February 7, 2003
Column: No One's to Blame in Auto-Bid Issue

By Mike Eidelbes

Since the news regarding the possibility of the CHA and WCHA losing their automatic bids to the NCAA Tournament broke on this Web site Wednesday, the discussion has ranged from the ridiculous (the NCAA is trying to ruin college hockey) to the extremely ridiculous (the MAAC is trying to take over college hockey). The college hockey fans I’ve spoken with on this issue seem bent on placing blame on someone for this situation.

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Here’s the rub – no one is really at fault. Furthermore, it behooves the conferences and the NCAA to work together to resolve this issue for the good of college hockey.

Sure, this rule was designed with men’s basketball in mind. But can you blame the NCAA Management Council for enacting a measure to protect itself against institutions moving to the Division I level in men’s hoops in order to get a piece of the $75 million March Madness pie? Who can blame the NCAA for trying to keep institutions like Lipscomb (which elevated to D-I from the NAIA a few years ago) and Morris Brown (that’s a school in Atlanta, not an NBA reserve power forward) from making the jump in a quixotic quest for a slice of that basketball money?

Should the NCAA – which, it should be noted, is like the United Nations in that it has as much power as its members give it – have taken a closer look at this measure? Probably. That being said, the fact that, out of all the Division I conferences under its umbrella, only four leagues are negatively affected by this change is a pretty good success rate. Should the NCAA have notified the leagues that would be in line to lose their auto-bids? Absolutely. But the NCAA and the leagues recognize there is time to fix the problem and are moving toward that end. With any luck, the Management Council will adopt the grandfather clause that protects the CHA and WCHA auto-bids at its April meeting.

In a similar vein, it is inexcusable for the WCHA and CHA to be oblivious to a rule change that threatens their auto-bids and, in the CHA’s case, their very existence. What makes it even more alarming is the fact that the decision to modify the D-I requirements occurred three years ago. Thankfully, the MAAC, while exploring possibilities of hockey expansion, alerted both the WCHA and CHA of the issue.

It’s true that, in theory, the WCHA wouldn’t really feel the effects of losing its auto-bid – the winner of the league’s postseason tournament likely would qualify on its own merits. Without the auto-bids granted to the CHA and MAAC, however, the smart money says the NCAA would never have expanded to a 16-team hockey tournament. OK, you’ll argue the CHA and MAAC representatives will serve as first-round fodder for a team from an established conference, but without their auto-bids and the resulting tourney expansion, two teams that qualify for the 2003 NCAA Tournament would still be on the bubble…and on the outside looking in.

To put it another way: if you agree that the lack of an auto-bid would threaten the CHA’s existence – and that’s nearly impossible to deny – it’s possible that we could lose more Division I teams (the count is down to 59 after Fairfield dropped its program Thursday). If that happened, it would be no surprise at all to see the tournament field backslide to 12. If you’re a college hockey fan, it’s impossible to dismiss this issue by saying, “who cares?”

Perhaps the most baseless criticism of this situation surrounds the whipping-boy status given to the MAAC. Hey, we’ve all put down the MAAC in the past and in many instances, that backlash was warranted. In this case, however, the MAAC is not posturing to establish itself as one of the pre-eminent conferences in college hockey.

So the MAAC was exploring the possibility of expanding, then splitting into two conferences for hockey. The goal was to add teams, not simply add a bid for the 10 current MAAC clubs (11 until Thursday). Fans routinely grouse about the lack of expansion at the Division I level. Isn’t growth of the college game what we want? Why, then, is it a point of contention when the MAAC is looking at adding hockey-playing members? Well-planned growth – and there is no reason to think the MAAC is not proceeding in that manner – is good for the game. Thinking otherwise would have precluded the entry of schools like Nebraska-Omaha and St. Cloud State to the D-I ranks – institutions with quality teams, fine facilities and rabid fan support.

When hit with the news that the sport you love is faced a potential crisis of this magnitude, it’s natural for fans to respond with their hearts. In this instance, however, entities that are trying to work toward a solution are being unfairly targeted by knee-jerk reactions.

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