Atlantic Hockey 2020-21

Crunch Time: College Hockey Holds Its Breath For The 2021 NCAA Tournament

Crunch Time: College Hockey Holds Its Breath For The 2021 NCAA Tournament

For those crossing their fingers hoping for a 2021 NCAA Hockey Tournament, it is officially crunch time.

Feb 4, 2021 by Tim Rappleye
Crunch Time: College Hockey Holds Its Breath For The 2021 NCAA Tournament

For those crossing their fingers hoping for a 2021 NCAA Hockey Tournament, it is officially crunch time. On Friday, February 5, the six-member NCAA hockey committee will stage the first of six weekly calls leading up to hockey’s version of Selection Sunday.

What Is known: Dates are set in stone. The Frozen Four begins Thursday, April 8, in Pittsburgh; four regionals will commence March 26-28. After Manchester, NH, declared they were not putting down ice, and pulled out as host of the Northeast Regional, there was a groundswell of support for returning to two “Super Regionals,” eight schools in the East, eight in the West. The bosses in Indianapolis toyed with the concept, but it was ultimately rejected. 

“There was consideration of trying to do two super regionals, but it brought up some extra issues,” said NCAA Championships Associate Director of Championships Mark Bedics, “so it was decided to stick with four.”

What is unknown: The Northeast Regional remains undetermined, though Bedics hopes a new venue will be determined soon. More importantly for fans of teams ranked 10th or lower in the polls, the criteria for selecting schools into the 16-team tournament has yet to be finalized. 

“We’re still developing that,” said first-year committee member and Ferris State head coach Bob Daniels. “There’s been communication and writing how this is going to look in terms of what tools we have at our disposal regarding at-large selections. There’s a lot of ironing out to do.”

There was a wave of support for designating a specific number of teams from each of the six conferences, thereby putting the onus on the conference tournaments to sort out the participants. The hockey committee failed to achieve consensus. 

“The pre-determination of spots to conferences was definitely discussed by the committee,” said Bedics. “But ultimately they decided to go in a different direction.”

The 400-pound wild-eyed tiger in the room is the coronavirus, the pandemic that has recently knocked down hockey dominos with disdain. First it was the New Jersey Devils that had to shut down their schedule due to multiple outbreaks, and on Wednesday, the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) had to abandon their playoffs in Lake Placid in the middle of the tournament. The latter should be considered a cautionary tale to the NCAA tournament execs because the NWHL was staging a six-team event compressed into a pod, consisting of one venue and just two hotels. The NWHL turned the organization of their tournament over to the New York State’s Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA), elite professionals steeled by staging over 100 events annually. 

Veteran ORDA events director Jeff Potter was hopeful this event would reach its championship climax because he had followed all the COVID-19 protocols. 

“Up front, you do everything you can to prepare: come into the environment, prepare to isolate yourself, limit it to the competition, and being quarantined.”

Despite vigorous attempts to follow the protocol, the NWHL playoffs stumbled, tried to recover, and were ultimately counted out. 

“It’s more frustrating than painful,” said Potter. “It’s very difficult to do events during these times.”

On an optimistic note, the NCHC college conference staged a flawless event this past December in Omaha, creating a pod in Omaha in which 38 games were played without a hitch. This triumph did not come without massive preparation by NCHC Commissioner Josh Fenton. 

“It was definitely three and a half months of long days leading up to it, no days off, and then another 24 days of working within it,” said Fenton. “I’m sure we were working 12-15 hour days during some stretches.”

The NCAA doesn’t have the manpower available to devote to just one of its numerous tournaments. But committee man Daniels is confident in the suits from Indy. 

“I think the NCAA has a good handle on that right now, given what they do with all the other sports as well.”

But Daniels is hardly overconfident. There is less than a week from Selection Sunday March 21, to populating four regionals starting March 26. There have been too many COVID outbreaks to count this year, as conferences now scramble to complete the semblance of a regular season. Those five days from selection to tournament puck drop will be tense. 

“Hold your breath that everything turns out okay,” said Daniels. 

The committee is discussing extra teams to fill the spots of schools that discover a COVID outbreak after being selected for the national tournament. Daniels has experienced firsthand how COVID can wreck weekend plans. 

“Anywhere you look now, games are being postponed. There are no weekends that have gone by where someone hasn’t postponed.” 

Then he carefully considered those five precious days in March. 

“I can’t think that week will be magically different.”

Tim Rappleye is the author of two books: Jack Parker's Wiseguys and Hobey Baker, Upon Further Review. You can find him on Twitter.