Brave New World

In early 1998, a decision was made by the NCAA Division III Championships Committee that will have a profound effect on Division III ice hockey for the 1999-2000 season.

The committee recommended that current NCAA tournament selection processes be replaced by a new, standardized methodology that puts a far greater emphasis on automatic bids. This proposal, NCAA #38, was approved by the Division III Management Council in October, 1998 and then ratified at the NCAA National Convention in January, 1999. It takes effect August 1st, 1999 for championship selection during the 1999-2000 season.

The NCAA Division III Hockey Committee met last week in Indianapolis to discuss implementation of the new NCAA directives, which radically change the way that teams will be selected.

Under the previous system, eight teams were selected for the national tournament, with three conferences, the State University of New York Athletic Conference (SUNYAC), the Northern Collegiate Hockey Association (NCHA) and the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) received automatic bids for their playoff champion. The other five slots were then awarded to the next “best” five teams based on subjective criteria.

These five slots were available to teams from the SUNYAC, MIAC and NCHA that didn’t receive an automatic bid, as well as teams from the Eastern College Athletic Conferences (East, West, Northeast) and any independent teams. The ECAC Conferences and the new Midwest Collegiate Hockey Conference (MCHA) didn’t qualify for autobids because they were either too small (ECAC West and MCHA), or included D-II teams (ECAC East and Northeast). These leagues did hold playoffs, but no guaranteed bid awaited a D-III team that won the title.

To further complicate things, the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC), a subset of the ECAC East, allows its members (including five-time defending national champion Middlebury) to participate in only one post-season tournament. NESCAC teams hoping for an at-large NCAA bid are forced to skip the ECAC East playoffs.

The good news about the new system is that it has the potential to greatly simplify the selection criteria and process. The bad news is that no longer will the eight “best” teams be going to the NCAA Tournament.

Here’s how the new system will work:

There are still just eight slots, the smallest field for any D-III team sport. The NCAA recently lowered the ratio for tournament slots from 1 in 8 to 1 in 7.5, but this didn’t increase the hockey field, since there are only 65 qualified teams. 68 teams are needed to add a potential ninth team.

The SUNYAC, MIAC, and NCHA will continue to receive automatic qualifiers for their playoff champion. In addition, the ECAC East and ECAC Northeast champions will also now receive bids. This will be accomplished by requiring the Division II schools in the ECAC East (St. Anselm) and Northeast (Assumption, New Hampshire College, St. Michael’s, and Stonehill) to compete in a special ECAC Division II playoff that will be held in lieu of the now-defunct NCAA Division II championships. They will not play in the regular conference playoffs.

Two distinct “pools” will be formed to select the remaining three teams:

Pool “B” will consist of teams from conferences that do not have automatic bids (ECAC West and MCHA), plus any independents (Neumann, Scranton). The Division III ratio of 1 in 7.5 will be used to select teams from this pool – for now that’s a single slot, since here are just 10 teams currently in pool “B”. Subjective criteria similar to those currently in place will be used to pick this team.

Pool “C” will consist of teams from the conferences that do award automatic qualifiers that did not win a conference title. This is a “second chance” pool for teams that performed well during the season but didn’t come out on top in the playoffs. The remaining available slots (in the case of hockey, two) will be given to teams from this pool, using the same criteria that was used to pick the pool “B” team.

It appears that for now the NESCAC teams will fall into pool “C”, although there are plans to eventually split the NESCAC from the ECAC East, at which time the NESCAC could be given an automatic qualifier for its champion, thus reducing the size of pool “C” to a single slot. This could happen as early as the 1999-2000 season.

As one can imagine, there isn’t universal approval of this system, particularly from teams that play in what have historically been strong conferences. The main controversy is around the ECAC Northeast, which has never sent a team to the NCAA’s. A bid for the Northeast champion effectively takes a slot away from a conference like the NCHA, which for many years have been represented by at least two and often three squads.

The ECAC Northeast, which was formed for talent level, not geographic, considerations, was 7-30 out of conference last season. Three of the seven wins were against Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, which finished last in the ECAC East (0-16-1) but still managed to beat Fitchburg State, the ECAC Northeast champ. Fitchburg, which would have had an auto-bid under the new rules, was 0-3 out of the league.

Mass-Dartmouth, who was the runner up in the Northeast and was near the top of the standings all last season, was a more respectable 3-3 out of conference, but was crushed by 1999 NCAA participants Amherst and Norwich by a combined score of 16-2 during the regular season.

Pool “B” also has the possibility of presenting problems, since only RIT and Elmira have ever made the NCAA tournament. The rest of Pool “B” consists of Hobart College, a .500 team for many years, plus relatively new programs like Marian, Milwaukee School of Engineering, Lawrence, Northland and Benedictine. None are expected to challenge for an NCAA bid for the foreseeable future. The remaining Pool “B” teams, independents Scranton and Neumann, play a mostly club schedule.

But since Pool “B” is guaranteed a slot, and Pools “B” and “C” cannot be combined, the possibility exists for a more talented Pool “C” team to be denied.

On the other hand, what if the two best teams in the nation are both in Pool “B”? What happens if Elmira and RIT are #1 and #2 in the polls? Can the #2 team in the nation really miss the nationals? You bet.

“It’s frustrating because we’ve worked long and hard to get the best eight teams into the tournament each season”, said St. Norbert Head Coach Tim Coghlin. “I don’t think you’ll be able to say that anymore.”

Other sports are also worrying that the national field will be weaker as a result of the new system. Men’s and women’s lacrosse also complained loudly about these changes, since their NCAA teams have traditionally come from a few highly regarded conferences and a field of strong independent programs.

To address these concerns, the qualifying ratio was recently reduced from 1 in 8 to 1 in 7.5 to increase the number of Pool “C” slots. Lacrosse will go from 12 to 14 teams for men and 12 to 16 teams for women. Unfortunately for hockey, the field will stay the same size unless the total number of schools increases, or the NCAA grants an exemption, neither of which will probably happen in the foreseeable future.

Bridget Belgiovine, the assistant chief of staff for NCAA Division III, said that the purpose of these changes is to “refocus the championships back to regional and conference competition, to increase access and to eliminate the ‘necessity’ for teams to prove they are better than others by traveling to play teams in other regions.

“The intent is to get schools to play in their own region, which should assist in lessening missed class time, travel and expense pressures.”

While this may be beneficial to some players and schools, it clearly could rob fans of some highly anticipated east-west crossover games that often have national ramifications. RIT and St. Norbert played a rare crossover game early last season which had a major impact on the national polls, and this season has in store what should be a classic matchup between St. Norbert and Middlebury.

Like it or not, the changes are coming. The new system will probably be good for Division III hockey in the long run, since it will generate more excitement for teams that traditionally have been shut out of the selection process. It also encourages expansion and illustrates the need for a larger NCAA field.

But for the next few seasons, expect growing pains.