Santa was very good to the Old Dog and his pack. Mrs. Dog treated me to some fine presents, and our children and grandson enjoyed a wonderful holiday, filled with gifts, good food, and a Zoom call to celebrate. We are all healthy and enjoying the unseasonably warm weather, particularly here in Texas.
And yet the Old Dog is perturbed. Perturbed: adjective, feeling anxiety or concern; unsettled. And why is that? Most of it has to do with the Huskies and the Great Lakes Whatever It Is that starts this Wednesday.
The GLI Is Tradition
For starters, the format this year is terrible. The Great Lakes Invitational is the second oldest college hockey tournament (the Beanpot in Boston is even older) and was started in 1965 by John MacInnes with help from Lincoln Cavalieri, then General Manager of the old Olympia Stadium, and Jack Tompkins, a former goalie at the University of Michigan and a vice president at American Airlines at that time. The first tournament was won by the University of Toronto — in their only appearance — and featured Michigan Tech as host, with Boston University and Colorado College rounding out the field.
Held at the old Olympia Stadium between Christmas and New Year’s Day, the GLI became a gathering point for Tech students during the holiday break, as well as a chance for Tech alums to connect with the Huskies each year. Michigan and Michigan State were invited the next year, and by 1976 the Wolverines became co-host. MSU has been in the field every year since 1979, the first year the tournament moved from Olympia to the new Joe Louis Arena. In 2017, the GLI moved to Little Caesars Arena, which replaced the JLA as the Red Wings’ home that year.
In total, 55 straight tournaments were held until COVID forced cancellation last year. In 1984, with Tech and MSU playing in the championship game, 21,576 fans crammed the JLA for that game — something that caused the fire marshal to cap attendance after that. As late as 2013, more than 51,000 tickets were sold for both nights.
Financial Hardship or Greed?
Since moving to the “Pizza Palace” things have changed. With the Detroit Pistons co-habiting with the Red Wings, the number of open dates for two days of games has shrunk. This year, the GLI was bumped for other things, things that Olympia Entertainment (the promotional arm of the Ilitch family, which owns the Red Wings) thinks will be more profitable.
That’s the first point of irritation for the Old Dog. What’s replacing the GLI? WWE Monday Night Raw on one day, and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra on the next. Really? Fake wrestling and a faux-Russian classical rock influenced mishmash? Now, don’t misunderstand, WWE fans are manic, and the TSO does put on a great show. But to cast aside one of the longest-running tournaments, a tournament that’s made a lot of money over the years and is a big social event in Detroit, is just plain greedy. As country folks here in Texas say, that as low as stealin’ your mama’s egg money.
Michigan Drops A Bomb
This has set off a chain of events that aggravate me more. To replace the tournament, the four teams involved — Tech, U-M, MSU, and Western Michigan — agreed to play in a “Showcase.” The resulting format was originally set up so that Tech would play at Michigan’s Yost Arena against the Wolverines on one night, and at MSU’s Munn Arena against the Spartans on the next. The WMU Broncos, currently ranked 4th in the national polls and 6th in the RPI and Pairwise, would follow the opposite path — the first night at Munn and the next at Yost.
Then, on Monday, U-M made two absolutely crazy announcements, resulting in the cancellation of the Wolverines-Broncos game on Thursday, but still play Tech on Wednesday. They blamed it on safety protocols for their players, but it had nothin to do with COVID. The whole story was explained very nicely by THG’s Matt Cavender here. It really boils down to Michigan not having some of their best players because they’ll be at the World Juniors Championship (WJC) in Edmonton.
I simply can’t understand how U-M can have enough players to face Tech one night and not enough for the next night. It’s no different than a road series, where teams only take a minimum number of players on a trip. You play the guys who made the travel list both nights, and there’s no concern about “health and welfare” when that’s the case. And I’m 100% certain that U-M would have played the same guys both nights if the WJC players were not gone. There’s no way to look at this that really makes sense other than Michigan ducking Western, who has already beaten them once this season.
If you believe the Wolverines’ story, you probably think a seven course meal is a possum and a six pack.
The Showcase Favors the B1G Schools
Beyond that mess, while I’m sure there is some percentage of gate receipts for Tech and Western, Michigan and Michigan State will almost surely benefit more financially from this arrangement. Not only that, but they also get the added boost of playing on their own ice, with crowds that will be partial to their teams. Yes, the Broncos and the Huskies will bring plenty of fans and Husky Nation is always loud and more boisterous than home fans, but it still rankles me.
Another consequence of this schedule is that Tech’s pep band, one of the top bands in the country — the most entertaining hockey band in the land if nothing else — will not be allowed to play at either event. This is being blamed on a Big Ten rule that forbids visiting bands in B1G arenas. While I’m sure this makes some sense for conference events, including basketball, I don’t see why an exception couldn’t have been made for something like the GLI.
That’s just one more screw up of a two-car funeral as far as I’m concerned. I’m guessing that U-M and MSU didn’t push the B1G very hard on this. Keeping the Living Proof of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the Cream of the Keweenaw, the Pride of Pasty Land, and the Second Best Feeling in the World from belting out their repertoire is a painful crime, like huggin’ a rose bush.
As one more insult, in order to view these games on TV, you’ll have to buy a one month subscription to the Big Ten Network’s pay channel, BTN Plus. It’ll cost $14.95 for an all-school one month pass. So that’s one more financial gain for the “host” programs.
The THG Chasing MacNaughton Podcast dealt with most of these issues last week in a discussion with MTU Athletic Director Dr. Suzanne Sanregret. Sanregret had all of the right answers about why all of this had happened, and how things will come back next year. It all made sense (except for the part about the Ilitch empire claiming poverty due to the pandemic — hey, times are tough for everyone), but I’m still wound up about this year’s event, and I suspect that things will never be the same again in the GLI.
I guess this all puts the Old Dog in a horn tossin’ mood. But if an Old Dog can’t be cranky sometimes, who can?
BTW—These are Really Big Games
The last part of being perturbed is anxiety. And yes, the Old Dog is apprehensive about these games. As noted previously, Michigan, #2 in RPI and #3 in the poll, will be short several of their best players but still has a ton of NHL-potential talent available. MSU is no slouch either, at 18th in RPI and just outside of the top twenty in the poll. These are the last two non-conference games on the Huskies’ schedule, and they will play a huge role in Tech’s opportunity to qualify for the NCAA tournament.
Given the Huskies’ uneven play this season, a season in which an NCAA tournament berth was always considered a real possibility, these games are, more or less, tournament qualifiers. Play poorly and the only way in would be to win the CCHA Playoffs. Play well, and then win the games they should win in the rest of the season, all conference play, and they’ll be in a great position to make the Big Skate.
Winning these games will make this Great Lakes Something Or Other an event to remember. That’ll make me feel as fine as frog fur. (That’s really special if you don’t speak Texan.)