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Goal Oriented


Sean Dolan, general manager of the MassMutual Center

Sean Dolan, general manager of the MassMutual Center


Jeff Smith acknowledged that, at this time of year, he’s certainly plugged into the NCAA Division 1 hockey rankings, standings, and something called … bracketology, a science of sorts whereby an analyst, starting several weeks in advance, projects which teams will wind up in the season-ending tournament and where they will play.

Most of his attention is focused on UMass Amherst — he’s the school’s deputy athletic director for External Operations — which has been a regular in the tournament the past several years and won the national championship in 2021. But he’s also looking at how the tournament brackets will shake out and what the competition might be.

This year, however, he’s watching things even more closely, because there is much more at stake than where the Minutemen might play and whom — although that’s still top of mind, obviously.

Indeed, it was Smith who went to his boss several years ago with the idea of the university, working in tandem with the MassMutual Center and American International College, co-hosting one of the tournament’s regional slate of games.

Long story short — we’ll go back and fill in some of the details later — the three parties submitted a bid in early 2020 to host a regional round in 2023, 2024, and 2025, and the NCAA awarded Springfield one for 2024 — specifically, three games to be played later this month that will determine which team will punch their ticket for the Frozen Four, to be played in St. Paul, Minn.

Which brings us back to bracketology.

Smith and other organizers of this regional are watching closely to see which teams might be coming to downtown Springfield. UMass Amherst is very likely to be one of them — the team was ranked in the top 10 as of this writing and stood a good chance of winning either one of the 10 at-large bids or the automatic bid that comes with the Hockey East crown (it was in fourth place as the regular season was winding down). And if UMass is in the tournament field, he said, it will play in Springfield because it’s a host and the MassMutual Center is not its home rink.

Jeff Smith

Jeff Smith

“I think Western Mass. has become this 413 hockey hotbed right now.”

As for the others, quality hockey is assured, but another team or even two from the Northeast would be ideal, said Sean Dolan, general manager of the MassMutual Center, who described this venture as a financial risk for its partners, but one that those involved consider well worth taking.

“There’s financial risk here — there’s a guarantee that goes to the NCAA, and your finances need to be covered,” he said, adding quickly that several thousand tickets have already been sold, well in advance of Selection Sunday, and almost 1,000 hotel rooms have been blocked off for the NCAA, the teams, their fans, their bands, television crews, referees, and more.

The decision to bid for the D1 hockey regional is part of a broader effort to bring more sporting events of this nature to the MassMutual Center, a facility owned by the state and managed by MGM Springfield.

Indeed, bids have been submitted for D2 basketball (men’s and women’s), D2 and D3 wrestling, D2 and D3 volleyball, and additional D1 hockey regionals, he said, adding that, while word is awaited on those bids, it’s very likely that this spring’s regional will the first of many collegiate sporting events coming to the facility.

Jessica Chapin, director of Athletics at AIC, another partner in this venture who’s also watching bracketology closely, agreed. She noted that AIC, which has played in the tournament in recent years, is experiencing an injury-plagued season and is unlikely to be in the field of 16. And if it did win the Atlantic Hockey conference title, it could not play in Springfield because the MassMutual Center is the Yellowjackets’ home rink.

But AIC is sharing in the risk of hosting this regional, she said, adding that, like all those involved, she’s crossing her fingers on the draw and expecting a strong showing and more collegiate sporting events in the future.

“We’re super excited to hopefully have a team from down the Mass Pike,” she said. “Hopefully, that will be the top seed in our building, and that will help drive attendance to this event and make it great for not only AIC, but Springfield and the greater community.”

Mary Kay Wydra, president of the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau, concurred, noting that the event should provide a real boost for the region’s tourism and hospitality sector, especially coming at an otherwise slow time of year she described as “our traditional mud season.”

“We’ve run the preliminary, and I’m stressing preliminary, economic-impact calculation, and, based on the current information available, the result is a little over $1 million for our local economy,” she said. “Of course, that number could vary up or down slightly depending on which teams participate, how far their fans will travel, how big their fan base is, and even the weather that weekend.”

“You have a community that’s really invested in hockey, and we will bring some the nation’s best talent to Springfield.”

Those comments certainly explain the interest in bracketology and the risks involved with this venture, which, overall, is seen as an opportunity to spotlight the emergence of hockey in this region and provide a boost to both its prominent arena and the entire hospitality sector.


New Gains

For those not familiar with the Division 1 hockey tournament, it’s very much like the better-known basketball event known as March Madness, only on a much smaller scale.

Indeed, while there are more than 330 Division 1 basketball teams spread across 33 conferences, each with its own automatic bid to the tournament, D1 hockey features roughly 60 teams in just six conferences, with teams mostly in the Northeast and Midwest.

Sixteen teams make the tournament, and deciding where they play can be a complicated process. Indeed, the selection committee likes to keep teams relatively close to home, for many obvious reasons, but there are competing forces, including the dominance of Hockey East, which could have three number-one seeds, requiring at least one of them to travel. Also, the committee tries to avoid teams from the same conference playing in the first round. And, yes, UMass being a host, guaranteeing it a spot in Springfield, complicates things even further.

