Three things from the championship weekend in Atlantic Hockey:
And then there were two
In an historical Atlantic Hockey championship weekend, Canisius captured its first ever conference championship, defeating top-seeded Niagara 5-3 in the semifinals and dominating Mercyhurst 7-2 in the title game.
The Golden Griffins will play their first ever NCAA tournament game on Saturday in Providence, R.I., where they’ll take on the overall No. 1 Quinnipiac.
Niagara is seeded 10th overall and will take on North Dakota in Grand Rapids, Mich. on Friday.
You can see the entire bracket here.
I’ve been following college hockey for over 30 years, and I can attest that the addition of programs and formations of new conferences has continued to level the playing field.
Sure, you still have your blue chip programs, where not making the national tournament or even not winning it is considered a down year. But when you see teams like Quinnipiac, Union and Merrimack become national contenders in recent years, and low seeds like Brown make it to the league championships, you know that the difference between the traditional powerhouses and most Division I teams is narrowing.
This was the case this season in Atlantic Hockey. Coaches in the conference have long been preaching “on any given night”, but when the dust settled, it was Air Force representing the league in the NCAA tournament five of the last six seasons.
That changed this season with Canisius and Mercyhurst squaring off for the Atlantic Hockey title, teams that finished seventh and sixth, respectively, in the final standings.
Parity also was evident in Niagara gaining an at-large NCAA berth, the first ever in the AHA’s ten-year history. It also showed in Robert Morris’ near miss – the Colonials finished two slots away from making the tournament.
Niagara’s NCAA bid was partially made possible because the rest of the league won almost 40% of its non-conference games, the best percentage ever. Beating teams with better records moves you up in the selection process. For example, Robert Morris’ seven non-conference wins, including victories over Quinnipiac and Miami, helped the entire league.
Expect that trend to continue, and for “any given night” to be rule and not the exception.
As optimistic as things look in terms of on-ice success, fan support around the league remains poor. The bottom nine teams in average attendance in Division I this season were from Atlantic Hockey.
The lack of fans at this year’s championships at Blue Cross Arena in Rochester made it painfully obvious that a playoff game at BCA without Rochester Institute of Technology is not going to be a success in terms of ticket sales. The league has been fortunate that the Tigers had made it to the semifinals five straight seasons, but that’s not something that you can bank on, literally.
This past weekend, you had the next-best case scenario with Niagara, Canisius and Mercyhurst, the three teams closest to Rochester besides RIT, in the semifinals.
Attendance was officially listed as 1,095 on Friday and 887 on Saturday. That was tickets sold and not people in the arena, which topped out for the first semifinal between Niagara and Canisius at about 700.
The rink seats 10,313.
I think the two main factors for the low turnout is an under appreciation for the teams involved, as well as very little interest from the Rochester community.
The Buffalo News‘ Bucky Gleason had a piece this week about the lack of support Niagara and Canisius get in Western New York, a supposed hockey hotbed. It’s a real pity that this level of hockey is mostly ignored.
But even if each team brought a 1,000 people with them instead of the 100 or so they did, it still would only be half of what a playoff game involving RIT has drawn. That’s on the Rochester community, which missed some pretty good hockey. Where were the youth teams and hard-core hockey fans? Yes, they sell out the building for RIT once a year, but those ticket prices are $6-$10 while seats for Saturday’s championship were $18. Would lower prices make for more people? It’s a slippery slope because $18 is still a deal compared to what the other leagues are changing.
Would moving the tournament help? Not likely based on the attendance figures for the league in general. That’s something for each team to work on. Just like winning non-conference games, a rising tide will lift everyone’s boat.