A cringe-worthy time for college teams in race for top talent

It might be time for us to get out some asterisks or some other notation for our list of college hockey-related players selected in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.

That’s because in the give and take that is the often tenuous relationship between college hockey and major juniors, there has been an awful lot of giving by the NCAA side lately.

The top three names on that list have recently either left college for the CHL or pulled their college commitment to head to major juniors.

Defenseman Jamie Oleksiak, the 14th pick in June’s draft by Dallas, left Northeastern after one season to sign with Saginaw.

Forward J.T. Miller, who was on his way to North Dakota in the fall, instead is headed to Plymouth after being picked 15th by the New York Rangers.

Connor Murphy has backed out of his commitment to Miami and will play next season for Sarnia. The defenseman was the 20th pick by Phoenix.

It doesn’t end there. Goaltender John Gibson, the 39th overall pick by Anaheim, was headed to Michigan until he changed course and signed with Kitchener, leading to this deliberate, one-sentence statement issued by Wolverines coach Red Berenson: “John Gibson has decided not to attend the University of Michigan or to play college hockey.”

And forward Reid Boucher joined Murphy with Sarnia, ending his commitment to Michigan State. He was a fourth-round pick, No. 99 overall, by New Jersey.

That’s five of the top 23 once-college-related picks in the draft gone to major juniors.

We don’t always track the comings and goings of players before they actually reach campus, but when things start to become trends, it’s time to pay attention.

It’s enticing to wonder whether college hockey’s summer of upheaval has given those on the major juniors side some marketing material, especially when you consider that four of the five college teams impacted by those moves will be on the move in 2013 (North Dakota, Miami, Michigan, Michigan State). But you’d hope that the schools would have had some rebuttal, given how adamant they’ve been that the conference shift will be for the better for their side.

That’s not the only part of the issue, of course, and I’m still a believer that we shouldn’t use broad strokes with the college-versus-major junior debate. College is right for some players; major junior is right for others. When talent departs in a group like we’ve seen in the past weeks, however, it’s cringe-worthy for anyone on the college side of things.

Another view: Thinking of history and the conference realignment

Here’s an email that came to us recently that the writer, Brian Patterson of Minneapolis, agreed to let us publish:

As a big college hockey fan, I have been following the recent developments closely and my concern, like many, is that the new conferences are completely ignoring the great history of college hockey.

Consider this — in the last quarter century, the NCAA Champions break down like this (by their “future” conference): Big Ten – 7; Hockey East – 7; NCHC – 6; ECAC – 1, WCHA – 1. You will probably notice this only adds up to 22. That is because the other three belong to Lake Superior State University — one of the remainders/castoffs (as of this date) from the CCHA.

(Full disclosure — I am a LSSU grad, and thus biased).

If NCAA football were to realign, would they cast off one of their storied teams? I doubt it. Now, I grant you that LSSU has not been highly/consistently competitive in at least 10 years — but (to continue the analogy to football above), has Notre Dame been competitive in football?

Of course, I realize this is not about storied teams and traditions, but about money. If you don’t think this is the case, then consider this — a three time NCAA Champion is being (kind of) replaced by a school (Penn State) that up to this point has had nothing more than a club team. I cannot be the only one that finds this astounding.

I am not blaming Penn State, by the way — their entrance into college hockey will likely be a very good thing, all told, when all is said and done.

The ironic thing is, and I am not the first to say this — for years college hockey fans have wanted their sport to get more attention within the overall collegiate landscape and be more “like” NCAA football and basketball. Well, we got it.

Be careful what you wish for.

What’s your reaction? Let us know in the comments below.

Realignment video roundup

While we try to catch our breath during this relatively quiet couple of days in the great offseason shakeup of 2011, here are a few videos that got posted in the madness of the last week:

Here’s the news conference at which the National Collegiate Hockey Conference was launched:

Here’s a video produced by Denver about the new conference:

And here’s the news conference at which Minnesota State-Moorhead discussed its potential new Division I program:

No hard feelings? Don’t count on it

One gets the sense that there are some hard feelings growing around college hockey, and it might get worse before it gets better.

Sources say that Colorado College, Denver, Miami, Minnesota-Duluth, Nebraska-Omaha and North Dakota will strike out on their own in a newly formed conference beginning with the 2013-14 season. It’s hard to do, but I’d like to wait for that announcement, believed to be coming Wednesday, and for the principals to give their explanations before passing judgment.

But in the course of a phone interview with WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod on Tuesday, one in which he said he hoped to be able to keep the league at 10 teams after the departure of Minnesota and Wisconsin in 2013, I asked whether there would need to be some fence mending done for that to even be possible.

As it turns out, it’s a moot point, but McLeod’s response might give some more insight into the behind-the-scenes climate of college hockey today.

