Between the Lines

I received a lot of response, as expected, from our last installment of Between the Lines, which featured a story on the NCAA’s proposed deregulation of amateurism.

It’s still not a topic that’s being talked about at all in the national media, perhaps because hockey is the sport most impacted, and the national media mostly ignores college hockey. But its impact on hockey cannot be underestimated. The debate continues and, despite all the theorizing, no one really knows what the long-term impact will be. Everyone is in agreement, however, that the entire ballgame will change.

Hopefully, last month’s article cleared up a lot of issues, but there is understandably still some confusion. However, in reality, what is being proposed is actually much simpler than the current system, assuming you can throw out everything you know about NCAA regulations defining an amateur.

Bottom line: As long as you are not receiving money while enrolled in an NCAA school, you are OK. Nothing else matters. The only problem is, every year you compete following high-school graduation outside of the NCAA costs you a year of NCAA eligibility.

There was one error in the last article, however, and for that I apologize. Actually, it was an omission.

I failed to mention that, apparently, you will still have one year following high school graduation to compete outside the NCAA without affecting your NCAA eligibility. Thus, a player who goes to the USHL could play the season following high school graduation, i.e. the 19-year old year, and still have four years of NCAA eligibility. This softens my main concern quite a bit unless, again, I’m reading it wrong. I could not reach the NCAA for clarification, but if anyone can help, feel free to contact me.

Thursday, January 6, was the start of the NCAA Convention, and the hockey community was hoping to voice its concerns there. There are pros and cons to the changes, but as a whole, hockey types were perturbed that they had little, if any, voice in the original process.

Not a lot of news has come out of that convention, though one thing we do know is that an NCAA women’s championship has been approved for 2001. That is good news for all of hockey, because the more people playing, the better. The more visible hockey can become at more schools, the better.

In other news, the MAAC has been all but assured an auto bid for the 2001 tournament. However, according to sources, an increase to a 16-team tournament is losing support.

Those who don’t think the MAAC deserves to be in the same conversation as the other four conferences will be upset by this turn of events, but that’s narrow-minded thinking. The first step toward expanding the scope of college hockey is to include more schools in the process. Giving the MAAC a bid will do more to improve that conference, in the long run, than anything they could do themselves.

As a result, however, it seems each of the other conferences will revert to having just one automatic bid. The conferences will then have the ability to choose how to dole out that bid, just as it was until a few years ago, when what’s known as the “Colorado College” rule came into effect.

(That rule was instituted after the year the Tigers won the WCHA regular-season title and were still left out of the NCAA tournament: only the playoff champion was guaranteed a bid. The result was autobids for the regular-season champion and for the playoff champion in each conference, a rule that has stood until now.)

It would be nice for these bid changes to coincide with the expansion to a 16-team tournament, but I give my endorsement anyway.

After an autumn of discontent around the ECAC, things are settling down.

The departure of Jeff Fanter as ECAC Ice Hockey Commissioner, just before the season started, came as the league was being criticized by its own coaches for not doing enough to promote itself, followed by a minor restructuring of the ECAC hierarchy. These kind of events again led to questions about the ECAC’s place in the college hockey world.

The ECAC already has a longstanding image problem. Some college hockey fans believe the ECAC contains a bunch of pretenders, and that the conference is not to be taken seriously as a whole.

Many of these image problems are a result of the very nature of the conference itself. The WCHA, CCHA and Hockey East are all self-contained, hockey-only entities. The ECAC, according to many, is such a behemoth, it gets in its own way and, even if by accident, neglects hockey.

Whether any of this still is, or ever was, the reality is not the issue. The perception exists, and anyone who doesn’t acknowledge that reality is kidding themselves.

I have long been a defender of the ECAC, but any objective fan has to admit that, as a whole, the teams in the ECAC are just a shade below the caliber of the other three major conferences — the record out of conference and in the NCAA tournament provides overwhelming evidence of that.

Still, perception is far worse than reality. The ECAC is the most competitive conference in the nation during league play, top to bottom, and is highly competitive outside the conference as well. The ECAC has had enough very high-quality teams over the years to justify being included as a power conference.

But sometimes, the league does things that are hard to defend, serving to throw more fuel on its detractors’ fires.

Two years ago, Joe Bertagna left his part-time job with the ECAC to take the full-time job as Hockey East Commissioner. The ECAC then hired Jeff Fanter, a former assistant SID at Colgate, to be its first full-time commissioner.

I didn’t like the move at the time, and I don’t like it now, simply because hiring someone with no administrative background, and who wasn’t necessarily a “hockey guy,” made the appointment look like nothing more than a glorified SID, and seemed to exhibit a lack of understanding by the ECAC over how best to serve its member schools.

