The ECAC deadline for applications to enter its league, passed on Saturday, with at least five schools known to have applied.
Holy Cross, Quinnipiac, Mercyhurst, Niagara and Sacred Heart are all looking to join the ECAC, which opened up an application process because of the impending departure of Vermont. The Catamounts will join Hockey East in 2005-06, at which point the ECAC will add at least one new team.
“We’ll do a thorough review with all the athletic directors and members of the coaching group,” said RPI athletic director Ken Ralph. “We’ll look at what kind of value and what kind of visibility they add to the ECAC and help to strengthen our particular league, and strengthen college hockey.”
ECAC officials have already indicated the league will add at least one new member. Leaving it at 11 has been ruled out as an option because of the impact on the schedule. At just 20 league games, it would leave 14 open non-conference dates for the non-Ivy League teams, something that makes it too difficult to create a strong schedule.
“They haven’t closed any doors other than the fact that we don’t want to stay with 11,” ECAC commissioner Steve Hagwell said.
Quinnipiac, Mercyhurst and Holy Cross are all members of Atlantic Hockey. Niagara is part of College Hockey America.
“We’re potentially very interested in the ECAC,” Holy Cross athletic director Dick Regan said. “Obviously, they have to decide which direction they’re going to go in. But Atlantic Hockey has worked out for us very well. If we’re there, that’s fine, as well.”
Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin said that his school sent in an application. Gotkin believes it would be a step up for his program.
“The ECAC is a very prestigious league,” said Gotkin, who was an assistant coach at RPI from 1986-88. “Clearly, you look at the institutions that are in there, the level of the hockey that they play, and we’d be excited [to join] because we’re at 11 scholarships at Mercyhurst, and we’d like the opportunity to go to 18 scholarships. The ECAC, I think, will give us that vehicle.”
Niagara, which started its program in 1996, is arguably the most consistently competitive of the group.
“We’re very excited,” Niagara athletic director Mike Hermann said to the Schenectady (N.Y.) Gazette. “Our program has, from its inception, kind of surprised us here on campus, and maybe the hockey community, too, with our success. This would be a big boost, to get membership into the ECAC …
“Buffalo is a great hockey town. It does give the league exposure in this media market, and certainly does open up this part of the state.
“The other part is it’s one of the gateways to Ontario. There’s so many good college hockey players in Ontario. Many of them play in the ECAC, but there are many that are not, as well. We think it would give the ECAC a strong presence in this region of southern Ontario and western New York.”
The ECAC has a lot to contemplate.
Mercyhurst and/or Niagara would pull the league farther west. Cornell, located in Ithaca, is currently the league’s western-most outpost. Taking Niagara would also wreak havoc with the CHA, which sits at a precarious six-team minimum for an annual automatic NCAA berth.
The ECAC is also likely to consider academics, a cornerstone of the league. Holy Cross is the strongest school academically of the bunch, followed in most rankings by Quinnipiac.
From a competitive hockey standpoint, Niagara is a proven competitive program which has won an NCAA game, while all but Sacred Heart have made the NCAAs via autobids from Atlantic Hockey.
“We want to do what’s best for the league,” Union coach Nate Leaman said. “Losing Vermont is a bit of a blow. We want to make our league better, and we’re exploring our options. Adding one team might be the right way to do it. Adding two teams might be the right way to do it. There’s a lot of different options.
“There’s a consensus in our league that we want to play more league games,” Leaman said. “We worked our tails off in Florida [during the coaches convention] trying to look at different options, and anything to move our league forward.”
This report was compiled from Ken Schott’s article that appeared last week in the Schenectady (N.Y.) Gazette and USCHO Staff Reports.