August 10, 2012 by Casey Hart
I have never been to Lake Placid, N.Y. I hear it’s nice.
ECAC Hockey has been to Lake Placid, plenty of times, and folks have reported today that league is moving its championship weekend back to the site of the 1980 Winter Olympics following stints in Albany, N.Y., and Atlantic City, N.J. This is a great move. Here’s why Lake Placid is the league’s best option:
Fans don’t want to drive to Atlantic City. I traveled with the Harvard team to Albany for the 2006 and ’08 tournaments and to Atlantic City in March. All three weekends were great experiences at and away from the rink, but Atlantic City was better by far. (Side note: When taking into account finances, the initial move to Atlantic City was an absolute no-brainer, but that’s a different argument.) Boardwalk Hall is a great and historic rink, and there was lots of fun to be had at the restaurants and bars within the casino buildings. One downside was the lack of a centralized hub of activity that the Crowne Plaza lobby tended to provide in Albany.
More importantly, there were few people in the stands. The attendance has been similar both years at Boardwalk Hall: 3,300-3,500 for the semifinals and about 4,100 for the final. These numbers are a little off the pace of the final years in Albany before the 2010 finale that got a boost from local favorite Union making its first appearance. Given all the other factors, the numbers are close enough to prove Atlantic City’s superiority to Albany as a host city, but the atmosphere just isn’t good enough. Boardwalk Hall, while beautiful, has the cavernous feel of a giant airplane hangar. (Did you know? At the time of its construction, it boasted the world’s largest clear span space.) The crowds the event has drawn are not big enough to create a championship atmosphere in this building.
The culprit is the drive. It’s an absolutely brutal trek that requires many fans to circumnavigate the eight-million-person roadblock that is New York City and makes almost all fans endure the inexplicably packed highways of New Jersey. Lake Placid isn’t exactly Albany in terms of centrality. In fact, for many schools, such as perennial powers Cornell and Harvard, it is just about as far as Atlantic City. But it feels closer. It is a relatively short drive for four league schools (Clarkson, St. Lawrence, Rensselaer and Union) as opposed to just one (Princeton) for Atlantic City, and it is within the footprint of the schools in the league. And did I mention you don’t have to drive through New Jersey to get there?
That whole “Miracle on Ice” thing. Adam Wodon of College Hockey News wrote about the appeal of Lake Placid this spring. He called it “the one place that matters” and pointed out that other cities within the ECAC footprint are perceived as leftovers with Hockey East occupying TD Garden in Boston. The historic feel of Lake Placid is a perfect fit with a league that includes the oldest programs in college hockey, and the league has a history there, too. The Olympic factor should also have an appeal for television networks, and getting the games back on TV is undoubtedly a priority for the league.
The building is the perfect size. The capacity of Herb Brooks Arena in Lake Placid is 7,700. Perfect. Small enough that crowds similar to what ECAC Hockey has drawn would not leave the place feeling empty but large enough to accommodate an ideally sized crowd. This is a huge factor. A building-filling crowd is more important than a big crowd. The only other city within the league footprint that would not feel like a leftover is New York City, but it doesn’t have a rink of the appropriate size. The new Barclays Center is intriguing but, like Madison Square Garden, has a capacity of more than 18,000. (Correction, courtesy @BK_Roche: The Barclays Center will have a hockey capacity of about 14,500. That’s better but still nearly twice the capacity of the perfectly sized Herb Brooks Arena stands.) I think New York would provide the biggest possible crowd for the event and would be wholly appropriate for a league with six teams in the Empire State, but the event could not draw the type of crowd that would make these venues an option.
Feel the love. I have heard people talk about the welcome that Lake Placid has given to the ECAC in the past, how the whole community seems to know the tournament is in town and embrace it. I cannot vouch for this, but I can say that feel was certainly absent in Albany and especially in Atlantic City. New York City would be downright disinterested. Other cities like Bridgeport, Conn.; Providence, R.I., and Worcester would likely be more welcoming but not to the degree of Lake Placid.
The Olympic-sized ice sheet isn’t that big of a deal. One of the most compelling arguments against playing the championship weekend in Lake Placid is that it’s inappropriate to play the final games to determine the league champion on an Olympic-sized (200×100) ice sheet after the entire league regular season is played on standard-sized (200×85, usually) sheets. First of all, the tournament as a concept, while certainly better in college hockey than in sports like basketball, is already an arbitrary way to determine a league’s representative in a national tournament. Once you decide that the regular-season champion is not getting the automatic bid and title of league champion, all other concerns for fairness go out the window. Instead, it’s all about putting on a fun event.
Anyway, it is fair. No ECAC teams play on Olympic sheets at home, so they all share a similar lack of familiarity with the large sheet. Playing on the big ice would be a much bigger concern in leagues like Hockey East and the WCHA (and soon the Big Ten and NCHC), where a few teams practice every day on Olympic ice. Not all “standard” ice sheets are created equal. Harvard’s is slightly longer and wider than normal, and Dartmouth’s is 90 feet wide. St. Lawrence’s is listed at 200×85, but the neutral zone looks to the naked eye to be about this big. I would guess that each league team averages about one non-conference game per year on larger sheets. There’s precedent, too. Lake Placid’s Olympic sheet is good enough for the NCAA Division III Championship, and international tournaments in North America are now routinely played in NHL arenas.
Would an NHL ice sheet be ideal? Sure. So would a location that within a couple hours of each campus or a destination exciting enough to inspire a pilgrimage of fans each March. But among the options presented by geography and other circumstances, Lake Placid is clearly the best place for ECAC Hockey to crown its champion.