Could Fanter plausibly fight the fight for the conference against, or together with, the likes of hockey heavyweights like Bertagna and WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod? For example, recently McLeod has gone to bat for hockey against the NCAA over its proposal to deregulate amateurism. The perception was that Fanter could simply never have had the kind of clout needed for those kinds of battles.

And when he announced he was leaving to pursue a job as an assistant SID at Indiana, it reinforced that perception in some minds.

There are those who protest this depiction of events over the last two years, at least publicly.

“Jeff did good things with sponsorships, by raising the interest level of the league,” says Cornell coach Mike Schafer.

But Schafer himself, while staying away from individual criticisms, has knocked the league on various occasions. He’s been unhappy with the way the league publicizes itself and with the TV contract, asking why Lynah Rink is again not scheduled to host a TV game, and has looked into a side deal for Cornell with the Empire Sports Network.

“I’d love to get a deal with Empire, but it’s hard to negotiate during the season,” he said. “We play in a great atmosphere, but we haven’t hosted a home game [on TV] in the last years. It’s supposed to be league policy to showcase arenas with a great environment.”

Ironically, considering his background, Fanter didn’t necessarily get along with the media, either. Now, I know the difficulties involved in the inside of a sports operation. I know that public is often skewered unfairly toward the negative. I know that, while honesty is usually the best policy, being totally forthcoming isn’t always the most practical way to handle a situation.

But being a positive force in the advancement of hockey does not have to be mutually exclusive to the idea of a free press. It’s just as wrong when the media is unfair and ignorant, but a fair and constructive dialogue is necessary and healthy. Administrators should know that at least some of the media want nothing more than the health and well-being of the sport we love.

Nonetheless, the ECAC’s problems pre-date Fanter, and they haven’t gone away since he left. But Fanter’s departure spurred a minor restructuring that should have major positive effects; indications are that the ECAC is moving away from its old thinking.

Steve Hagwell has replaced Fanter in the league office, and last year, Phil Buttafuoco replaced Clayton Chapman as the overseer of the entire ECAC, which doles out championships and awards in all sports, but only has jurisdiction over hockey.

Buttafuoco and Hagwell worked together at the NCAA for years, where they both worked with hockey — Buttafuoco as overseer of the Division I championship. Where Fanter had no administrative background, but was given universal control, Buttafuoco and Hagwell will work together to their strengths. That means Buttafuoco will use his strong relationships in the hockey world as well as his administrative experience for the benefit of the league.

“Phil is taking an active role,” says Hagwell. “We’re here to serve. It’s what I love to do. I don’t need to be the overseer, or the king. Phil will handle discipline. He has a good rapport with the [athletic directors].

“We are a service organization. We work for the coaches. I’m certain Phil understands [hockey’s importance]. But we haven’t had a chance to discuss philosophy because we’re trying to get our hands around everything. It would be different if the change happened in June, but it was recent.”

Hagwell inherited a couple more hiccups, including anger from league SIDs over the idea not to publish a league media guide, and the dreaded Hockey News Fiasco.

For its preview issue, The Hockey News offered each Division I conference extra space for an advertising supplement. At the cost of $2500, the conference could put in anything it wanted. The ECAC was the only conference that decided to pass. This infuriated coaches, and left the impression that The Hockey News was purposefully dissing the ECAC. Coaches were up in arms.

“It’s a major mistake by our league,” said Schafer in Ken Schott’s college hockey column in the Schenectady (N.Y.) Gazette.

At the time, Buttafuoco said, “The decision was made that there were no areas we wanted to cut back in the budget to cover the cost of that advertisement.”

St. Lawrence coach Joe Marsh said each school could’ve kicked in $200 and the league the extra $100. “I would’ve paid for that out of my own pocket,” he said in Schott’s column. “Or we could have a bottle drive.”

Yale coach Tim Taylor agreed, but like everyone else, falls far short of placing the blame on any individuals.

“We should do everything we can to enhance the image of the league,” Taylor said. “As coaches, it’s frustrating, obviously. Some leagues with publicity are on a very fast track. We have to jump in.

“[But] we shouldn’t make it a big political issue. It just fell through the cracks.”

Hagwell says that it has been addressed.

“It was an unfortunate incident that should never have occurred. It won’t happen again.”

The shame of it all continues to be the way these missteps reinforce people’s perceptions of the on-ice product. ECAC teams are subject to disrespect by others, and the overall talent level of the ECAC, compared to the other major conferences, is slightly lower. Denying that is silly. But when you consider the academic quality and philosophies of the schools involved, ECAC teams should be commended for their competitive standards.

I’ll never forget the reaction in Albany during the 1996 NCAA East Regional, when some folks got to see Vermont’s Martin St. Louis and Eric Perrin for the first time. Despite three seasons worth of accolades to that point, even inside hockey people didn’t believe how good that duo was. The look on their faces as the game with Lake Superior unfolded was priceless.

But the ECAC’s hiccups distract from getting that message out. Did you know that the ECAC pages on this site get almost as many hits as all the other conferences combined? You do now.

