The Incredibly Complex Process Of Creating A Hockey East Schedule

With little else to talk about in what always feels like a never-ending college hockey offseason, there was some recent disdain from Hockey East fans on Twitter about the delay in the release of the schedule, which isn’t formally unveiled until their annual media day in September. 

“Awesome,” wrote one Twitter user sarcastically. “Why give fans time to plan trips in advance?”

As it turns out, piecing together the schedule is a far, far more complicated process than most people might think.

“I think there’s probably a general understanding of everything that goes into it from fans I’ve talked to and things I’ve read, and I think there’s an appreciation for how difficult it is to make this all happen,” Brian Smith, associate commissioner of Hockey East, told FloHockey.

“The thing that makes it more difficult, if you’re not intimately involved with it, would be the way that the nuances take hold and create those domino effects. We try to make it as simple as possible, and inevitably as the schedule comes onto my desk to make final adjustments and really solidify it all, there’s always something that pops up with those out-of-conference contacts with basketball schedules that come out that requires you to shift things around. When one thing happens, a lot of other things have to happen, too.”

Smith gave a theoretical example, in which a game was moved off of a weekend and Providence was playing Friday and Saturday, and Boston College was set to play Providence on Saturday but were no longer playing on Friday. That would be what’s called a “disadvantaged game” for Providence, and the conference tries to avoid situations like that as much as possible so as to avoid giving a team a potential competitive advantage.

“When something changes or when there’s an issue, I think it’s easy to see one aspect of it and ask why it isn’t done a certain way instead, but it’s a really a holistic approach that we take to it,” Smith said. “We operate our schedule of conference and nonconference games and really take both into account, whereas, I think a lot of other conferences might say, ‘Here’s the conference schedule, this is in stone, work around it.’ And we’re trying to take it from a different angle.”

Believe it or not, that’s all only the tip of the iceberg.

Hockey East scheduling operates on two-year cycles, most of which is handled by commissioner Joe Bertagna, but this coming season will be the first year in a new cycle, which will require a brand-new schedule with different dates.

Certain weekends — for example, the first week of January and the majority of February — are typically earmarked for league games and create rough guidelines and patterns that Hockey East uses in what is now an unbalanced schedule.

“There’s an algorithm that one of statisticians from has created for us that determines which teams play which other teams for their unbalanced games, and then it’s a rotation from there so that you’re not getting a murderer’s row of the top four teams as your extra games and that you’re also not playing the bottom four teams every time,” Smith said.

“That all gets created on a two-year cycle about two years in advance, so schools have that. Once we have that, we then provide updates to the schools, coaches, hockey ops people showing the current status and telling them to let us know if they have any nonconference opponents or nonconference conflicts with this, and we’ll work around it. We have a bit of a luxury, because where you see the WCHA and NCHC and conferences like that who really can’t have flexibility because there’s travel and flights involved, those schedules come out and some of them might already be out because they’re set in stone. 

“Ours aren’t, because we have the ability to say, ‘Here’s what it looks like,’ and then maybe Merrimack comes back and says they were able to get Denver and Minnesota-Duluth out here for these dates, and we have a contract. They’d ask if they’d be able to move a certain game to a Tuesday or shift the weekends into an open weekend where teams are typically playing nonconference games and then shifting that all around. That process, honestly, goes up until late August with pieces falling into place at times. That’s a big chunk of it, and we do that so we can get the best nonconference opponents into our buildings and let our guys go to the best nonconference opponents that they can to help with the RPI and all that, sure, but to get the best schedule that you can and the best experience for the student-athletes.”

If only it were that simple. As Smith alluded to earlier, multi-purpose buildings that Hockey East teams use throw a wrench into some of even the most well-crafted plans.

“For example, with Boston College, we wait until the ACC basketball schedule comes out, because a lot of those games end up moving the hockey games,” Smith said. “Whether it’s from an evening game to an afternoon or a Friday to a Saturday, that always happens because they have men’s and women’s basketball schedules that come out in August. Those always shift games and can impact conference or nonconference games, and that’s another piece of the puzzle that we have to wait on.”

All in all, however, Smith can sympathize with the frustrations from fans, even if perhaps they only now have a better understanding of how challenging it is to make a Hockey East schedule happen.

“In a perfect world, it would be set and everybody would know everything in advance as far ahead of the season as possible,” he said. “We do still try to do that. But so many things change… This is the reality that we’re operating in, and it’s not a perfect science. We let the pieces fall in order to make sure we’re doing the best that we can for everybody.”

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