The title doesn’t quite have the same ring as taxation without representation, and you won’t be finding Hockey East Commissioner Joe Bertagna dumping tea, or its equivalent, into the Boston harbor. Nonetheless, Hockey East will next year become the first major conference without a member on the NCAA tournament selection committee, and Bertagna is none too happy about it.
NCAA by-laws dictate two representatives from the East and two from the West on the committee, naturally resulting in one from each conference. Historically, when a league member’s term neared expiration, he was for all practical purposes allowed to name his successor. Hockey East assumed that would again hold true this year when Merrimack Athletic Director Bob DeGregorio completed his tenure.
NCAA restructuring, however, has changed the way committee members are chosen. Under the new format, most of the power lies with multi-sport conferences. None of the four existing hockey conferences — not even the ECAC — fits this criterion. So, for example, Bertagna’s appointment to the NCAA rules committee required that he first be nominated by either the Big East or America East, multi-sport conferences that some Hockey East schools are part of.
That these changes would also affect the tournament selection committee, however, came as a surprise. Thinking that it would once again be allowed to name DeGregorio’s successor, Hockey East did not submit paperwork to officially nominate a candidate. As a result, the Division I Championships Committee voted in Quinnipiac Athletic Director Jack McDonald as DeGregorio’s replacement, effective this summer.
Last year, McDonald spearheaded the formation of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC), a fifth Division I college hockey conference slated to begin play next season. The MAAC is a multi-sport conference with all the attending advantages within the NCAA power structure.
“We just got caught in this transition where people expected that the same process would be in place, where Bob would name his successor,” says Bertagna. “For the record, the NCAA never sent us anything. I get two to three pieces of mail a week from the NCAA. I open all of it and I look at all of it. We never got anything from the NCAA notifying us of this.
“When I asked them why I didn’t, the answer that I got was, ‘Well, it was in the NCAA News. You should have read it.’ Which I think, given the relationship we have with hockey, was a little short.
“But we’ll take the responsibility. We got caught in this change of the rules.”
Bertagna and Hockey East weren’t the only ones shocked.
“I was taken as much by surprise as anyone,” says St. Lawrence coach Joe Marsh, the committee chairman and ECAC representative. “I didn’t realize that the MAAC would be that involved in it at this point.”
Which gets to the crux of the issue. The upstart league looks like a 5-5, 140-pounder that went into the corner for a loose puck, knocked the 6-4, 230-pound superstar on his butt and then walked in for the winning goal.
“I have no ill will against the MAAC, but I think that them having a representative in place of another conference is a problem,” says Bertagna. “Not just because someone is left out, which will be us for a year, but they’re not even going to have a team under consideration over the next year or two.”
Bertagna and McDonald aired out their differences recently by telephone.
“My point to Jack was,” says Bertagna, “‘At the time that you sought the position, you didn’t know if we were going to have our paperwork in or not. You were just going after the position knowing that if you got it, you’d be getting it at the expense of one of the existing conferences.’
“I just don’t think that’s the way you do business. Did they have every right to do that? They certainly did. But to me, it signaled an aggressive posture when they could have said, ‘How do we expand this committee to five so we can get a representative?’
“If they’d come to every one of the four leagues with that approach, they would have been welcomed with open arms.”
McDonald, for his part, is now left with a measure of happiness and pride at the prestige his new league has acquired before its first season, but also with disappointment that its relationship with Hockey East has gotten off on the wrong foot.
“We’re the new kids on the block,” says McDonald. “We need the help, friendship and respect of Hockey East and the ECAC. In no way, shape or form were we attempting to displace, or make unhappy, our big brothers in this college hockey world. We want to work together and use their resources and their advice and their experience.
“We would prefer good relationships with all our Division I conferences over representation in our infancy years. If anybody deserves not to be there in the first time span, it would be the MAAC hockey league.
“If Hockey East had applied and it had come down to Hockey East or MAAC, I would think it would have been Hockey East. There’s no question that they deserve a place.
“My honest opinion is that if it was good for college hockey for Quinnipiac not to have this slot, that would be okay. I’m not sure that can happen, but in no way, shape or form do we want to be the bad guy in this situation.
“If we could give this back — not that we don’t want it — it’s not that important to us in our infancy to have this position. It’s more important for us to have a good working relationship with the premier hockey conference in the country.”
Although any such reversal appears inconceivable, McDonald’s comments would seem to indicate a genuine hope for harmony with the MAAC’s “big brothers.” At the same time, however, he adds the following cautionary note.
“When we announced the new league in September,” McDonald says, “Joe’s quote was, ‘It’s a whole new landscape.’ This is a perfect example of that. It’s not just the good old boys anymore.”
