Obstruction: The WCHA Parity “Chicken” Comes To Roost

Not that long ago in my responsibilities as a moderator on SiouxSports.com I read a post from a Gopher fan that captured a concern about the WCHA that I have had for a while. I’ve cleaned it up for re-publishing here.

A poster called “happy” on March 6, 2007, posted (SiouxSports.com post: 236488):

The bottom 6 or 7 teams need obstruction, or else Minnesota, UND and SCSU would blow by them like a piece of pancake flat road kill. So, more than 50% of the WCHA teams never want obstruction called, ever. Shepherd is just doing what he’s told to do by the majority of coaches. It will not change, and the WCHA teams will have a problem with it come NCAA time. …

I agree. I don’t know how much more plainly I can say it. My eyes tell me this is happening. My ears, listening to Commissioner McLeod raving about the parity in the league, tell me it is not a myth.

And, yes, “the WCHA teams will have a problem with it come NCAA time”, and it has arrived. Don’t believe me? Think again.

This season the WCHA had 0.684 winning ratio (51-22-6) against non-WCHA teams. No league had a winning record against the WCHA. Clearly, the WCHA again dominated the face of college hockey.

But somehow, even in the face of this dominance (0.684!), the WCHA struggled to get just three teams into the season ending 16-team NCAA tournament.

And more surprisingly given the above data, this year the NCAA tournament brackets feature five, yes, count them, five Hockey East teams and four Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA) teams.

These facts do not align, and I believe I can point to a reason for it, and the reason relates directly back to that post by that Gopher fan, and the problem of manufactured parity it alludes to.

Obstruction allows for lesser skilled teams to compete with highly skilled teams. Not calling this obstruction allows for a manufactured parity in the league. And this parity, based on his praising of it during interviews, is thought to be a good thing by Commissioner McLeod. But is it?

Denver, Colorado College, Wisconsin, and Michigan Tech were all a part of the WCHA non-conference dominance, yet, none made the NCAA tournament.

I say part of the reason is clear: They were “officiated” by the league into near 0.500 conference records to achieve league parity (and I’m working hard to avoid the malapropism of calling it “parody”). And this style of officiating is in direct conflict with the NCAA guidance of strict enforcement of rules regarding obstruction. Why is the WCHA “chicken” to call obstruction?

From third to eighth in the WCHA this year the winning ratio goes from a 0.554 to a 0.446. Put another way, half the league was, well, average (about 0.500) in the WCHA. Obviously only two WCHA teams exceeded a league 0.554 winning ratio.

But is being average (about 0.500) in the WCHA good enough when winning percentage (the majority of which comes from league play) is a key factor in the RPI (and accordingly PWR) calculation used by the NCAA bracket makers?

In the CCHA, four teams exceeded a conference winning percentage of 0.554 and, not surprisingly, those four were in the NCAA field (Notre Dame, Michigan, Michigan State, and Miami of Ohio).

Meanwhile in Hockey East, four teams exceeded a conference winning percentage of 0.554 (UNH, BC, BU, and UMass) and a fifth (Maine) missed it by the slimmest of margins (0.537).

Why is this important? Because “winning percentage” is 25% of a team’s RPI. Washing out a team’s winning percentage to “average” in league play is great at the league gates, and makes for the ability to praise the “competitiveness” and “parity” of the league, but it harms that team at selection time in March.

The last at-large team (Miami of Ohio) finished immediately above Wisconsin, Denver, Michigan Tech, and Colorado College (in a 0.003 bonus quality win PWR comparison).

And Miami beat each of them in the RPI category. (Note: North Dakota barely beat them in the RPI category.)

Let me repeat that: Miami of Ohio had a better conference winning percentage than even WCHA #3 North Dakota, but in a head-to-head far weaker conference (WCHA v. CCHA 16-6-5), and still got into the NCAA field.

Clearly, conference winning percentages matter come selection time.

Not calling obstruction, allowing for tactics to make for “exciting games”, facilitating league parity, may be great for the gate and for the teams that can’t win with skill play. But, unfortunately, it’s also great for Denver and Colorado College this year, if you’re only talking about their golf games in March and April.

