Believe it or not, there is another NCAA Tournament taking place this weekend. And no, it’s not the women’s basketball tournament, because those games are on TV.
I’m talking about a tournament that is even more obscure to Americans — the hockey tournament. Outside of New England, college hockey enjoys success in a few markets, like Ann Arbor and Minneapolis.
But it turns out that the best hockey in the country might be out west, and I’m not talking about the Midwest either — although Michigan could be considered to be in the western half of college hockey teams. As it turns out, I’ve always thought that the Western College Hockey Association (WCHA) was the best conference in the country. Yes folks, better than the beloved CCHA.
This season has been no different. I don’t think it’s any secret that the CCHA is having a down season. I’ve thought that the CCHA should change its acronym to the Crappy Collegiate Hockey Association (Zing!). Michigan has remained the class of the league once again, but it seems as if there hasn’t been a consistent challenger to the Wolverines over the past few years.
Michigan State used to be the primary competition for Michigan but hasn’t finished in second place since 2001-02. This year, the Spartans finished sixth — not exactly a great finish for the “other” premier team in the conference. In addition, a different team has finished in the top-two positions in the final conference standings over the last three years: Ferris State, Miami and Ohio State. Both Ferris and Miami saw significant falls from the top in the following season as well. This might be attributed to parity, but I think it’s something deeper.
Heading out west, the WCHA always seems to have a number of teams consistently in the USCHO poll. This year was no exception. In the final regular season poll released last week, five WCHA teams finished in the poll of the top 15 teams in the county, while just two from the CCHA were included. This wasn’t a result of play from conference tournaments; the same five teams from the WCHA — Denver, Colorado College, Minnesota, North Dakota and Wisconsin — have been the cream of the crop all season long.
Just look at the NCAA Tournament field. Not surprisingly, all five of those WCHA teams also made the tournament. But what is really impressive is that three of the teams — Minnesota, Colorado College and Denver — secured No. 1 seeds in the tournament as well. And in the fourth region, North Dakota is a No. 2 seed. So we could potentially see an all-WCHA Frozen Four in two weeks.
Michigan has been a lock to make the tourney for some time, but Ohio State only made the cut when it reached the CCHA finals last weekend. Northern Michigan, which finished the regular season in third place, missed its chance to make the field by losing to Alaska-Fairbanks in the opening round of the Super 6. Fourth-place Nebraska-Omaha was never under consideration, as its overall record was just three games above .500.
So what does all this have to do with Michigan in the NCAA Tournament? A lot, actually. Out of all the 15 teams in the USCHO poll, Michigan had the 10th best strength of schedule and the 18th best nationally. Playing in a weak CCHA this year was the reason Michigan wasn’t a No. 1 seed in the tournament, despite having fewer losses than any of the current No. 1 seeds.
While Michigan was beating up on Notre Dame and Bowling Green multiple times this season, teams in the WCHA were constantly facing off against some of the best teams in the country week in and week out. It should be no surprise then that WCHA teams have reached the NCAA championship game seven times over the past 10 years compared to the CCHA’s three — two of which were Michigan’s national titles. In fact, WCHA teams have won four of the last five NCAA titles as well.
I know there isn’t anything that Michigan can do about how tough each of its conference foes can be, but I will bring up one interesting point: Michigan was a member of the WCHA until 1981. So maybe if the Wolverines wanted some tougher regular season competition to help their NCAA seeding, they could consider pulling a Miami/Virginia Tech and move to a better conference.
Until then, we’ll just have to settle for conference titles every year. Those are nice, but they’re not national titles.
Brian Schick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.