Despite the controversy, Hockey East followers shouldn’t be up in arms, assuming that their league will be getting the short end of the stick in next year’s postseason.
“The one thing people have to realize is that it’s not a voting process anyway,” says Marsh. “The selection of teams is pretty clear-cut in the criteria. The only real subjectivity involved is when you get into seeding and the avoiding of interconference match-ups.
“So I don’t think it’s something that’s a huge problem. Hopefully, we’ve got things streamlined enough to where the process is going to run smoothly regardless of who serves on the committee.”
Bertagna, though clearly unhappy about the situation, agrees.
“It’s more symbolic that you don’t like to have the situation happen,” he says. “I also don’t think it’s that big a deal in the sense that people that get to positions on any NCAA committee are responsible people. Even though we try to spread the representation to make sure each league is heard, I don’t think that anybody is so single-minded that they don’t do the right thing when faced with a decision.
“Certainly, the chairman of the committee next year, Joe Marsh, who’s a personal friend of mine, is a very honest, straight-down-the-middle guy. He’s not going to allow anything untoward to happen.”
Though largely symbolic, the situation still seems unfortunate and easily remedied. With the MAAC expanding the number of Division I hockey conferences to five starting next year, shouldn’t the committee also grow?
“There has been talk of expanding the committee to five members, but at least this year that will not happen,” says John Painter, a top NCAA ice hockey administrator. “The coming season will see just a four-member committee.”
If that continues beyond just the one year, relations among the Eastern conferences could become further strained next season at this time when Hockey East fields a candidate at the same time Marsh’s term ends.
“I’ve already spoken to Jeff Fanter because I don’t think either Jeff or I should be in this situation,” says Bertagna. “I don’t think we should be competing for a spot.
“What I know will happen is that there will be a movement almost immediately to expand the committee to five as soon as we get through the tournaments and we get our current responsibilities out of the way.”
Ideally, with Marsh vacating one spot and a new fifth one created, Hockey East and the ECAC will each place a representative on the committee next year.
“I would love to make that our first agenda item,” says McDonald.
The only foreseeable sticking point would be Western conferences complaining about no longer having an even geographic split, even if that may be justified by the presence of three Eastern leagues.
“It’s not like this is something where we’re going to have votes 3-2,” says Marsh. “You’re dealing with a situation where the criteria dictate who is going to be chosen.”
The committee is, however, responsible for some subjective decisions that could be viewed as problematic.
“When you’re looking at site selections,” says Marsh, “people could say, ‘Oh, they’re going to favor Eastern site selections.’ But I think the committee, since I’ve been there and for a long time before that, has really tried to balance things out and be fair to everyone. We’ve chosen the best sites, based on the interest and commitment to make it a real event.
“I don’t anticipate an [East vs. West] problem at all, but there are people who could think that.”
McDonald also points to a potential third Western conference — consisting of schools like Air Force, Mankato State and Division II and III superpowers like Bemidji State and Alabama-Huntsville — giving the West a comparable third representative.
Assuming the size of the selection committee can be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, the MAAC could prove instrumental in achieving things for all of college hockey because of its unique status as a multi-sport conference in the restructured NCAA.
One such topic, a 16-team tournament field with four regional sites, has near-unanimous approval throughout the college hockey community, but has yet to meet NCAA approval because the ratio of Division I teams to a 16-team field isn’t sufficient. McDonald considers this second on his agenda list, trailing only committee expansion.
“Two weeks ago in the NCAA News, there was a cover story on bracket expansion in a bunch of sports,” says McDonald. “Guess which sport wasn’t mentioned? It was very disappointing to me as a college hockey person.
“There’s three things to our advantage in moving to a 16-team tournament. One is the new league. Two, the NCAA restructuring is allowing some federation of ideas and concepts. Three, and most importantly, is the fact that NCAA hockey is one of the highest revenue-producing championships.
“One thing about the MAAC hockey league is that we may not have the best hockey teams as far as the [Ratings Percentage Index] is concerned today. But as my appointment has shown, we do have one of the best, if not the best, representations to the NCAA under the new system because we are from an all-sports conference.
“We may not be able to take on BU, BC, Wisconsin and Minnesota anytime soon, but we do have the ability, through the NCAA structure, to add a fifth member of the ice hockey committee, at least make a good presentation for going to a 16-team tournament and also maybe develop women’s hockey.”
If so, McDonald’s appointment, contentious start notwithstanding, could result in a happy ending for all concerned.
“We’re all in this together,” says Marsh. “We want what’s best for the game. If he’s the guy that can help in that, more power to him.”