As sports fans, there are certain events that naturally bring out the bandwagoners; those casual fans who, for the duration of said event, fancy themselves as die-hard aficionados or conversant know-it-alls when watching a game at the pub.
The Olympics are a bandwagon event ... unless you're going to pretend you knew Kerri Walsh's serving velocity in women's volleyball before Beijing (or who, exactly, Kerri Walsh was). The
football soccer World Cup is another one, as dudes who think MLS is a disease can suddenly name the Team Italy backup goalie because their names both end in a vowel.
March Madness could be the preeminent bandwagon event, thanks to gambling; plunking down $50 on an office pool bracket is quite a carrot to learn the name of Purdue's shooting guard. (E'Twaun Moore ... duh).
The NCAA men's ice hockey tournament, which culminates in the awesomely named Frozen Four, has a dedicated following from the colleges' alumni and U.S. hockey fans that follow the season annually.
But it's not exactly a massive puckhead bandwagon event, as most hockey fans don't know a Beanpot from a bean burrito.
That could be changing. In bed with ESPN, which had a special Barry Melrosey selection show for the 2009 bracket draw, the tournament creeps forever closer to crossing over to a mainstream hockey audience. The Frozen Four is in Washington, D.C. this year; next season, it will shatter attendance records as the rink is placed in the middle of Ford Field.
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So it comes down to accessibility for the bandwagoners. It's like going to see "Watchmen" as a blank slate: How much context, history and basic understanding do you need so as not to be baffled when the dude with the inkblot mask shows up?
With the tournament's faceoff set for Friday, we have two NCAA hockey tournament posts in the next two days. Tomorrow, The Two-Line Pass (a legit college hockey puckhead) will play to the smarts with "The top 10 things college hockey nerds can look forward to this year." Right now, we've got a F.A.Q. about the tournament as a whole and this year's draw. Because the world is separated into two kinds of people: Those who know what a Bemidji State is, and the rest of the world.
While our college hockey coverage has usually focused on freak fights between non-sanctioned teams, there are plenty of stops we make occasionally for NCAA news and views. The Hoover Street Rag (via Deadspin) has a very solid team-by-team preview for this year's draw. ESPN-affiliated Inside College Hockey is self-explanatory. Although the Fighting Sioux didn't make the cut, Goon's World remains one of our primary sources for great college hockey news and analysis. Our old colleague Bruce Ciskie at FanHouse provides great analysis of the college game year-round. MGOBlog has Michigan-centric but very thorough coverage. Western College Hockey on the SB Nation network is slowly becoming a daily destination.
But the site that's given us our best understanding of the tournament is College Hockey News; so we turned to that site's managing editor Adam Wodon, a 20-year veteran of college hockey coverage, for some insight in our newbie FAQ for the tourney.
Take a gander at the bracket, and away we go.
Q. The NCAA hockey tournament edits out all that boring preliminary crap and gets right to the Sweet 16. Is this a good thing?
"Sixteen is probably more than what the NCAA should have, based on the formula they use," said Wodon.
He said there are only 58 schools that play Div. I hockey, so more than 25 percent make the tournament. It was 12 teams until 2003, when a few lower-rung schools formed new conferences that enabled the NCAA to justify a 16-team field.
This was a positive development, as the days of first-round byes (top seeds had them from 1987 through 2002) and six-team regionals went the way of Crystal Pepsi.
"I don't think fans think that the 14th team in the tournament is not worthy of being there," said Wodon.
The 15th and 16th teams in the tournament are usually automatic bids from smaller conferences. "That's where you get some people complaining," Wodon said, pointing to the Minnesota Golden Gophers being left out of the tournament because of the auto-bid process.
Q. How do teams actually get into the tournament?
There's no selection committee, in the same way there's one in basketball. According to the Star Gazette, there is a "relatively transparent NCAA tournament selection process. Follow the PairWise Rankings, do a little fine-tuning and just about anyone can figure out what the tournament picture is."
The PairWise Rankings (PWR) are a statistical tool designed to approximate the process by which the NCAA selection committee decides which 16 teams to invite to the Division I championship tournament. Although the PWR does not precisely duplicate the method used by the committee, the PWR has exactly predicted the NCAA tournament entries in each of the last eight years.
Visit that link to figure it all out, and bring your protractor. The bottom line is that the selection process does, for the most part, make for a surprisingly inclusive postseason college tournament.
"That's the beauty of college hockey: Even though some of these schools have been superseded by these larger schools, they still can get in there," Wodon said. "There's still a way for Clarkson to get in there, even if they're not going to win a national championship."
The 2009 season brings some welcomed new blood. "You're starting to see other programs finally having this burgeoning thing. Miami has come to the forefront. Northeastern has sort of been the sleeping giant in Boston, and now they have a coach who went from three wins to 20-something wins in three years. And Notre Dame, which was kind of a joke for so long; a program that could never get its act together. Now they're a powerhouse," said Wodon.
Q. Without a large draw and preliminary rounds, is the tournament more predictable than, say, March Madness (in a typical, non-crappy year)?
Your top seeds this year are Boston University, Notre Dame, Denver and Michigan. Will any of them go down?
"Upsets happen less often in hockey, but they certainly can happen," said Wodon.
