Where lies the future?
Anyone who has been affiliated with Atlantic Hockey for at least two years (yes, when the league was called the MAAC) likely can tell you where they were and what they were doing when they received the news that Fairfield, first, and then Iona would drop their men’s ice hockey programs.
The news that shook the MAAC league, its members, and the college hockey world last season led to the demise of the MAAC hockey league when the remaining nine teams decided to form what is now known as Atlantic Hockey.
Fast forward to the present and it’s dj vu all over again.
Wednesday, Findlay announced that it will reduce its men’s and women’s ice hockey teams from varsity to club/intramural level. A quick look by those who follow Atlantic Hockey might result in a “that’s sad, but at least it’s not us,” opinion of the issue. That train of thought, though, is nave.
Indeed, Findlay’s folding up shop does directly affect Atlantic Hockey. It may, in the end, have even more impact than Iona and Fairfield.
As a point of comparison, one only has to look into the business world. Few will forget the economic upswing that eventually led to the “dot-com era” in business history. The Web site you read this on today could be grouped among businesses that came to be because of the dot-com era.
Umpteen million companies that shot up from nowhere, literally, and became overnight successes. Companies were spending millions and millions frivolously only to find out that the “dot-com era” that was paying them six-figure salaries was about to become the “dot-bomb era.”
I realize that the comparison could be considered a stretch. And the reasoning as it relates to college hockey was less about the Benjamins and more about necessity. But in the end, it appears that Division I college hockey may have tried to become too big, too fast.
It was the mid-90s and the rumor and then truth circulated that the NCAA was about to eliminate Division II men’s ice hockey as a championship sport. The few schools that remained had two choices: elevate their programs to Division I or begin playing what essentially would be a Division III schedule.
No surprise, most schools chose the former, either elevating their entire athletic program to Division I (Quinnipiac is a good example of that) or taking the NCAA option of “playing up” in one sport and remaining Division II in all other sports (e.g., Bentley and Mercyhurst).
Still, there was another group of independent teams at Division I institutions. They were forced to have Division I programs, but due to the inability to fund true Division I hockey, these schools instead played a composition schedule of Division II and III opponents (Holy Cross, Connecticut).
In the end, over a four-year period, the world of true Division I college hockey (i.e., not including independents playing inferior schedules) grew from 41 in 1997 to a peak of 60 by the year 2000.
Do the math, and you’ll find that is nearly 50 percent growth.
But the question became, how many of the 19 new programs actually had the resources to operate a full-fledged Division I program?
The answer is beginning to play out. Three of those 19 programs are already gone. Rumors circulate that others could be on their way.
“When we had all of that growth with leagues expanding and the berth of CHA, the MAAC and Atlantic Hockey, some schools might have jumped in too quick,” said Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin. “The next question is when the next school is going to fall and what that is going to be.
“Some schools might say, ‘Findlay is dropping hockey and they have a rink. What do we do?’ But I think right now things are just stabilizing.”
Stabilizing. It’s a term that we’ve all become familiar with in the last decade. Analysts are forever referring to the term when they talk about the stock market. Business leaders talk about that word, along with the more popular term “restructuring,” as they try to right the ship for their companies.
Indeed, college hockey is in the process of stabilizing. It’s in the process of restructuring. But for two words that seem to be calming (well, at least stabilizing is), the associated rollercoaster ride will force many to toss their cookies.
Thursday, the ECAC lost one of its members, Vermont, to Hockey East. Yesterday, the CHA lost Findlay, falling below the NCAA-required level of six teams to earn an automatic berth in the championships. This is not the end of the merry-go-round rides that college hockey will take in the coming months.
Rather, it is the beginning.
Which brings us back to how Atlantic Hockey will be affected.
Start with the CHA. One year after the league received its NCAA autobid, it is in danger of losing it. The league will immediately look to fill the hole created by Findlay before next season begins, and the recruiting grounds begin in Atlantic Hockey.
The more likely candidates at this point would be Mercyhurst, Quinnipiac and, potentially a distant third, Canisius. It’s long been known that these three programs are looking to place more resources into their men’s and women’s hockey programs, and these resources would most likely come in the form of scholarships.
Whereas Atlantic Hockey currently allows 11 scholarships annually, the CHA imposes only the NCAA cap of 18. Even if Atlantic Hockey increases its cap to 15 at the end of this season as rumors have indicated, these schools might still see more opportunity in the CHA with three additional scholarships.
At the same time, Mercyhurst is currently a member of the CHA women’s league, and Quinnipiac was accepted to begin play on the women’s side next season. These chemistries might help sway both schools.
Moving away from the CHA, though, is the rumor that Holy Cross would like to fill the void left by Vermont in the ECAC. The Cross certainly meets the academic standards of the league, and add to it the fact that Holy Cross does not “officially” provide any scholarships for athletes, this mentality fits in with that of the six Ivy League schools as well as Union — all ECAC members.
A few more morsels: Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna has been on record as saying that he’d prefer a 12-team league to a 10-team league. Thus it could make sense for Clarkson and St. Lawrence, teams that appear on many Hockey East schedules, to make the jump.
Similarly, there have long been rumors, all of which have intensified in volume of late, that the six Ivy League schools would break off from the ECAC and form a league of their own. The potential that with the Ivies could also go Colgate and maybe even Holy Cross, has also been discussed.
So the question remains — what next?
“To panic wouldn’t be right,” said Quinnipiac athletic director Jack McDonald, who said that all of this has no immediate impact on Quinnipiac, but that his eyes are always open when it comes to other conferences. “To plan is the right thing to do. If the ACC and Big East can re-look at their alignment, there’s no reason college hockey can’t do the same.
“I think a hockey summit conference is something that should happen. Nobody works better than the hockey fraternity and right now we’re at a crossroads.”
According to Gotkin, it might be advisable for CHA and Atlantic schools to let some more puzzle pieces fall and then re-evaluate how each of the two mid-major leagues stack up.
“Our best move is to sit tight and watch where things are going,” said Gotkin. “I think eventually what needs to happen is that College Hockey America and Atlantic Hockey need to combine and become one. I know that there’s sentiment that we’d be giving up an automatic bid, but as we speak today, only one automatic bid exists.”
Right now, Gotkin’s sit-tight approach might be best. We know one thing: there are a lot of questions and very few answers.
The landscape is changing. For college hockey’s sake, we hope the casualties are few. And for Atlantic Hockey’s sake, let’s hope there’s gold at the end of the rainbow.
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