment formula, they could be left out, even if, like previous years, a gulf opens between the upper echelon of the WCHA and everyone else. Fenton does acknowledge this reality but seems set on using historical data. Given that he runs the conference who has won every national Championship since 2016, it makes sense, yet harms the broader audience of college hockey.

No Magic Formula

No one is going to be completely happy with how the at-large spots are given out this year, given the lack of non conference play. With that being said, there are other things to do that would be more fair to all teams still playing this year. The very eye test Fenton dismisses is how teams are compared all the time in selection for other sports, even when there is no non conference play to look at. You could use tournament performance as a seeding guide to break ties, or to justify a team’s inclusion in the field, but not conference-wide prior season’s data. It is fundamentally not fair or balance to this sport to punish AIC for the fact that Atlantic Hockey plays non equitable non conference games in normal years, where Atlantic Hockey has a lower win rate in a year where you do not have enough data for it to matter. Also, this sport has a first year program this year in Long Island that has no historical data and competes as an independent. Where do the Sharks fit in this picture? We do not know, and suspect no one on the committee does.

To fix the problems of lacking common opponents and other common data, we would suggest changing some of the metrics or find common data to use that equates to success. If an average of all national polls is the best replicate for the pairwise this year, then they should matter and weeks spent in them should be a positive. Using that data seems a more quantifiable and justifiable way of ranking than helping or harming teams, especially teams in Atlantic Hockey or the WCHA for the loses of teams before them.

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