It actually comes down to how one defines an upset. Last year, Notre Dame made it to the championship game as a No. 4 seed, but wasn't exactly being fit a glass slipper. "In hockey, you're talking about 14 legitimate schools and the two [others] sort of hanging in there. I wouldn't call a three-seed beating a two-seed an upset," said Wodon. "At the very worst, you have some kinda good school against a really good school."
The only true upsets are when the smaller, auto-bid schools takes out one of the titans - like in 2006, when Holy Cross knocked off a Minnesota team in overtime that featured Alex Goligoski, Blake Wheeler and Phil Kessel.
Q. Who are the Duke and North Carolina of the NCAA ice hockey tournament?
It's actually an odd year to ask that question. The three previous champions - Wisconsin, Michigan State and Boston College -- all failed to make the tournament. And Wodon said this is the first year since 1968 that neither Boston College, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Minnesota or Colorado College are in the tournament. "All five of them not being there at the same time is pretty amazing," said Wodon.
Boston University, top seed in Northwest Regional, comes the closest to a traditional powerhouse in this year's bracket, even though they haven't been to the Frozen Four since 1997. Michigan definitely is on that level too, leading all schools with nine national titles and having made the tournament for over 20 straight years according to Wodon. "They got Red Berenson as their coach, and they're always around," said Wodon.
Q. Will the Hockey Gods smile upon Michigan to make up for the fact that defenseman Steve Kampfer has been living in the seventh ring of hell for the last year?
If you're a believer in karma, it's hard not to believe that Kampfer's due some sort of cosmic retribution. Please recall the Anaheim Ducks pick suffered a fractured skull in an off-ice attack and then was the victim of a brutal on-ice attack from Michigan State players Andrew Conboy and Corey Tropp that resulted in their suspensions. Shouldn't he get a little something for the effort?
"I hate to say someone deserves it more than anyone else, but I hear you," said Wodon. "But I don't think you're going to get too many people to sympathize with Michigan. They have an Evil Empire kind of thing."
Q. Oh, great ... so now Notre Dame's dominating college hockey?
'Fraid so. They beat Michigan in the CCHA tournament title game, with Notre Dame senior goaltender Jordan Pearce named tournament MVP. Their coach, Jeff Jackson, gets mad props.
"He is the best. It isn't easy for me to say that, because I would normally hate Notre Dame in everything else that they do, but I love their coach," said Wodon. "Knowing how he is, seeing how his teams play and behave themselves ... you put a guy that with the resources Notre Dame has, and they're going to be a powerhouse forever, as long as he's there."
Q. What the hell is a Bemidji State?
The Northern Minnesota college known as the Beavers is opening against Notre Dame. They used to roll through small college divisions before moving up to Div. I in the NCAA a decade ago.
"There's an example right there of a team that plays Div. II in every other sport," said Wodon. "They were a powerhouse in Div. III and Div. II hockey. Then they decided to play Div. I because there's at least a chance of competing."
Q. Who is Tyler Bozak and why should we care about him?
The Denver sophomore center has played at nearly a point-per-game clip for his school in his career, and he's the most coveted college free agent in the nation. After missing a ton of time to injury, he's expected back for the tournament.
"If they get him back, that's going to be huge," said Wodon. "However, they lost their top defenseman on Saturday and he may miss the NCAAs."
JP Testwuide, a captain, is questionable for the tournament opener.
Q. Does this whole thing just come down to a hot goalie or what?
Parity rules. That's the bottom line for the tournament, as there haven't been Stanley Cup playoffs-like runs from an unconscious goalie, traditionally.
"Obviously, goaltending is huge. But you usually have a group of teams with such good goalies, it's usually not like one guy goes crazy to the point where he's so much better than the other ones," said Wodon.
In fact, you can win with less-than-stellar goaltending.
"When Minnesota won back-to-back championships in 2002 and 2003, I always say that those were the worst goalies to ever win national championships. But Minnesota had so much talent, they managed to win anyway," said Wodon.
If there's one blistering hot goalie entering the tournament, it's Alex Stalock of Minnesota Duluth, who was the WCHA goalie of the year. "The WCHA is a more high-scoring league. If you have shutouts in those games, that's legit," said Wodon.
Q. Is the Hobey Baker Award, for the nation's top college player, a bit of a joke?
Given annually to the best men's ice hockey player in the NCAA, the Hobey Baker has seen its share of names that haven't exactly gone on to NHL dominance. Kip Miller, David Emma and Scott Pellerin won it in consecutive seasons, for example.
The award's actually come a long way from the time when
Aaron Neal Broten won because he was on the Miracle on Ice team even though his brother Paul was more deserving.
"I think that when the 10 names are announced, some guys get thrown a bone," Wodon said. "It also used to be the case that some of these guys didn't go on to have decent NHL careers. You can't say that anymore. I don't know if that's a case of the Hobey picking better players, or if there are better players in college hockey, period."
Q. Finally, is the tournament about to explode in popularity?
Wodon believes that the tournament is growing, not exploding. Regionals and conference tournaments still struggle to sell out. And coverage of the NCAA championships is still lacking outside of the pockets of popularity in the nation.
"The amount of coverage college hockey gets from online sources has helped that. It used to be that you wouldn't find out scores for a week, you know?" he said.
What the tournament and the Frozen Four are is a exceptional celebration of hockey and tradition, even if the mainstream hasn't caught on yet.
"Be careful what you wish for. One of the beauties of hockey is that it's a tight-knit community. Would it lose something if it's too popular?"