“I’ve always believed that we were going to end up staying together as 10 and building from there,” McLeod said. “My tack was to keep the erosion of what we have to a minimum. We’ve had a couple of [athletic director] calls where the calls have been to some degree contentious, and I’ve always tried to mitigate that tension that’s going on with the hope that in the long run that erosion of what’s taken so long to build would be kept to a minimum.

“As time goes on and circumstances like this arise and it’s clear that the impetus is coming from a couple of schools in the WCHA — they seem to be driving this train and pushing it down the track — the erosion of what we’ve had, the erosion of the relationships that we’ve had and the erosion in the trust that we’ve had in one another gets to be more apparent. That is one of the concerns in the long run, even if we don’t stay together.

“There’s going to be some awful, awful hard feelings, and that will be reflected in scheduling prerogatives for all of the institutions involved, et cetera. So it’s not going to be an easy road here for the next couple of years, that’s for sure.”

Seems that way more and more each day.

One more league meeting this season

It’s the time of the year when we turn our attention to Florida and the American Hockey Coaches Association convention in Naples. Things start Wednesday afternoon with some committee meetings before the real deal gets going on Thursday.

The conferences add their own annual meetings either before or after the convention, and this year there’s one more member in the party.

The schools of the Big Ten Conference are meeting during the AHCA convention, not before or after to avoid overlapping with WCHA and CCHA meetings.

Expect a lot of discussion about how that 20-game Big Ten schedule will look when the 2013-14 season rolls around so the six teams can start planning for larger non-conference schedules.

Word is that the schedule discussion is wide open in terms of altering the traditional weekend slate to allow for more games on the Big Ten Network. But the schools will be mindful of the school calendar and travel costs when planning things.

My interpretation there is that two-game series on weekends is still the preference, but we’ll have to see how that fits into a TV schedule.

Between all of the coaching changes made so far (and those still to come) and the impending changes to the conference landscape, there should be some interesting discussions in and around Naples in the coming days.

Coaching carousel picking up steam

The firing of George Roll at Clarkson on Monday makes it four current Division I men’s schools in need of a head coach, but there are signs that the number will be shrinking this week.

I’m still not sure whether that will be thanks to Michigan Tech, however. Longtime Michigan assistant and Michigan Tech alum Mel Pearson was in Houghton, Mich., to interview for the Huskies’ opening, raising the hopes of the Tech faithful that a highly successful, highly familiar face would be guiding the program’s rebuilding project.

Not so fast, apparently. David Goricki of The Detroit News reported Monday that Pearson turned down the job. This at the end of the day where things seemed to be changing on an hourly basis, at least from afar.

Personal opinion here: I’m not sure we’ve heard the end of this one. Pearson might be worth Tech making another run with a sweeter deal.

Providence and Massachusetts-Lowell are also in the market for coaches, and it sounds like the Friars will be making a move soon. A Providence spokesperson said an announcement likely will be coming this week.

And then there was this, also on Monday: Kevin Pates of the Duluth News Tribune reports that Minnesota-Duluth coach Scott Sandelin has been contacted by Penn State and likely will interview for the new program’s head coaching position.

The American Hockey Coaches Association convention gets going in the middle of next week in Naples, Fla. The coaching landscape could look a lot different by then.

A video worth your eight minutes

Maybe you’ve seen this YouTube video already this week, but if you haven’t, it’s worth eight minutes of your time, even amid the NCAA tournament madness we’re about to enjoy.

Even if you don’t cheer for Western Michigan, even if you don’t have a stake in the Broncos’ stay in the NCAA tournament, it’s good to know that there are good people in our sport.

This is the story of the Broncos’ interaction with the Schripsema family, the youngest of which is battling leukemia.

A running list of questions about the emerging Big Ten

Part of this is for my own sanity.

Great timing of the Big Ten Conference to announce it’s going to start men’s hockey in 2013-14, right during the busiest time of the college hockey season. Although, to its benefit, at least the league didn’t announce it during the conference tournaments. And, in its defense, I suspect the league has been getting some pressure to make an official announcement as to its status with men’s hockey, even though it can’t officially say it’s adding the sport because the presidents and chancellors haven’t yet approved it.

So, given that I have about 6,000 other things on my mind as we roll into the NCAA tournament later this week, I wanted to make a list of questions or things that need to be addressed about the emerging Big Ten hockey league. Some are rhetorical. Some are those to which I’d like actual answers. Feel free to add in your questions or thoughts in the comments below.

Question 1: What about those non-conference games?

Do the math. Twenty league games, so 10 at home. Teams can play 34, not counting some exempt tournaments and games in Alaska. Big programs like Wisconsin and Minnesota need to have 20 home games per season to make the financials work. So, with 14 non-conference games to work with, 10 of them are going to have to be at home.

