Like any good rumor, the one about the formation of a fifth NCAA Division I men’s ice hockey conference has taken on a life of its own.
Well, the facts are in — the grist for the mill is expended.
An official announcement is not expected for at least a few weeks, but eight schools have already given written notice of their intention to be part of a new hockey conference, set to begin play in 1998-99.
The eight schools — American International (AIC), Canisius, Connecticut, Fairfield, Holy Cross, Iona, Quinnipiac, and Sacred Heart — will play in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. Three of the schools — Canisius, Fairfield, and Iona — were already MAAC members for all other sports, so it was a natural fit.
The new conference’s members had also considered becoming part of the ECAC or America East before settling on the MAAC.
Another school, Mercyhurst, is a possible ninth member. The Erie, Pa., school is relatively close to Buffalo (N.Y.)-based Canisius and would be a good fit, but it would first have to downgrade its lacrosse program before upgrading hockey. As a Division II institution, Mercyhurst is only allowed to designate one sport as Division I.
Sources say the conference’s scheduling committee has come up with a tentative schedule. Assuming a nine-member conference, each team would play every other one three times, a total of 24 games. There is currently no plan to restrict the number of games played to fewer than the NCAA maximum of 34. The ECAC, for example, limits its teams to 32 games, and the Ivy League schools can play only 29.
Army and Niagara were heavily lobbied to join the new conference, and representatives of those programs were at many of the meetings. But Niagara is still setting its sights on one of the four established conferences, possibly the CCHA.
Army wanted to keep the flexibility in its current schedule. The Cadets play a host of solid Division I teams each year, and didn’t want recruiting to suffer if those games are eliminated. Nevertheless, they may consider joining the MAAC in the future.
Teams like Holy Cross and UConn are happy because they’ll finally have a real home. Those schools, like several others, have been playing in the cross-division ECAC structure with mostly Division-III teams. They’ve been able to compete for league titles, but unable to play at the NCAA tournament level.
The ultimate goal for the pioneers of the new conference is to receive an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. The NCAA allows only a certain number of teams in each sport’s year-end tourney, based on the percentage of NCAA member schools playing that particular sport. Hockey already receives an exemption to allow the current 12, but with nine new D-I programs, the MAAC is hoping the NCAA will stretch the exemption to 16.
A strong case can be made in that hockey is one of the few money makers for the NCAA, ranking fourth behind football and men’s and women’s basketball. The NCAA will surely wait until the MAAC gets its feet wet before deciding anything, but a newly-organized championship cabinet in the NCAA includes the athletic director at UConn and the president of the MAAC.
“[The committee has] said, ‘Let’s make hockey part of the agenda,’” according to a well-placed source.
Working against the MAAC, however, is the concern that the new league may not be competitive at the tournament’s level of play. The NCAA once included a bid for independents, but eliminated that several years ago due partly to such worries — and partly because of the tendency of the best independents to join established leagues. In other words, the MAAC will have to prove itself before an automatic bid can become reality.
Nonetheless, all of this will add to the recruiting pressure for these schools, which can’t be satisfied with simply calling themselves a Division I league. As Holy Cross coach Peter Van Buskirk says, they must be competitive.
“We need to get as good as we can get — better than we have been,” said Van Buskirk, “to the point of being a quality opponent for the established [D-I] programs. And you want the whole league to survive. You’re hoping you do your part and the other schools do their part to become legitimate contenders.”
It will be a strange year for some of the schools as they play one last season in the old structure.
“We’ve already moved in terms of preparation and recruiting,” said AIC hockey sports information director Chris Hermann.
“This is a transition year. We’re not focusing on it for the season, but we are for recruits.”
Van Buskirk reiterated what a lot of people are saying; that a new conference will only help strengthen the sport as a whole. That is, the more teams playing Division I hockey, the merrier.
“With hockey most of the change or growth is in women’s,” Van Buskirk said. “So this is a new thing. We’re excited.”
The size and quality of facilities in the new conference vary, but most are in the 1,000-2,000 seat range.
Quinnipiac, which is in the process of upgrading its entire athletic department to the Division I level, has plans for a brand-new arena. A school such as AIC, on the other hand, will move out of its 20-year home at Smead Arena and play eight miles away just to find a rink good enough to house a D-I team. Holy Cross’ rink is small, holding just over 1,000 for now, but is a good facility all-around.
Other schools that at one time considered joining the MAAC were D-I school Villanova; D-I club schools Central Connecticut State and Penn State; D-II schools Assumption, Bentley, St. Anselm, St. Michael’s and Stonehill College; and D-III schools Elmira (N.Y.), Oswego (N.Y.) St. and Rochester Institute of Technology.
The door is open, and the hope is that more schools will join after recognizing the viability of the MAAC.
Said one athletic director, “This could be the tip of the iceberg.”
Oh, no … more rumors.