“As coaches we’re out there fighting the wars, and we hear this [negative] stuff [about the league],” said Marsh. “Our league is competitive. I’m so sick of hearing this. How can you say this is an inferior league? You’ve got six Ivy [League] schools, Colgate, RPI, St. Lawrence — these are great schools. And let’s talk about our graduation rate.

“I think parents, before they listen to all this stuff on the Internet, they should take a good hard look.

“I think in having the resources and the infrastructure that allows you to move the sport [forward], we have a ways to go, but I think other leagues do too.”

Part of the solution is having an administrator who follows the philosophy that what’s good for hockey is good for the ECAC.

But the ECAC’s organizational structure often prevents it from having this philosophy. Since the other conferences (except the second-year MAAC) are hockey only, everyone knows where their concerns are. But, rightly or wrongly, because the ECAC is a multi-sport, multi-leveled behemoth, the hockey-playing schools cannot be convinced that the conference’s concerns are always about hockey.

“It wouldn’t hurt as long as we have our commissioner in place within the framework of the ECAC,” says Taylor.

The MAAC seems to have done very well for itself, using its nature as a multi-sport conference to its benefit. Its administrators have been power brokers at the wide-scale, NCAA level, and can push to get things done.

The difference with the ECAC is, it has no jurisdiction over the other sports it oversees. It’s a monstrous multi-sport conference, without any of the multi-sport power — or at least no evidence of it.

This isn’t necessarily the ECAC’s fault, but it has to acknowledge this fact and do something about it, or risk further alienating the ECAC hockey programs.

This is why, in the past, I have advocated wholesale departure from the ECAC. Just like the current Hockey East teams left the ECAC and formed their own conference, the current ECAC schools could do the same. Nothing would have had to change in the way of academic requirements, scheduling, licensing, Lake Placid, and so forth.

Whispers persist that such an idea has actually been discussed, though no one will talk much about it. But one ECAC insider went so far as to say that getting it done “wouldn’t be as difficult as you might think.”

Now, with Buttafuoco and Hagwell at the top, I am again hopeful. There is much to be done, but they should be given the opportunity to do it. But if other image problems come up, you may see the revolution that’s bubbling under the surface rise to the top very quickly.

“I’d like to let Phil have a little time to prove himself,” says Taylor. “He’s obviously a powerful man in terms of the NCAA experience. It’s great that we’ve got him in our corner.”

The results are in, and again hardly anyone noticed. But we did, and it’s our duty to point it out.

The U.S. Junior National Team placed fourth at the recently-completed World Championships in Sweden, its best finish since a runner-up spot to Canada in 1996-97. Actually, as far as I’m concerned, they finished third, since the 4-3 bronze medal game loss to Canada came in that god-awful abomination called a shootout.

Last month, I said it was time for the National Developmental Program — which was designed to give top U.S. talent the chance to flower — to start showing some fruits of its labor, that this would be a telling tournament for the validity of the idea. It’s hard to say with a third-and-a-half place finish, but it appears the U.S. did itself proud at the tournament. I say “appeared” because you can’t find the games on TV anywhere. (Can someone please tell DirecTV to pipe in TSN.) I did, however, get to listen to an awful radio broadcast of the U.S.-Canada round-robin game while I just happened to be traveling during the holidays. I could barely tell what was going on, but I did manage to ascertain that the U.S. was dominating Canada in the third period of a 1-1 game.

That game ended in a tie, and despite scoring just five goals in four round-robin games, the U.S. finished 1-1-2 for third place in the bracket. Paired with the other bracket’s No. 2 seed, host Sweden, the U.S. won handily and impressively, 5-1, doubling its scoring output for the tournament.

Then, sadly, Team USA mentor Jeff Jackson had to leave Finland and return to the U.S. to be with his ailing mother. Team USA lost a 4-1 decision to the Czech Republic, before playing another tight one with Canada in the consolation.

All things considered, fans of U.S. hockey have to be pleased. It would have been nice to get a medal, but there’s every reason to believe the program is on the right track. Jeff Taffe led the way with five points, and only Barrett Heisten, Adam Hall and Dan Cavanaugh had two goals. BU’s Rick DiPietro, who has carried the Terriers early on, was 2-2-1 with a 1.81 GAA and .935 save percentage and won the tourney’s outstanding goaltender honors.

They’re often over-hyped, but this year’s holiday tournaments had some interesting moments.

In the Badger Showdown, North Dakota pulled out a 3-2 win over host Wisconsin at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee, the place where the Sioux closed out the 1997 national championship. It was a classic struggle between a team that has been prominent in the national picture in recent years, and a team that used to be and is close to regaining that status.

The close loss by Wisconsin had Badger fans wondering what it would have been like with Dany Heatley, the stellar freshman who was away at the World Juniors. