Many scheduling challenges remain unresolved, but the new men's hockey initiative in the Big Ten Conference is moving closer to a definitive playoff format.
Administrators and coaches at the six schools have a list of three options and are being asked to submit their preferences to the Big Ten offices by the end of this week.
According to University of Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, the choices were outlined during Big Ten meetings last week in Chicago and they include:
• A single-elimination format at a neutral site in which all six teams are seeded according to regular-season performance. The lowest four seeds play for the right to face one of the top two seeds.
• A two-weekend model in which the four lowest-seeded schools play a best-of-three series for the right to advance to a final four, single-elimination set-up staged at the home of the top seed.
• A three-weekend arrangement in which the teams are seeded and the highest seeds host a best-of-three series. The four lowest seeds play for the right to face one of the top two seeds in a best-of-three series hosted by the highest seed. The highest seed hosts the championship series.
Alvarez said he would endorse whatever model UW men's coach Mike Eaves wanted. That means a single-elimination, neutral-site tournament similar to the one used by the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.
Eaves didn't return a call seeking his insights, but UW deputy athletic director Sean Frazier, who oversees men's and women's hockey, confirmed that choice last week.
According to Frazier, Eaves would prefer the Big Ten tournament be staged annually at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., but that is still being discussed.
Frazier said Xcel Energy officials are receptive to hosting the Big Ten tournament - their initial feedback is that the facility could handle both the Big Ten and WCHA playoffs - but there is sentiment from the other Big Ten schools to using more than one site. Chicago (United Center), Detroit (Joe Louis Arena) and Pittsburgh (Consol Energy Center) were mentioned as other potential destinations.
"I got a sense that it would move just listening to the coaches," Alvarez said. "I don't think anyone wants to put it in one spot."
Frazier said there's concern from schools other than UW and Minnesota about whether their fans would make the trip to St. Paul.
"I think all six of our programs - including Penn State - will capture people's enthusiasm," Frazier said, "and we'd have a pretty good turnout."
Upon final approval from presidents and chancellors next month, the Big Ten will begin sponsoring men's hockey in 2013-14. UW and Minnesota will vacate the WCHA, while Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State will leave the Central Collegiate Hockey Association. Penn State, which is in the process of creating a program that will debut in 2012-13, is the sixth league member.
Big Ten teams will play 20 league games - home-and-home series against one another - and hope to augment the rest of their schedules with eight games against WCHA and/or CCHA teams. That would leave six non-conference openings to fill in with opponents from Atlantic Hockey, Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference and Hockey East Association.
During the American Hockey Coaches Association convention in Florida last month, Frazier said WCHA and CCHA officials are receptive to having some type of interlocking schedule with the Big Ten.
One complication to the Badgers playing against WCHA opponents is that they wouldn't be able to schedule North Dakota — a major rival and perennial national power — because of its Fighting Sioux nickname and Native American warrior logo.
UW has a policy that prohibits scheduling non-conference opponents with monikers that defy an NCAA mandate against racially insensitive nicknames.
"We'd love to continue our relationship with North Dakota," Frazier said, "but North Dakota has to figure (its nickname issue) out from an NCAA perspective."