NCAA Div1 hockey can be compared to a thoroughbred horse race. Owners and trainers are constantly on the lookout for promising yearlings to add to their stables so that the trainers can bring them to the point that they can compete at the highest level of racing. At the beginning of their career after years of physical training, they are introduced into their first racing experience at a level where they can gain confidence and when the trainer thinks they are ready, will promote them into a more challenging event in the racing circuit.
Before the race begins, followers of the sport make their favourite pick judged on the horses past performance as rated in the racing program and then they make their selection on which horse is going to come first across the finish line with the place and show horses in hot pursuit. All the horses come out of the gate the same and their chances of winning are the same as the trainers of each horse have prepared them well to compete against their piers.
The winning horse receives a Championship Trophy and all the accolades that go with it, but that is not the final race to be won for these champion thoroughbreds. Their owner, trainer and jockey have more rewarding goals for their horse. To be called the Champion of Champions is the motivation behind this sport and drives the participants to seek their dream to fame in the final race of the season that determines who is the best horse in the country at that level of competition.
NCAA hockey, wether it be in the men's or women's divisions have many similarities to horse racing. The coaching staff of the participating schools start their preparations for winning a possible NCAA Championship in the Final Four Tournament, years in advance. A lot of travel and time spent sitting in cold rinks across the United States and Canada evaluating potential candidates for their team to fill spots on their rosters to replace players that are graduating after four years of hard work being a student athlete. This is referred to as the yearling selection and stalking their stables, in horse racing. After a recruit decides on the school they want to attend, they are in the hands of the coaching staff that set goals, monitor the players development on and off the ice and most importantly, seeing that their players are physically fit so that they will be a benefit to the team when called upon to perform in the lineup.
The hockey season is about to begin and all the hockey prognosticators have made their selections on how the teams will fair during the season and predictions are made on who will win their league and national championship. This is the same as the program performance selection in horse racing.
I will make reference to the ECAC league in the NCAA DIV1 ranks as this is the league I am most familiar with. The other divisions of D1 hockey are the CHA, Hockey East, WCHA and the Division1 Independents that make up the women's league with their schedules varying. The ECAC has 22 games scheduled for home and away with division rivals and can fill in non-conferance games on open weekends of their schedule.
When the NCAA opens the starting gate for the season to begin, all teams have prepared themselves mentally and physically to the best of their ability putting every team on a level playing field to start the season and strive towards winning the top prize in women's NCAA hockey. Some teams come out of the gate strong and take the lead while others start out slower and feel their way through the pack. College hockey is all about opportunities, it's not how you start the race, it's all about how you finish the race that counts by taking advantage of other teams misfortunes. The teams that are leading the field now going into the final turn and positioning themselves to make their move in the stretch run are #1 Harvard with 28 pts, #2 Clarkson with 26 pts, #3 Cornell with 25 pts, and #4 Quinnipiac with 21 pts. Any of these teams could finish the season in 1st place and receive home ice advantage throughout the league playoffs with only 6 games remaining in the regular season. With some of these teams playing each other down the stretch, it is too close a horse race to call a winner now and it probably will come down to the last strides of the final weekend to see who crosses the finish line first.
This is what makes college hockey so much fun for the fans. Every fan is holding a ticket on their favourite team and are cheering them on to the finish line. Once the race is over, February 28th signals the start of a new race as the playoffs commence and the fans are exposed to another reason to cheer loudly as their team charges down the stretch on March 8th to capture the league trophy. The Champions of each division are automatically entered into the National Championship race with 4 other ranked teams filling in the field that will race for the National Crown and rein supreme for a year.
I love college hockey, as each game means so much to the team because of the number of games they play and they can't afford to take a night off and coast. This is unlike the NHL, as it will reflect in their National Rankings and a missed opportunity to participate in the big show of the Frozen Four for the National Championship.
So as the regular schedule comes to a close in February, stand up in the seats and along the rail and cheer your favourite team/horse on.