There’s still three weeks for the brackets to be worked out, and local organizers will certainly be watching. But they’re expecting the event to sell and anticipating that the risk they’re taking will pay off — for Springfield, the region, the MassMutual Center, area businesses, and more.

The Frozen Four games are now played annually in cities and rinks with NHL teams, said Smith, adding that the regionals are usually played in smaller arenas, typically those that are home to American Hockey League teams — like the MassMutual Center, home to the Thunderbirds, a franchise that has seen success on and off the ice under the direction of President Nate Costa.

That success, coupled with the emergence of UMass Amherst and AIC as true hockey powers, is one of several motivating factors for bidding on the D1 hockey regional, said Smith and Dolan, who knew each other from when Dolan worked at the Mullins Center on the UMass campus, adding that a hockey regional is one way to build off that momentum.

Mary Kay Wydra

Mary Kay Wydra

“The NCAA has blocked 940 rooms in our area, which is significant for a late March weekend that coincides with the Easter holiday.”

“I think Western Mass. has become this 413 hockey hotbed right now,” said Smith, citing the success of AIC, UMass Amherst, and the T-Birds. “That’s kind of cool, and hosting a regional is a way to promote that and celebrate it.”

Dolan agreed, noting that bidding for the D1 hockey regional is part of a larger effort to bring more sporting events to the region and, overall, fill more dates at the MassMutual Center.

For many years, Springfield hosted a D2 basketball regional, he recalled, and even a D1 basketball regional in the ’70s when that tournament was much smaller. But there has been little in recent years beyond the the Hall of Fame Classic games each fall.

Dolan said Las Vegas has landed a number of collegiate and professional sporting events in recent years (it just hosted the Super Bowl, for example), and those at MGM Springfield and the MassMutual Center conferred with their partners in Vegas about how to bring similar events to Springfield.

At the same time, talks between those at the facility and UMass, and then AIC, about hosting D1 hockey picked up in intensity. The bid was submitted just prior to COVID in 2020, and word was received that Springfield had been awarded one of the regionals for 2024 that October.

And, as noted earlier, it was just the first of many bids to be submitted, said Dolan, adding that sporting events of this nature are advantageous for many reasons. They bring people to Western Mass. from outside the region, thus giving it some exposure while also filling hotel rooms and restaurants. They also bring energy to the downtown for several days at a time.

“Our goal is to have Springfield host an NCAA championship every year,” he told BusinessWest, “so that this becomes something that we all, as community members, can anticipate. The sport will change by the year, but we want to have something each year.”


Icing on the Cake

When asked what to expect over those three days in late March, those we spoke with said there will certainly be some quality hockey on tap.

After that … well, much depends on how this bracket comes together.

One recent bit of bracketology, from Feb. 21, had UMass Amherst, Boston University, Denver, and Cornell coming to the MassMutual Center; that’s three teams from the Northeast and one from 2,000 miles away.

But other factors will play into this equation as well, everything from the weather to the fact that this will be Easter weekend (in making their bid, the local partners specifically bid for games to be played on Thursday and Saturday, rather than Friday and Sunday, to avoid playing on Easter).

Advance ticket sales, as noted, have been solid, Dolan said, adding that the brackets will not be announced until the Sunday before the games start. Most tickets will be sold after Selection Sunday, he explained, but organizers will push for advanced sales, emphasizing the quality of the hockey and the fact that Springfield hasn’t seen anything quite like this before.

“The NCAA has blocked 940 rooms in our area, which is significant for a late March weekend that coincides with the Easter holiday,” Wydra said. “So this figure is a very good indicator of the likely impact on our accommodations sector. It’s a little tougher to predict the overall room demand without knowing which teams will make it into the regional tournament. Some fanbases are very engaged and will follow their teams more enthusiastically than others, and of course distance is a factor, but we’re certainly expecting the room demand to be high.”

Having the Minutemen, which have been averaging more than 5,000 fans per game this year and have drawn as many as 8,000 to some tilts, including one against Michigan, will be huge, but other teams are expected to travel well.

When asked how they will measure success, those involved said there will be several yardsticks, including everything from ticket sales to how well those attending the games support downtown businesses.

And the results may ultimately play into how well the three partners fare as they vie for other regionals — bids have been submitted for 2026, 2027, and 2028.

“We’re planning on having a lot of success with this,” Smith said. “And it would be great to have it where every few years we have this in our backyard.”

Chapin, a member of the BusinessWest 40 Under Forty class of 2023, agreed.

“You have a community that’s really invested in hockey, and we will bring some the nation’s best talent to Springfield,” she said. “So I expect near-sellout crowds for the event.”

Added Wydra, “we’re sure the NCAA will be looking at how Springfield measures up to the other regional tournament locations,” which include Providence, R.I., Maryland Heights, Mo., and Sioux Falls, S.D.

“Here, our attention will be focused on the hotel-occupancy data, ticket sales for the games, attendance at area attractions, and dining volume at local restaurants. We expect to see a busy downtown in late March, with foot traffic on the street, and our enthusiasm for this event is high.”

Now, they’re just waiting for the puck to drop.