The ’26-1′ Rule (a parable)

A tale of men in power, arbitrarily creating, enforcing, uncreating rules – in 1978.

In early March, just a few weeks after the Blizzard of ’78 decimated the I-95 Providence – Boston Corridor, the ECAC Hockey Tournament began. Back then, pre-Big East/Hockey East et.al., there was one league for the 16 or so Hockey teams in the East. At the end of the season the top eight teams played a single elimination tournament, last two teams standing automatically went to the Final Four. (It was 1978, the marketers hadn’t come up with Frozen Four yet) where they would meet the top two teams from a tourney out west.

There were two gargantuan teams in the East – Boston University and Boston College. BU, anchored by pre-flag draped Jim Craig and the future Mr. Michelle Pfeiffer, cruised into the tourney at 26-1. They had recently beaten BC in back to back games while scoring 22 goals.

In the quarter finals they were matched with #7 seed Providence College, a huge upset winner over #2 Cornell (‘70s, remember?). In an upset out of a Disney movie, the Friars beat the Terriers 5-1. That upset would have broken ESPN if there had only been an ESPN. BU went home, PC went on to lose the championship game to BC.

By rule, Providence and BC were on to the Final Four. Both campuses celebrated . . . though, of course, in internet & social media isolation. Exciting days . . . but not for the NCAA. They were displeased, a generational team would be at home during college hockey’s signature event, an event that that year was going to have exactly one ranked team in the finals.

What to do? Really, what could they do, rules were rules and, besides, it’s all about the play on the ice. Right? So, just play it out, talk up that it’s the year of upsets culminating ‘this coming weekend at the Providence Civic Center!’

Right?

In the immortal words of Theodoric, Medieval Barber (1978):

Nah.   

NCAA Hockey invoked a ‘little known’, never tested, never before used ‘rule’, added BU to the no-longer-Final Four and scheduled a brand new ‘play-in’ round against, you guessed it, Providence.

BU fans were ecstatic. PC fans – and the rest of the college hockey world – went absolutely ape shit (BU was about as popular as any sports dynasty).

The game was scheduled for the Tuesday before Final Four weekend, the schools were informed maybe a week in advance – at most. No sports radio, no ESPN, no email or social media, newspapers only; the news just sat there, the only pressure the NCAA faced was via phone calls – pre-cellular, the single easiest thing in the world to avoid.

BU took full advantage, beat Providence, then the lapdog out of the West, and finally Boston College for another National Championship.  

1978 was the only year a ‘play-in’ game was ever played under the old NCAA Hockey Final Four format.

Was there pressure from BU, one of NCAA Hockey’s biggest programs? Undoubtedly.

Were the wheels on ‘how to fix this’ turning as the Friars and Terriers shook hands after the ECAC game? You betcha.

Did a team of analytics and lawyers and NCAA bureaucrats hit the books to find the rationalization for what ‘they knew had to be done?’ Fuck yes.

Should BU have accepted the, ahem, 5th place seed in a 4-team tournament? Don’t be ridiculous. They were athletes told they had another chance, they play no matter what.

Look at it this way, professional baseball has been a thing since 1869 – in all that time no catcher has ever turned to an umpire while the other team was arguing an out call at home and said, “Hey, man, they’re right, I never touched him.”

No, the issue, as it has been throughout history, are rules made up by a body of men (‘70’s . . . but, really . . .) that are strictly adhered to as long as they work to their advantage. If not, they change them, rationalize it, weather whatever storm(s) it stirs up; temporary problem solved, they go back to imperiously enforcing the previous, ‘real’ rule.  

In 1978, for all we know, the NCAA Hockey Committee called this . . . glitch . . . the “26-1” Rule: “The teams who play in the finals of the ECAC tourney automatically qualify for the Final Four unless a team with a record of 26-1 fails to make the final.”

This, of course, would never be written down because, as Yossarian noted in Catch-22, “What did matter was that everyone thought it [Catch-22] existed, and that was much worse, for there was no object or text to ridicule or refute, to accuse, criticize, attack, amend, hate, revile, spit at, rip to shreds, trample upon or burn up.”

The ‘oh, hey, here’s a rule that’s never been a rule but sure should be based on these circumstances’ has to be fought as it happens and before it takes effect.

You fight the anomaly, the “26-1” rule, with everything you have because the next time, when circumstances repeat but are no longer advantageous to ‘the guys’, they will fall back on the real, written rule and decades if not centuries of precedence.

When that happens, everyone who bitched about the ad hoc ‘rule’ instead of stopping it, is automatically – and accurately – a hypocrite.

A nifty piece of footwork by ‘the guys.’  

It’s tricky . . . though virtually anyone with a modicum of experience in the criminal justice system would see it coming a mile away.