PostHeaderIcon A Perspective of the Frozen Four from a Media Point of View

By Paul O’Donnell

I’m sure all of us, at one time or another during our lives, wish they could have the opportunity to pull back the media curtain and take a peek into the, behind the scenes,  world of a major sporting event, from the inside looking out. Well, I’d like to do just that, while I describe my experiences from my recent trips to Fort Wayne, and Detroit, from the perspective of a fledgling reporter while covering the NCAA Division I men’s hockey playoffs, otherwise known as Frozen Four.

When I first came up with the brilliant idea of applying for press credentials for the Frozen Four playoffs I did so on a whim. So when I received an e-mail from my editor Ken Markham that my credentials were approved, for not only the Midwest regionals in Fort Wayne Indiana but for the actual Frozen Four in Detroit, I think I was more shocked than elated at the outcome.

My first stop on my two-part  Odyssey, as a member of the press, was the NCAA Midwest Regional playoffs in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where four of the top 16 Division I collegiate hockey teams in the nation would be battling for a chance to compete two weeks later in Detroit, at the Frozen Four.  The four teams competing in the Midwest regionals were the top-seeded Miami of Ohio Red Hawks, Minnesota’s Bemidji State University, the always dangerous Michigan Wolverines and the 16th seed in the tournament, Alabama-Huntsville.

By the time I reached my destination on Friday morning I decided to hit the ground running and drove straight to the War Memorial Auditorium where the event was to be held. My first objectives were to obtain my media credentials and get the lay of the land. Because I’ve never  been a member of the press before,  I wanted to find out who was who and absorb as much information about college hockey and the Frozen Four as my 53 year old brain could handle.

Unfortunately, in my haste to come up to speed quickly, all I managed to accomplish was to get myself lost. After a half an hour of asking directions from people who didn’t know how to get around much more than me, I finally meandered into the media pressroom. Like so many misconceptions, epiphanies and a few “ah-dah” moments that I would have over the next few weeks, the media area wasn’t what I expected.

Following my initial entry, I quickly scanned the area that was dedicated solely for the press. In my mind, I imagined it would be a more permanent area with built-in tables or divided desk cubicles like you see in libraries.  The reality was that this was a makeshift area created solely for this event. This temporary work area was created by connecting a dozen or so temporary 6 foot folding tables together with enough temporary strip outlets taped to the tables to satisfy everyone’s needs.

On the other side of the room, there were two more tables butted together with dozens of stacks of information that came from the individual teams themselves as well as the overall event. Anyone who takes joy in the minutia of college hockey, would probably believe,  they had died gone to college hockey statistical heaven if they ever had the chance to view the information that was laid out in this table.

Almost any information, statistic or conceivable factoid that could be thought up about the individual teams, players or coaches was available. While I was perusing through the wealth information that was available to me, I thought to myself, “there couldn’t possibly be any more information that they could possibly add” – but I was wrong.

By the time I reach the Frozen Four in Detroit there were at least three times the amount of stacks of information that became available to the media. But, of all the information that was available to me, my favorite was the individual game statistics that were provided to every member of the press after each and every period of every game. What was so special about these particular statistics was that, in addition to the usual information that you would expect, such as goals, assists, penalty minutes and shots on goal, the individual these stats were broken down even further.

What became of particular interest to me during both events were the shot stats. The shooting statistics that were provided to us, during both events, didn’t only include the shots that made it to the net, they also included every other shot that was even attempted by both teams during the entire game.

With a diagram of a hockey rink at the top of each page, every shot, tip, or goals scored, was carefully plotted in the exact location that the shot was taken by the number of the player took it. Through an ingenious legend, made up of numbers, letters,  circles, lines and checks, whoever was reading it could instantly receive important feedback about shot selection during any situation, be it a power play, penalty killing or an even man situations.

After a while, it seemed as if you could begin to track and anticipate each team’s momentum and strength, just by each team’s shot selection. For instance, I was able to notice correlation between how strong or weak any one particular team was, just by taking note of the area of  the ice,  where each player  chose to take their  shots from.

After a while I noticed that even if one team had outshot the other by a significant margin, it didn’t have an effect on the outcome. What usually decided the outcome wasn’t necessarily the quantity of shots attempted, but rather, the quality shots from inside the prime shooting areas; such as the slot area or those that occurred when players were standing on the doorstep just outside the goal crease.

The other thing that I found fascinating about this program that produced these amazing stats (and is the standard that is used for virtually every collegiate hockey competition) is that the program is  in  a DOS format. You’d think by 2010, the NCAA would be able to upgrade, at the very least,  to a Windows 95 version of the program.

Heading in to the Frozen Four playoffs I was particularly curious about the dynamic of the pecking order within the individual media services and outlets. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that there was noticeable journalistic snobbery or elitism that I had originally envisioned. For the most part, except in a few minor instances, every journalist, from the large well-known daily newspapers to the most obscure college  hockey website writers were very amiable, open and helpful during both the Midwest regionals as well as The Frozen Four. But there was one exception.

It was noticeable to me fairly quickly that they were only two distinct levels of media at both events. There was ESPN and everybody else. Except for the actual blue collar workers doing the physical labor there wasn’t much interaction between the upper crust of the ESPN media personalities and the other journalists and radio personalities covering either event.