The obstruction chicken is home, in Denver, Colorado Springs, Houghton, and Madison.

  • fee_0405

    Nice article, that would mean every year the Sioux would have a Hobey winner

  • kvinbe

    I couldn’t agree more that the WCHA got screwed when it came time for tournament bids, and that it was significantly due to winning percentage. However, I’m not ready to lay the blame at the doorstep of obstruction. While I do believe that calling obstruction on a consistent basis would improve the game, I also believe that the primary cause for the lower winning percentage was the overall strength of the WCHA. The winning percentages are lower because the WCHA is stronger from top to bottom. Officiating isn’t going to change this fact. Rather, the NCAA needs to do a better job of evaulating inter-conference strength come tournament selection time. I’ll say it again. The WCHA got screwed!

  • redwing77

    I can’t believe I could ever agree with Happy, but I do with his comment. Is it just obstruction, though? I’m with kvinbe when it comes to that. You can’t point to a single point in a rulebook and say “That’s the defining reason why something isn’t right.” Afterall, the NCAA tried to correct that by issuing one of their famous “crackdowns.” To no avail.

    The problem isn’t the rulebook, it is the officials who decide how to interpret and implement the rulebook and how consistent they are in its application once that interpretation and implementation has been made.

    If obstruction were called the way it should be, I doubt any team would go unaffected, including UMN and UND. But what would happen is that the teams would be forced to alter their playing styles to accomodate for sudden implementation of rules that went uncalled.

    The way to fix the WCHA isn’t by fixing the rulebook. There isn’t any problems with the rulebook. It’s there, it’s written out, and it’s not impossible to implement. The way to fix the WCHA is to make officials accountable for inconsistency, accountable for poor performance, and for Greg Shepherd to come forward and standardize what makes a call a call and what makes a non-call a non-call. Elimination of situational officiating and increasing consistency of calls (whether the fan thinks the call is good or bad) will improve the overall.

    Lastly, there are officials who are just plain incompetent or have been around certain programs long enough to have lost objectivity when it comes to the program itself. These officials need to be gone. Period. Greg Shepherd and Bruce McLeod shouldn’t be concerned about parity when it comes to officiating. They should be concerned about competitiveness when it comes to quality of the league in its entirity. That does not include taking talent and skill assessments of matchups to prevent embarrassing situations. If UAA is terrible and UMN is the best team in the league, I don’t think it should be worrisome to see UMN win by 3+ goals provided the goals were legit and the rulebook followed consistently and properly.

  • Goon

    I have to agree with Happy even if it makes my feel a little dirty. I think the WCHA’s officiating really caused the
    down fall of the WCHA while the league might want to have parity I believe they need to call the games the way they are supposed to be called. It’s not UND fault that another team can compete or recruit…

    However, that is water under the bridge…

  • redwing77

    Precisely.

    It isn’t the job of the head office to ensure that teams that traditionally have trouble recruiting similar caliber talent to the top tier teams in the league can compete.

    If that were necessary, you would never see expansion because no front office could get something like that to work.

    Where does that put teams like UAA or UMD (as of late) or even MSUM? It puts them in need of finding players who are diamonds in the rough, taking what they can manage, and utilizing strategy and conditioning (in addition to solid fundamentals) to make them competitive. They get a great player or players every now and then and will continue to do so, but that’s no business of McLeod or Shepherd provided the rules and regulations are not violated in any way. I’d hate to be a fan of a team who is a perrenial doormat, but there are such teams (Tampa Bay Devil Rays, KC Royals, Houstan Texans, and so on) at every level (if you want amateur, look at the trouble Chicago of the USHL has had as of late).

    Let the teams play. UAA beat UND twice last season and really, no rules had to be bent for it to happen. Let the rulebook stand and stand consistently and see what happens. If problems develop, then handle it from there.

    We shouldn’t be in a state of panic if a team like Minnesota beats a team like Alaska 6-0.

  • Goon

    redwing77 that was a cool post. Your right it isn’t the refs job to make sure the games are close. Their job is to call the games per the rule book.