The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, about to enter its third season of play this fall, has stirred the Division I hockey pot by forcing its members to drop all games against Findlay, an “emerging” Division I program from College Hockey America, from all non-conference schedules.
The move leaves Findlay and hockey coach Craig Barnett with an eight-game scheduling hole to fill just a week before students return to school and begin off-ice training.
Findlay recently received an exception to the NCAA’s membership moratorium, allowing it to re-classify itself in Division I for men’s and women’s ice hockey. However, the school still has to go through the mandatory two-year probationary period.
The MAAC conference by-laws do now allow any members in any of its 25 men’s and women’s sports to play regular-season games against non-Division I schools. By the letter of the law, the decision is correct, and in the opinion of many in the conference, the right thing to do.
But, because a lot of people, even those in the NCAA, were unclear on Findlay’s status until recently, the timing of the decision is unfortunate at best. And the decision to cancel the games has fostered charges of hypocrisy because the MAAC has either purposefully or mistakenly overlooked its by-laws in the past.
When the MAAC began play two years ago, most of the conferences’ eight members had just made, or were in the process of making, the transition to NCAA Division I. Last season, two more members, Bentley and Mercyhurst, were in the second year of transition, but still classified as Division II members. Most Division I teams would not play these schools during this period, but some, most notably Air Force and Army, did.
Findlay athletic director Steven Rackley said he is “disappointed” at the MAAC’s decision, but hopes to move on and continue the school’s transition.
“[The MAAC] had a rule that you can’t play non-Division I schools,” said Rackley. “I don’t think the intent of the rule was to not play schools in our position. But last year they had some schools in our position.
“To me, it all seems a little hypocritical.”
Rackley, who will attempt to schedule non-league games against members of Findlay’s league, is most upset at the way this will effect the student athletes.
“I don’t think the student-athletes were taken into consideration,” Rackley said. “We’ve got a lot of kids coming here expecting to have these teams to play. Last time I checked, [NCAA athletics] was all about the student-athletes.”
Rich Ensor, commissioner of the MAAC, was away from his office, but issued a statement in defense of the MAAC’s decision.
“The MAAC has a long-standing policy in all its team sports that requires 100 percent Division I scheduling of non-conference opponents,” he wrote. “This is done for two major reasons: One is to improve the RPI of the conference. Second is to avoid the criticism often leveled at mid-major conferences that schedule down against non-conference opponents. The MAAC’s general philosophy is that if you are a Division I program, a school should have a Division I schedule.”
The MAAC did go as far as to consider amending the rule for hockey. The athletic directors from each school voted on a motion to consider exempting hockey from the by-law, but that motion was defeated 7-3. Sacred Heart athletic director Don Cook was unable to take part in the meeting.
The three schools that voted to consider the motion were, predictably, Canisius, Fairfield and Mercyhurst, all of which had Findlay on this year’s schedule. Sacred Heart also had Findlay scheduled.
Ensor’s statement also addressed the charge of hypocrisy, saying: “I would note that when the MAAC brought in a number of Division II members in transition to Division I that the MAAC member schools insured the new programs would have the requisite Division I schedule through conference scheduling, not non-conference scheduling.”
In other words, Ensor believes it should be the responsibility of the CHA to schedule a sufficient number of games against CHA teams to allow each school to meet NCAA requirements.
Rackley, understanding of the by-laws, said, “It’s a nice philosophy [to schedule only Division I games] but it would’ve been nicer to know that back in April.
“Once again, at this late date it’s going to be awfully difficult to come up with a schedule.”
Rackley went on to point out that games scheduled against CCHA opponent Ferris State, Nebraska-Omaha, and Ohio State, will remain on the schedule.
“We contacted each school and informed them of the situation,” Rackley said. “These schools have no problem with it.”
Quinnipiac athletic director Jack McDonald, a member of the Division I Ice Hockey Committee, knows what it’s like to be a team fighting for acceptability, and sympathized with Findlay’s plight.
“I support the policy. You don’t break policies, you change them,” said McDonald. “I feel very unfortunate that at this late date that this team won’t have these games.
“I asked the commissioner to recosider, but the vote was taken and he doesn’t want to reconsider it. A lot of I’s weren’t dotted and T’s weren’t crossed. … I think this is all a part of the growth of Division I and the growth of college hockey.”
McDonald mentioned that other conferences don’t come across the situation, because they are not multi-sport conferences, like the MAAC.
“It’s being perceived that the MAAC is doing something wrong, but if everyone had known Findlay’s status, this would’ve never happened,” he said.
Though Findlay is obviously the school most effected by this, the four MAAC schools that had games scheduled against Findlay also must scramble to fill schedule holes.
“It’s an unfortunate situation for Findlay, but by-laws are by-laws and we have to abide by them,” said Sacred Heart coach Shaun Hannah.
Hannah, whose team was set to travel to Findlay on October 20 and 21, went on to say, “We’d like to play the games. The two games would’ve been good for us. We were looking forward to that trip to spend the weekend together. Those are always fun times for the guys and good to have at the beginning of the season.”
Hannah has already found opponents to make up the two games. The Pioneers will travel to AIC on October 20 and will host Fairfield on December 8 — both non-league games against MAAC teams.
Another MAAC coach effected by the decision is Mercyhurst’s Rick Gotkin. The Lakers were also scheduled for early season games against Findlay — on October 13 and 14 — games that Gotkin hopes to replace with exhibition games.
“We had an exhibition game with Brock scheduled for October 7 that we’ll move to [the weekend of the 13th],” Gotkin said. “We may try to pick up another exhibition game, but we still have 31 games scheduled.”
Gotkin, though, didn’t hide his feelings regarding the situation.
“It’s clearly unfortunate,” Gotkin said. “Craig Barnett is an outstanding person. I believe that Findlay is a great institution with a great athletic department.
“If you ask me, I’m disappointed we can’t play the game. But we’re proud to be in the MAAC and do what the MAAC tells us to do.”
Gotkin’s sentiments are an example of what has upset many in the hockey community. Clearly, the MAAC is following the letter of its own law, and that letter forces them to cancel the games against Findlay. But the general feeling of the coaches in the league, along with the desire of the parties affected, namely Findlay, is to play the games. That, of course, would require an exception to the MAAC rules, but that in itself, would not be unique.
The league, in its first two seasons, has already played games against non-Division I opponents. AIC played Hobart, Williams and Middlebury in the 1998-99 season. And Findlay appeared on the schedule of Mercyhurst, Canisius, Sacred Heart and Holy Cross last season.
According to the MAAC offices, these games were oversights.
In a separate statement, the league said:
“The ice hockey scheduling issue was looked into the MAAC after one of its members questioned the status of Findlay this past spring. In May, the NCAA told us Findlay was not D-I. We notified our schools of the status and noted it violated league bylaws which are voted in by the member institutions.”
That explanation didn’t fully satisfy Rackley and Barnett.
“We really thought, being this late in the season, and knowing our intentions, that the MAAC’s vote would’ve favored us,” said Barnett. “I don’t see that four teams playing us would have really hurt the league that much.
“This decision just doesn’t take into account the effect on us or the student-athlete.
“That’s really what it comes down to. You have to put all your egos aside here. We’ve shown our intentions of going Division I. We’ve put more money into the budget, built a new rink on Campus. But now we’re getting stepped on.”