Once upon a time, the Golden Gopher hockey team left the borders of the State of Hockey to play non-conference hockey games, though it would appear as though those days are, for the most part, in the rear-view mirror.
Yes, the Gophers play on the road at Michigan and Michigan State every other year due to the College Hockey Showcase, but even the future of that is in question after Wisconsin Head Coach Mike Eaves recently spoke of the tournament format changing or even going away.
Outside of those games though, the Gophers rarely head out East for unique / different non-conference games, unlike many other WCHA schools.
This of course hasn’t always been the case. After winning the national championship in 2002, the Gophers played at New Hampshire early in the 2002-03 season. Then to start the following campaign, they – along with Wisconsin and Maine – played at Nebraska-Omaha in the Maverick Stampede Tournament. The following season, they played in the Nye Frontier Classic up in Anchorage to open the season, and also mixed in a trip to Boston to take on BU in early January. Finally, in 2006-07, the team took on Ohio State in Columbus in early October.
But since those games against the Buckeyes, the Gophers’ run of playing good non-conference opponents outside of Mariucci Arena has dried up. There are some things out of the hockey program’s hands when it comes to this. The team plays 28 WCHA games each season, and then can play six non-conference games, though in years that they travel to Anchorage, the NCAA awards them two more non-conference games. I’ve also heard that the athletic department mandates that at least six of the program’s non-conference games be at home due to the big gate the U can pull from home hockey games.
The U also hosts the annual Holiday Classic Tournament, which locks them into two non-conference home games each season.
Finally, some games, like the Icebreaker Tournament and the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame game, are exempt towards a team’s total games played.
Let’s look at the team’s non-conference schedule in recent years:
2009-10: 2 vs. Bemidji State, 2 at Michigan / Michigan State, 1 vs. Bowling Green, 1 vs. Northern Michigan, and 2 vs. Harvard
2008-09: 2 vs. New Hampshire, 2 vs. Michigan / Michigan State, 1 vs. Brown, and 1 vs. Northeastern
2007-08: 2 vs. RPI / Michigan (IceBreaker Tournament), 2 vs. Ohio State, 2 at Michigan / Michigan State, 1 vs. RIT, 1 vs. Air Force, and 2 vs. Wayne State.
2006-07: 1 vs. Maine, 2 vs. Wayne State, 2 at Ohio State, 2 vs. Michigan / Michigan State, 1 vs. Alabama-Huntsville, 1 vs. Ferris State
2005-06: 2 vs. Alaska Fairbanks, 2 at Michigan / Michigan State, 1 vs. Union, 1 vs. UMass-Lowell, 2 vs. Niagara.
2004-05: 1 vs. Denver, 2 vs. UMass / Alaska Anchorage (Nye Frontier Classic), 2 vs. Michigan / Michigan State, 1 vs. Merrimack, 1 vs. Northern Michigan, 2 at BU.
2003-04: 2 vs. Maine / Nebraska-Omaha (Maverick Stampede), 2 at Michigan / Michigan State, 1 vs. Princeton, 1 vs. New Hampshire, 2 vs. BU, 2 vs. Bemidji State
2002-03: 1 vs. Ohio State, 2 at New Hampshire, 2 vs. Alabama-Huntsville, 2 vs. Michigan / Michigan State, 1 vs. Yale, 1 vs. Boston College
As you can see, not only has the team taken a break from traveling to cool locals like New Hampshire and Boston, but they overall level of teams they play has dropped. Gone are the days of Boston College or New Hampshire rolling into the Holiday Classic.
So why is this, aside from the cash-grabbing by the U of M?
Even though Don Lucia hasn’t been quoted on this topic like Eaves, it’s clear that both Wisconsin and Minnesota are scaling back the level of competition in non-conference play due to changes in how team’s quality for the NCAA Tournament.
As Andy Baggot of the Wisconsin State Journal
touched on earlier this year, it’s now more valuable to rack up wins against poor teams than to lose to good teams on the road. Plus, due to the Badgers making the NCAA Tournament with a losing record a few years ago, now teams must be above .500 to quality for the dance.
Now, not all WCHA teams are taking this soft approach. This season, North Dakota has played Ohio State, Miami, Notre Dame, and Cornell. Last season, they played BU and Cornell, and are slated to play Notre Dame, Maine, and UMD in non-conference games next season.
St. Cloud State traveled to Miami earlier this year, and played in Cornell and Maine a season ago. Denver went to Ohio State this season and hosted Boston College. Last year, they hosted Ohio State, Notre Dame, Air Force, and BU. CC played Cornell and Maine this season, and went to Clarkson and Air Force a season ago.
As a fan, I personally love going to away games that are at places that I’ve never been to, but even if you take the ‘going to the games’ part out of the equation, it’s just nice to play good teams rather than taking the easy way out and playing cupcakes at home. But with the WCHA adding Bemidji State and Nebraska-Omaha next season, that means more games against those teams and less against teams like Michigan Tech and Anchorage, so I doubt you’ll see the U playing too many tough non-conference games – home or away – any time soon.