Kansas City's Sprint Center, seen as a possible home for an NHL team, hosts college hockey's season-opening tournament. (Ed Zurga/AP)
By Stu Hackel
Tonight's NHL schedule would have featured a game with great potential: The L.A. Kings' home opener. They were to raise their Stanley Cup banner and then skate against the New York Rangers, the team many believe is poised to take a run at the chalice this season. NBC Sports Net was going to be there. You know the rest of the story.
Fortunately, we'll still have some hockey: the 16th annual four-team Ice Breaker Tournament, which bills itself as the traditional start to the college hockey season, on NBCSN. It would have been televised even if the NHL season hadn't been put on hold. It's a good field with two teams ranked in the top 20 in the USCHO.com preseason poll -- Notre Dame (14th) and Maine (15th) -- facing off in the first game on Friday night (7 p.m. Eastern time) and Army taking on Nebraska-Omaha in the second game (10 p.m. ET).
NBCSN will broadcast both of Friday's games and the championship match on Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET). With Dave Strader and Pierre McGuire calling the action, the network is giving the college boys the NHL treatment and has been promoting the tourney with these on-air spots, which are just as good as anything it does for its NHL coverage.
If you're not emotionally invested in the MLB playoffs or college football, this will be hockey worth watching.
The site of the year's tourney is Kansas City's Sprint Center, a terrific building that was completed in 2007 and erected with hockey in mind. It's the first time the event has been held at an arena that isn’t home to either a college hockey program or an NHL team.
Unfortunately, Kansas City has never been able to secure an NHL team that would make the arena its home. The advance ticket sales for the Ice Breaker tournament have been poor -- under 3,000 packages sold, The Kansas City Star reported earlier this week -- and that's a blow to the effort to lure hockey back to the place where the franchise that is now the New Jersey Devils was born in 1975 only to move to Denver two years later.
K.C. is often mentioned these days as a possible NHL destination, either for an expansion team or a relocated one. There's an active organization, NHL21, dedicated to getting it done in this century, but no local individual or group has ever stepped forward to say they'd be happy to own an franchise in the city, at least not publicly.
Last year's preseason game between the Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins did sell out -- nearly 18,000 showed up, the first time that's happened for an NHL exhibition at the Sprint Center after previous mediocre turnouts for Coyotes-Kings (11,600) and Islanders-Kings (less than 10,000). Kings-Pens sparked some excitement, especially because the game was on a Tuesday night. The Rangers and Avalanche were booked for a Saturday preseason game there this year and reports had that one on track for a sell-out crowd as well. But the buzz evaporated with the cancellation of the preseason.
Those who show up at the Sprint Center or watch on TV will see a very good match-up in the opening game. Always a strong program, Maine finished 23-14-3 last season, dropping the Hockey East title game to eventual NCAA champion Boston College and falling to Minnesota Duluth in the NCAA regionals. A number of stars from that Black Bears team have departed, most notably center Spencer Abbott, a Hobey Baker Award finalist who signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs after the season.
But coach Tim Whitehead has some holdovers you should keep an eye on, including co-captain Joey Diamond, Hockey East's top goal-scorer, and forward Mark Anthoine, who tied for the national lead in power-play goals. Whitehead lost some key players on the blueline as well, but he expects his returnees to be solid. He's also happy about his goalie, calling Dan Sullivan his best netminder since Ben Bishop.
The Black Bears have been a high-scoring team in recent years -- nationally, they ranked seventh in offense last season -- but this year's edition is less potent, so Whitehead is asking his club to be more defense-oriented. Here's a preview of Maine on USCHO.com.
If there's some uncertainty about the Black Bears, the expectations surrounding Notre Dame are high. The Fighting Irish topped the CCHA preseason coaches poll and were second in media balloting even though they underachieved last season after landing in the 2010 Frozen Four.
In the large group of juniors that coach Jeff Jackson will rely upon for a big year, standouts include Anders Lee (an Islanders pick in 2009) and T.J. Tynan (a Blue Jackets draftee in 2011). Both are scoring forwards and had better freshman years for the Irish than they did second seasons. Four of Jackson's defensemen are juniors as well: Jared Beers, Stephen Johns, Kevin Lind and Shayne Taker.
In goal is sophomore Steven Summerhays, who Jackson believes took a big step up in the second half of last season. Here's the Notre Dame preview from USCHO.com.
In the second game, Army is hoping to start a bounce-back season after its disastrous 2011-12 in which the Black Knights won only four games, their fewest since 1950-51. They had a dozen seniors on that offensively-challenged roster, so coach Brian Riley is looking at markedly different squad. He hopes his 13 freshmen quickly become acclimated to military life as plebes as well as Division 1 hockey. Most of them played in U.S. junior leagues last season, so Riley believes they will be more mature, having spent that time away from home.
Among those first-year players worth watching is Thane Heller, who scored 27 goals and 40 assists in 44 games last season for the Boston Jr. Bruins of the EJHL. He joins senior Andy Starczewski, who returns as Army's top scorer last season, having tallied 13 times, the only member of the team to hit double digits in goals.
Sophomore Maurice Alvarez could become the young leader on defense after tying his blueliner brother, Marcel, who has graduated, for fourth in team scoring last season with 14 points.
Returning goalies Ryan Leets and Rob Tadazak will share the duties, at least to start the season. Here's more on Army from USHO.com.
It's also a season of transition for Nebraska-Omaha, which saw two assistant coaches go elsewhere and two of its top three scorers, Terry Broadhurst and Jayson Megna, depart for minor pro careers. Broadhurst signed with the Chicago Blackhawks and Megna joined the Penguins organization.
Expectations are low -- the Mavericks are picked to finish seventh in the WCHA -- but that was the case in 2010 as well, writes Nate Tenopir, the sports editor at the UNO newspaper The Gateway, and they earned an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament. The belief is that coach Dean Blais has recruited well the past few years and those players are ready to take on a larger role.
Last year's top scorer, senior Matt White, returns as do juniors Ryan Walters and Brock Montpetit. On defense, senior Bryce Aneloski and juniors Andrej Sustr (huge Chara-like defenseman who McGuire thinks can make the NHL) and Michael Young have some offensive upside.
In goal, senior John Faulkner returns, but he'll have company with big freshman Anthony Stolarz, a Philadelphia Flyers second-round draft choice, pushing him for starts. More on the Mavericks can be found here from USCHO.com.
It may not be the NHL, but the Ice Breaker is a good tournament that gives us some competitive hockey to watch this weekend.
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