I don’t like that balance, although I suppose that it’s been that way to some extent for a long time.

But which schools will go to the Big Ten buildings without a guarantee of a return series in their building in a future year? I can see some kind of scheduling arrangement being worked out between the Big Ten schools and their former conferences, but, at most, four of those games are going to be in the home buildings of those old conference rivals.

This is going to take some working out.

Question 2: Where’s that conference tournament going to be?

I’ve heard Chicago is the preferred location. But, remember, if the conference tournament and NCAA men’s basketball schedules stay the same, that could take a number of buildings (Chicago’s United Center, Milwaukee’s Bradley Center) out of the loop as a permanent home because they also occasionally host hoops regionals.

There are other locations, to be sure, but you’d like to have it somewhere easily accessible to all the teams and their fans, and still have a quality building in which to play.

Question 3: Which domino falls next?

Are schools like Notre Dame and Miami going to be content playing in a CCHA that doesn’t have Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State?

Does Hockey East try to lure them over there and make a 12-team league?

Where does Alabama-Huntsville fall in all of this?

More questions — and, hopefully, answers — to come when I get some more time.

Penn State starting to take shape; how long until Big Ten does?

We knew it wouldn’t take long for the Penn State program to take shape, and we’re starting to see a little bit of that emerge, on multiple levels.

This week, we learned the names of two Nittany Lions recruits thanks to recruiting guru Chris Heisenberg: forward Jake Friedman of the Eastern Junior Hockey League’s South Shore Kings and goaltender Tim Carr of the EJHL’s New Hampshire Junior Monarchs.

We also heard definitive word, through the Wisconsin State Journal’s Andy Baggot, that Penn State has received permission to interview Wisconsin women’s coach Mark Johnson for its men’s head coach opening.

My thoughts: We will hear more names connected to Penn State, so let’s not jump to conclusions. That being said, Johnson would be a great person for the job, and I figured his name would be connected to the opening in some fashion. I think it will take a lot to get Johnson out of Madison (and I’m not talking about money), but the lure of being able to do for Penn State what his father, Bob, did for Wisconsin could be appealing.

Meanwhile, I had a chance to meet Joe Battista, Penn State’s associate athletic director for ice arena and hockey operations, a few weeks ago when he was checking out a Minnesota-Wisconsin game in Madison as part of his tour of facilities. He was carrying with him designs for the Pegula Ice Arena — named for the program’s lead donor — and it looks like it will be an impressive building along the lines of many newer college hockey arenas. A single tier for student seating behind the goal the opponents defend for two periods could be imposing if it turns out like the pictures depict.

So what does this all mean for the future of college hockey? I get the sense that we’re going to start to get those answers soon. People who will be impacted by the development of a Big Ten hockey league are starting to get a little antsy for definitive words on when that entity will come about.

Here are my impressions from talking to people involved in the process: The Big Ten will sponsor hockey (like it or not), and if I was forced to predict the season that it starts, I would say 2013-14. Not everyone is convinced of that, or whether it would be good for Penn State to be playing Big Ten hockey in its second season as a program, but I think that’s where things are trending.

The Pegula Ice Arena should be ready for play in September 2013, a year earlier than projected last September, when Penn State confirmed its plans to form varsity programs. At that time, the school said it would be joining a conference in the 2014-15 season, but that timeline seems to have accelerated along with the facility’s.

What does it mean for the rest of college hockey? That, my friends, is the ultimate “stay tuned” question.

Jersey, stick auction benefits Minnesota-Duluth equipment manager

No matter the teams or the heat of the rivalries between them, it always seems like you can pair two equipment managers and find a pretty close bond.

It’s not that hard to figure out why: On the list of not-thanked-enough people in hockey, the equipment manager has to be pretty close to the top. There are an awful lot of hours spent working when no one else is around, doing things that go largely unnoticed but are critical to the success of a player and a team.

So they appreciate what their trade counterparts do, in a way that not many others do. That’s the connection that exists between them, even if there’s not a lot of personal ties.

When I heard there was a benefit auction being organized for Chris Garner, the Minnesota-Duluth equipment manager who is battling a condition called myelodysplastic syndrome, I figured it was the work of another member of his field.

Jeremiah Minkel, the equipment manager at St. Cloud State who worked with Garner when they were both student assistants for the Huskies, has pulled together an impressive list of items for an online auction to help pay for medical costs that aren’t being covered by insurance.

Minkel said the list of donated items includes 82 college and pro jerseys and over 20 autographed sticks. The auction starts Oct. 24 at obermanauction.com. (UPDATE: Here’s the direct link to the auction.)

Here’s a video about the auction and Garner, narrated by Minkel.

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