Whether in Ft. Wayne or Detroit the ESPN analysts never attended press conferences, or even walk into the media room, at least when I was there. They even had their own separate meal area just for their own ESPN employees. While I can understand that sports coverage at their level is serious business, it was hard for me not to get the impression that they just didn’t like hanging around with the little people of the media.

The other thing, that shouldn’t have been so surprising to me, but was, was how tight the scheduling was during both events. From the pregame and post game press conferences, to even when and how long, the media buffet would begin and end, every aspect during both events, with few exceptions, were all on a rigidly controlled timeline.  If the NCAA media people schedule press conference for certain time, by golly, there’s going to be a press conference at that time.

Most of the more interesting interactions between the individual teams and the media, more often than not, occurred during these scheduled press conferences. After most practices and every game the  press conference was held at in an area which was strategically located right next to the media room. Surrounded by sound deadening drapes, the area chosen always included a portable stage large enough for a long table and four chairs to seat each team’s head coach and three select players to take questions from the media.

The only real differences between the regional playoffs and the frozen four press conferences were the size of the room, the amount of reporters attending and a slight upgrade in the formality of asking questions. When a reporter was asking a question during the frozen four, the NCAA handed the reporter a microphone and expected them to give their name and affiliation before asking the question.  Other than that, especially at the Midwest regionals, they were all pretty laid-back affairs, except during the losing teams’ postgame press conferences.

One of my most memorable experiences occurred during my very first press conference with the head coach and players from Alabama Huntsville following a late Friday morning practice.  Prior to this press conference, part of my original plan was just to get a lay of the land, by listening to the questions that the more experienced journalists would ask  as well as how they would ask them. Unfortunately, that part of the plan didn’t last very long.

About 15 minutes into my first  press conference, both the coach and the other three players from Alabama Huntsville had responded to a variety of questions from the media who were present at that  time. But from what I recall, there wasn’t one tough or in-depth question of the dozen or so that was asked.  While it appeared most of the player responses were genuinely ad-libbed, it appeared to me that most of the coach’s responses are prearranged. So, just after Alabama- Huntsville’s head coach (  ) wrapped up his prerecorded response as to how his (13- 16- 3), 16th seeded underdog team was planning to impose their offensive will against the best team in the nation that year the Miami of Ohio, Red Hawks, I couldn’t take it anymore.

Before anyone else could get a word in, I quickly asked a simple follow-up question: “What’s your plan B”? His response back was, “What do you mean”? Explaining my question more detail, I asked the coach, “What happens if your players start getting hammered by Miami in your own end, and they (Miami) refuse to give up the blueline as easily as you hope they will, throughout the game; how does your team plan to generate (offensive) zone time, and get the puck below the dots and make them play 200 foot hockey?”

By the look on his face, I could tell, he wasn’t expecting this type of question.  But after a second or two, he responded with one of the greatest hockey lines I have ever heard in my entire life. He looked straight at me and said, “Well, there certainly is a lot more oxygen on the offensive end of the rink, than there is in the defensive end!”

Looking back on his response now, I honestly can’t remember any other part of that particular answer; but I’ll tell you this, I will remember that line, until the day I die.

If that the highest point during these press conferences, then certainly the lowest point of all, had to be the postgame interviews  with  the coach and players of Miami of Ohio, immediately after being eviscerated by the Jerry York’s, Boston College Eagles during their semi-final matchup in Detroit.

While I have been an avid Boston College hockey fan for many years, in the last few years I’ve become a great admirer of Miami’s head coach Enrico Blasi. I’ve been telling people for several years that I think Blasi is the best coach in college hockey and even after that devastating loss a few Thursdays ago, I still believe it. But just after the loss ,while walking from the press box to the press conference area, I was ticked off.

I was mad because, when Blasi’s team was on the attack, BC was able to consistently stand Miami’s attacking forwards up at the blueline, and except for a few exceptions, his team never adjusted to a simpler dump and chase attack posture.

I wanted to know why he and his players hadn’t learned their lesson against Michigan a few weeks earlier when his forwards continually tried to carry the puck over the blue line, even though his attacking Red Hawks were consistently being outmanned or out propositioned. It didn’t work then, so why continue with the same offensive tactics, two weeks later, with a talented Boston College team? How come you didn’t have your players just start chipping the puck in deep below the hash marks and begin hammering their smaller players in their own end?

That’s what I wanted to ask and that’s what I had planned to ask. But as soon as the Red Hawks coach and players walked into the conference room sit down and listen as coach Blasi gave his opening statement -I just couldn’t do it!

I’m not sure exactly why. It may have been, partly, because I just didn’t have it in me,  to kick my favorite coach and college hockey team when they were down. My failure to ask those tough questions probably makes me a bad reporter and if that’s the case, so be it; but hey, this isn’t life or death.

There were many other memorable moments that occur during these two wonderful hockey events that I will remember for a very long time. Thankfully, most of my experiences that I have had over the past few years have been very positive, not only as a member of the press, the spectator as well

Prior to receiving my press credentials this year, for the previous three Frozen Fours, I was a spectator. And I can tell you from personal experience, if you’ve never been to an NCAA Division I college playoff or the Frozen Four, before in your life, you’re missing out on one of the greatest hockey experiences any individual or hockey family could have in a lifetime.

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