John Buccigross knows the Frozen Four isn’t exactly must-see TV across America.
ESPN’s play-by-play man working Thursday night’s semifinals in KeyBank Center compares the popularity of college hockey to that of musical bands before they become mainstream.
“I was a huge R.E.M. fan at a young age when they were a very small band before ‘The One I Love,’ ” said Buccigross in a telephone interview. “They grew to be a worldwide phenomenon. To me, they will always be that little band that I knew before anybody else did. So, I kind of look at college hockey like punk rock … it is a small audience, but it is a passionate and intimate audience and they are really into it.”
Buccigross plans to be really into it calling the two games Thursday night – Denver versus Massachusetts and Minnesota-Duluth versus Providence.
He doesn’t change his approach because college hockey doesn’t have the viewership of college basketball or multiple other sports.
“I don’t,” said Buccigross, who will be calling his seventh Frozen Four alongside analyst Barry Melrose. “You walk that fine line between wanting to respect the hardcore fans, especially the hardcore school fans, who certainly know his or her team. So, you don’t want to be too patronizing. You also want to inform the casual hockey fan or even the alumni who obviously haven’t been following all year but is now tuned in because his or her alma mater is on television.
“For the most part, I like to treat it as a hockey game and I want to call a game so when the family and friends of the players watch, they like the broadcast. So that’s the audience I play to – the players, the family members and the friends who are watching. I say everybody’s name, I work very hard to say everybody’s name. I want to respect the athletes.”
He does feel some self-enforced pressure.
“I don’t want to miss a goal call,” he said. “For some of these kids, it will be the biggest goal they’ve ever scored in their life. It will be the biggest game they ever scored in their life. For most of the kids, it will be their last shot of true glory when they are a key player on a championship team. I want to nail the calls for them because they are going to have them for the next 50-60 years playing for the kids and their grandkids.”
He understands why college hockey isn’t a big TV draw.
“We only have so much time to do things,” he said of consuming entertainment. “And college hockey for many is just down on the list.”
It is safe to say many people watching Thursday’s semifinals and Saturday’s final probably can’t name five players in the tournament and may not know some of the rule differences between the pro and college games.
Buccigross noted that there is no penalty in college for hitting the puck in the stands, and a college player committing a penalty will serve his minutes even if the opposing team scores on a delayed penalty call.
“I like that, especially for an elbow or a violent penalty,” said Buccigross. “The player should still serve time for the infraction. Why should a goal absolve him of his sins?”
Buccigross, who does extensive homework that includes watching replays of games, provided a scouting report of players to watch. He said there are probably 20 or 30 players who will at least get into a NHL game.
Tops on the list is defenseman Cale Makar of UMass, who was picked fourth overall by the Colorado Avalanche in the 2017 NHL draft. Buccigross said there is speculation that he could join the Avalanche for the playoffs right after the Frozen Four.
“He would step right into their lineup," said Buccigross. "He could have played in the NHL this year. He is the star of college hockey this year.”
Buccigross sees Denver goalie Filip Larson, a sixth-round draft choice of the Detroit Red Wings in 2016, as another potential NHL player.
He also expects Minnesota-Duluth defensemen Scott Perunovich and Dylan Samberg to make it in the NHL.
“This is the year of the defensemen in college hockey,” said Buccigross. “It is a defensive-minded season, a defensive-minded Frozen Four. There are no real superstar forwards like we’ve had in the past.”
Buccigross saw his first Frozen Four when he worked at a Providence TV station before joining ESPN in 1996, was immediately hooked and thinks Buffalo hockey fans will be too if they head to KeyBank Center.
“It is a little bit of a different hockey experience than an NHL game,” he said. “It is a different atmosphere with bands, all of these different hockey sweaters. If you are a hockey fan, I really think if you’ve never been to one before I would definitely take it in for the same reason you go on a sightseeing tour on vacation. To see something and experience something you haven’t had before. I would do it if you were a sports fan, but certainly if you’re a hockey fan I would give it a shot.”
He does have one regret about this year’s Frozen Four.
“The big bummer for me is the Stanley Cup playoffs will be going on through the Frozen Four,” said Buccigross, who hosted NHL 2Night when ESPN carried the league's games. “That usually doesn’t happen. That certainly will hurt our ratings.”
Of course, choosing between a Frozen Four game and a Buffalo Sabres playoff game won’t be a problem since the Sabres failed the make the playoffs again.
“I didn’t think they were ready to make the playoffs before the season,” said Buccigross. “I want the Sabres to do well. I root for good hockey markets to do well. I think it is good for the game, it is good for the interest, it is good for the ratings. But I just didn’t think they were ready. I just didn’t think they had the full arsenal of talent and their goaltending was still unproven.”
He drove from his Connecticut home in 2014 to see Sabres star Jack Eichel play his first college game at Boston University and instantly determined he’d be an NHL star. He sees big things ahead for Eichel, who played in the Frozen Four in 2015 called by Buccigross when BU lost to Providence in the title game.
“He is shouldering the whole thing in there much like Connor McDavid in Edmonton,” said Buccigross, noting McDavid has only been in the playoffs once. “It is terrible for them, terrible for us (not to be in the postseason).
“But Eichel is a complete player. I do think he should score more, whether it is trying to figure it out himself or talking to coaches, the analytics to figure out how they can get him in position to score more. He has an unbelievable shot. He should be a 35- to 40-goal scorer.
“He is the real deal. He is going to win an MVP one year, and a scoring title. I do think in the end he is going to develop into an all-time great Hall of Famer, number-retired Sabre.”
Of all the things Buccigross said in the interview, I imagine Sabre fans would be singing that's "The One I Love.”