With the return of college hockey just one week away, here are nine hockey-related subjects on my mind heading into the 2008-09 campaign:
9) Welcome Orange! Syracuse joins the Division I ranks this fall with long-time St. Lawrence head coach Paul Flanagan bringing his 230 career victories and five Frozen Four appearances 130 miles southwest from Canton. New programs are always encouraging to see, but SU has all the elements of a potential power with a proven winner behind the bench, full scholarships, a solid local talent pool, and top billing as the only college hockey game in a city passionate about its NCAA sports (just ask Donovan McNabb, Carmelo Anthony or Gary Gait). Over time, the Orange also can bring critical conference balance with its entrance into the CHA, where Mercyhurst has been the only perennial national contender and where an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament is now just one program away.
8) Coaching carousel…coincidence or trend? St. Lawrence, Clarkson, Quinnipiac, Northeastern, Elmira, Manhattanville, St. Anselm…all among the teams that will have new leadership behind the bench this fall. Which doesnt account for the other coaches who interviewed for those jobs or some of the other uncertain situations that ultimately ended with the status quo (e.g. Minnesota-Duluth, Minnesota). I work on Wall Street where senior-level turnover happens regularly (and where companies now go insolvent on a weekly basis) and its hard for me to ever criticize someone else for pursuing a perceived better situation. However, when a managing director leaves Goldman Sachs, that departure doesnt have nearly the same impact on co-workers that a coaching change has on the players in that program as well as the recruits ticketed for that program. Some degree of coaching movement is to be expected in any offseason, but hard to imagine this summer would prove a positive sustainable model for the sport so heres hoping more coaches have the same zip codes come 2009-10.
7) Which program appears poised for a breakthrough season? Theres an intriguing work in progress up in Ithaca, New York where third-year head coach and former Big Red standout Doug Derraugh has quickly amassed an impressive stable of young talent headlined by last years ECACH Rookie of the Year Rebecca Johnston and supplemented by another highly-touted recruiting haul that includes three members from the inaugural Canadian Under-18 team as well as New Hampshire transfer Steph Holmes. The arrival of Johnston and her classmates spurred an eight-win improvement, the programs first postseason appearance since 2004, and its highest conference victory total since the 2000 season. This winter, expectations are higher but so is the ceiling.
6) Shootouts in the WCHA that count…sort of. The CHA implemented shootouts last season as an innocuous bonus for fans at the end of each conference game. The WCHA will integrate the shootout to actually decide its league contests though the ties will be preserved within the NCAA Tournament selection criteria. Not 100% how I feel about this one yet and hopefully no one gets injured during the proceedings, but something tells me come February 7, if Gigi Marvin is pacing around center ice waiting to take the third and final attempt on Jessie Vetter, I might have some fun calling that showdown. Also keep an eye out for the revelation of any shootout specialists, players who arent necessarily near the top of their teams scoring charts but who can work some nonpareil breakaway magic.
5) Boston…what took so long? The AWCHA tournament was staged in Boston in 1998 and 2000. 2009 will mark the first time since then that Beantown will host the seasons final weekend. That hiatus is curious given the appreciation for college hockey in the region as well as the numerous creditable womens programs in the area. At this point in the games development, I wouldnt mind seeing the national tournament rotated among a select few venues with a proven local fan base and a home team that has a decent chance of qualifying for the Frozen Four. Bids from true neutral sites should be saved for a future era when the sport has better traction. Take a cue from college lacrosse, which for years played the lions share of its championships in Baltimore and only expanded its horizons when the event had established itself as a guaranteed sellout.
4) Womens college hockey comes to Florida. The mens game ventured south a few years ago via the Everglades Classic. Now thanks to Wisconsin forward Kyla Sanders and her familys Florida ties, as well as a willing dance partner in New Hampshire, the Badgers and Wildcats are set to bring womens college hockey to the Sunshine State for the first time. A capacity crowd is expected at the Fort Myers Skatium in November and after three straight one-goal games between UW and UNH over the past three years, the locals should be in for a classic weekendas should I. Plus I can go hunting for an investment property at a foreclosure auction between games.
3) My kingdom for a classic title game. The combined score of the last three NCAA Championship games has been 11-1. Despite all of the memorable tilts produced in the regular season, conference playoffs and NCAA tournament year after year, for some reason it has been awhile since womens hockey saved its best for last. Perhaps even more odd, the finalists each of the past two seasons, Minnesota-Duluth and Wisconsin, split a pair of lopsided decisions in the finals despite logging six one-goal games and four overtime games in their other 2006-08 meetings. Other college sports have certainly suffered from the same malaise (last two BCS title games anyone?) but for womens hockey, there would seem to be more of a premium on a taut, well-played championship game as that contest remains the only guaranteed national telecast of each season.
2) Season 5 of the Game of the Week = the best yet? Come on, you knew the shameless self-promotion was coming. However, I look at the schedule as it stands now and I really think this could prove the best mix of games weve had on USCHO to date. From the NCAA ranks, how about both games of the Wisconsin-UNH Florida showcase, Harvard-Minnesota in their first meeting since the 2005 national final, or a Plattsburgh-Manhattanville rematch? What about a fleet of Olympians and more former NCAA stars than ever in the Mississauga-Brampton rivalry or Montreal adding Caroline Ouellette, Sabrina Harbec and Annie Guay to challenge the Ontario powers in the CWHL? Or maybe multiple doses of Calgary Oval X-Treme against a Minnesota Whitecaps club that can now supplement its roster with members of the U.S. Select Team? Oh and then theres our exclusive coverage of the 4 Nations Cup from Lake Placid. As with every season, there will be new challenges, new issues, and new risks…but the rewards have never looked better.
1) Will Plattsburgh and Minnesota-Duluth repeat? Sorry folks, Im not doing any fearless forecasting on this one since I do need to stay on friendly terms with all of the teams out there to do my job but I do know it will be one heckuva ride to find out. Bring on the new season!