It’s that time of year again in the ECAC. Time for league partisans to gather in Albany and complain about how they’d rather be somewhere else. But where else is there that really works?
Every league has teams it needs to succeed in order to have a successful tournament. For the WCHA, it’s Minnesota. Hockey East has its big four teams – BC, BU, UNH and Maine. In the CCHA, it’s Michigan and Michigan State.
It’s pretty well accepted that there are three teams that draw well enough on the road in the ECAC to be decent draws in Albany. Cornell, Clarkson, and RPI are the teams in question, and the latter has a built in upside in the same way Minnesota is big for the WCHA – the local team.
Let’s take a look at who’s come to the tournament since it moved to Albany.
2009: Cornell, St. Lawrence, Yale, Princeton
2008: Cornell, Colgate, Harvard, Princeton
2007: Clarkson, St. Lawrence, Quinnipiac, Dartmouth
2006: Cornell, Colgate, Dartmouth, Harvard
2005: Cornell, Vermont, Colgate, Harvard
2004: Clarkson, Colgate, Dartmouth, Harvard
2003: Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Brown
In each year, including this year, only one of Cornell and Clarkson has been present in Albany, and never the big ticket local team in RPI. No Union either, which would also have been a local draw. Vermont in their ultimate season in the ECAC in 2005 could have been a big draw, but the effect was blunted by their basketball team’s huge upset of Syracuse the same weekend.
Now, consider the Lake Placid years. Bear in mind that five teams made the tournament in the later years.
2002: Cornell, RPI, Clarkson, Dartmouth, Harvard
2001: Cornell, St. Lawrence, Vermont, Dartmouth, Harvard
2000: Cornell, RPI, Clarkson, St. Lawrence, Colgate
1999: Clarkson, RPI, St. Lawrence, Colgate, Princeton
1998: Clarkson, Cornell, Harvard, Yale, Princeton
1997: Cornell, RPI, Clarkson, Princeton
1996: Cornell, Clarkson, Vermont, Harvard
1995: RPI, Clarkson, Colgate, Princeton
1994: Clarkson, RPI, Harvard, Brown
1993: Clarkson, RPI, Harvard, Brown
Look at that – in every year (save 2001) the tournament was held in Lake Placid, at least two of the big three were present, and all of them were present in 1997, 2000, and 2002. St. Lawrence even makes a fourth big draw in 2000.
Clarkson qualified for Lake Placid every year the tournament was held there except in 2001. They have a large following and the same would have been true if the tournament had been in Albany all those years. Since the tournament moved, the school with that kind of record is now Harvard, which has been at Albany every year but 2007. The difference is pretty stark.
Throw the championship game into the mix and it gets even starker. For a 12-team league, it’s still pretty easy to determine who’s usually going to be vying for the title. Last year’s final between Princeton and Harvard was the first in almost 20 years – since St. Lawrence and Vermont did battle in 1989 – that the title game lacked at least one of Clarkson, Cornell, or RPI. 2008’s title tilt was between two schools notorious for poor turnout.
Since the tournament moved to Albany, it’s been hung with a number of poor-drawing teams each year and has been characterized by the immediate downturn of the one program that would be a big local draw. The only Albany tournament that may have significantly drawn better in Lake Placid was the 2007 edition, due only to the inclusion of both North Country teams.
Sure, you could expand the tournament to five teams again, but that would probably require moving back to the pre-Albany model, whereby two teams missed the playoffs entirely. It probably isn’t going to happen.
This all ignores the other fundamental question that must be asked. If not Albany, where would the tournament be held?
Boston? The league moved out of Boston in 1993 because the ECAC tournament had become more of a sideshow to the bigger, more popular Hockey East tournament, which more often than not featured better teams than the ECAC. Returning to Boston, though the city offers more in the way of fan amenities, would be a return to second-class status – the year’s biggest celebration of the league overshadowed by Hockey East.
Back to Lake Placid? You’ve just moved the tournament farther away from 10 of the league’s 12 schools and haven’t solved the main issue alluded to earlier. True, with Clarkson’s recent resurgence, you’d be able to count on a strong regional contingent, but then again, they didn’t exactly light the world on fire this year. RPI may have a resurgence in the future, but they only won 10 games this season. Better hope Cornell stays where they are.
Let’s not forget that for all of the magic of Lake Placid, it’s a notoriously hard town to get to. It’s at least a 45 minute drive from the nearest Interstate, and in March, those twisting, turning roads through the Adirondacks are not always the safest.
Where else could realistically be considered? It’s the most central location you can find that has adequate amenities. Syracuse? It’s no college hockey town. Rochester? Atlantic Hockey is already there, and besides, it’s farther west than any ECAC school. Bridgeport or Hartford? Come on. New York City? It’d be awfully hard to find open space on the Madison Square Garden schedule in March, given that the Rangers and Knicks are in season, with college basketball’s Big East championships held there as well around that time. Besides that, the tournament would be swallowed up and ignored in NYC.
Let’s face it – Albany makes sense from a logistical and geographic standpoint. Perhaps the Times Union Center lacks the magic of Herb Brooks Arena or Boston Garden, but the lack of energy in the building can hardly be blamed entirely on the city itself. Did someone in the league office break a mirror back when the decision to move was made? It’s been seven years of bad luck ever since.