Good, bad comes from rescheduling WCHA tourney

Michael Rand

When WCHA coaches met last spring, they decided to change the format of the Final Five. They envisioned greater fan attendance and greater revenue for the league through ticket sales.
What they didn’t picture was the presence of the Gophers basketball team.
The Final Five site alternates each year between the Bradley Center in Milwaukee and the St. Paul Civic Center. In the past, the No. 2 seed and No. 3 seed have played each other Friday afternoon while the No. 1 faced the No. 4 or No. 5 seed at night.
League coaches voted to allow flexibility in the WCHA Final Five scheduling. Coaches decided that if the tournament’s host team — Wisconsin at the Bradley Center and Minnesota at the Civic Center — was the No. 2 or No. 3 seed, that game would be moved to Friday night.
The logic behind the decision was that more fans could make it to a Friday night game instead of an afternoon game, thus increasing attendance.
Last season at the Bradley Center, which seats nearly 18,000 for hockey, a Friday afternoon game between the Gophers and Badgers drew just 11,429 fans.
“If we had that game at night, we would have drawn much better,” said Doug Spencer, the WCHA public relations director.
Spencer estimated the game would have drawn 14,000 fans if it had been at night. If the league can draw an additional 2,500 fans to Friday night’s game this year — at $15 per ticket — that translates into nearly $40,000 in additional revenue.
The decision will be immediately tested this season. The Gophers, the No. 2 seed in the tournament — scheduled this weekend at the Civic Center — are slated to play No. 3 St. Cloud State at 7 p.m. Friday.
Everything’s good, and everyone’s happy, right? Well, not exactly.
During a conference call with league officials on Monday morning, members of the Gophers athletics department voiced concern about the Friday night hockey game because the basketball team is also scheduled to play in the first round of the NCAA tournament that night.
A time conflict would have forced Minnesota fans to choose their allegiance or become very skilled with their remote controls. WCHA officials discussed reverting back to the old Final Five format, which would have nudged the Gophers hockey game back to 2 p.m. Friday.
That problem self-corrected itself, however, when the NCAA announced the basketball team’s game against Southwest Texas State will start at 9:30 p.m.
“It will be quite a night of Gophers sports on the tube,” associate men’s athletics director Pat Forciea said.
With that potential snag averted, the league is still left with the original problem created by the new scheduling format.
The No. 4 and No. 5 seeds in the tournament — Colorado College and Denver this season — play on Thursday night for the right to face the No. 1 seed (North Dakota).
Prior to this season, the winner of Thursday night’s game would not have to play again until Friday night. But now that team will have to play Friday afternoon.
Denver coach George Gwozdecky and Colorado College coach Don Lucia supported the schedule change at last year’s meeting. Although they both still think the move will benefit the league, they also acknowledged the potential problems it causes for their respective teams.
Colorado College, which endured a four-overtime marathon against Wisconsin in the first round of the WCHA playoffs, could use the rest. Lucia said his players are so sore that on Monday the team’s practice only lasted 30 minutes.
“Certainly, it’s going to be a consideration,” Lucia said. “It will have an impact on Friday.”
Gwozdecky said the problem could be more mental than physical.
“Ideally, you play at the same time both games every weekend. It will be a bit of an adjustment,” Gwozdecky said. “If I had my druthers, I’d rather play on Friday night.”
Both coaches, however, said they realize having the Minnesota/St. Cloud State game on Friday night will benefit the league as a whole.
That’s the reason Lucia, Gwozdecky and other WCHA coaches supported the change in the first place. They can’t pull their support just because their teams will be at a slight disadvantage this weekend.
“Last spring we decided this was going to be the best thing for our league,” Gwozdecky said. “The coaches, for once, separated themselves from their teams and looked at what is best for the showcasing of our league.”