“If you don’t have fun, I think you’ve missed the point.”
That’s what a smiling and eminently likeable Rick Gotkin, head coach of Mercyhurst, said after his Lakers made history by securing the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference’s first ever bid to the NCAA Division I Ice Hockey Tournament.
In doing so, Gotkin becomes the first coach in NCAA hockey history to guide a team to the national tournament in all three divisions. You only had to see the excitement and pure joy on the faces of Gotkin, his assistants and players as they poured off the bench in celebration of a 6-5 MAAC championship win over rival Quinnipiac, to understand how much this means to the coach and his team.
Mercyhurst will take on nine-time NCAA champion Michigan on Saturday afternoon in Grand Rapids in the first game of the West Regional.
David versus Goliath. Rocky versus Apollo. USA versus the Soviet Union. Everyone loves the underdog.
The Lakers carry with them the banner of the MAAC, a fledgling league that has quickly gained enemies among the college hockey community. Many would say, with good reason.
Forget that, as the MAAC automatic qualifier, Mercyhurst takes away a precious bid from a team that is, frankly, better, whether it is New Hampshire, Clarkson or Nebraska-Omaha.
The MAAC hasn’t exactly endeared itself to the rest of college hockey over the last year. In August, just weeks before the start of the season, MAAC athletic directors voted 7-3 not to consider a motion to allow non-league games by its members against another fledgling program, Findlay, which is in the process of upgrading to Division I but is officially Division II under NCAA regulations. A MAAC rule prohibits its members from scheduling non-Division I opponents, not just in hockey, but in all sports. But exceptions have been made to that rule, and this appeared to be a situation that deserved just such an exception.
Yet Findlay was suddenly left to find replacement opponents for eight games on its schedule. Ask any coach how hard it is to schedule non-league games, let alone doing it a few weeks before the season starts when everyone else’s schedule is set. And it wasn’t easy for Findlay. The Oilers wound up with games against club teams and Canadian schools. Not what a coach like Craig Barnett, who is trying to take his team to the next level, was hoping for.
The MAAC should have allowed the exception. You won’t find too many people who will argue that. Criticism of the decision came from the highest reaches of Division I hockey, including league commissioners Bruce McLeod of the WCHA and Joe Bertagna of Hockey East. That’s rare.
College hockey has been built on teamwork. Over the years, the established programs have helped the sport grow by agreeing to schedule teams that were trying to get to the next level. One of the clearest examples of this came in the early 1990s, when the CCHA and WCHA banded together to give a home to then-Independents Alaska-Anchorage and Alaska-Fairbanks. Neither conference could or would take on both Alaska teams, among the sport’s last remaining Independents, but the two Western leagues agreed that each would accept one.
In so doing, they not only gave the Alaska teams a permanent home, they continued this chain of teamwork. It’s a chain that continues to this day with established Division I programs like Cornell, Minnesota, Providence and Rensselaer scheduling games against Iona, Mercyhurst, Quinnipiac and Sacred Heart.
But the MAAC broke that chain with its Findlay decision. The college hockey community is a close-knit one, and people don’t take too kindly to things like this.
As a result, Mercyhurst doesn’t only face opposition from those who question the legitimacy of the MAAC’s automatic bid. It also will face fans who don’t know the first thing about the Lakers and Rick Gotkin, but who know that they’re from the MAAC and whose battle cry is, “Remember Findlay!”
Remember that 7-3 vote? Three MAAC schools voted against the decision not to consider an exemption to allow the Findlay games. One of those schools was Mercyhurst.
No matter what you may think of the MAAC for its handling of the Findlay situation, Mercyhurst did its best to keep the games. In the end, it was bound to accept the MAAC’s decision, like it or not. Maybe it’s fitting that Mercyhurst got that first MAAC bid.
Back on the legitimacy of the automatic bid, also remember that the NCAA tournament has never been about ensuring that the 12 best teams get in. If it was, we wouldn’t have automatic bids at all. All teams would be selected at large. Think about how much that would take away from the excitement of the conference tournaments.
The NCAA tournament is about crowning a champion, but it’s also about opportunities for participation. That’s why automatic bids exist. It’s been this way in basketball and other sports for years, where schools like Hampton get to compete on the national stage with the likes of Duke and North Carolina, even if only for a day.
And the existence of the MAAC will result in more opportunities for players to compete in the NCAA tournament in hockey. Not just for the MAAC team that earns its conference’s annual automatic bid, but also for other teams that most agree should get in.
The 11 schools in the MAAC were counted by NCAA hockey officials in presenting their case for expanding the tournament from 12 to 16 teams which will, among other things, finally get rid of the controversial first-round byes. The all-important ratio of schools to bids has finally risen to where the NCAA agrees that expansion is warranted, and expansion was only denied due to short term budgetary and gender equity concerns across the NCAA as a whole. The tournament will expand, whether it is in 2003 or soon thereafter. It’s just a question of when.
Remember New Hampshire, Clarkson and Nebraska-Omaha? They’d get bids to the expanded tournament. If the MAAC didn’t exist, expansion would still be a long, long ways off. Hang in there. It’s just around the corner. We have the MAAC to thank for that.
So think what you will about the MAAC. You might even be right to some extent. But, when this weekend rolls around, don’t take out your frustrations on Mercyhurst. Remember, this time of year is about excitement. And fun. And teams like Mercyhurst are what this is all about.
Like Rick Gotkin says. If you’re not having fun, you’re missing the point.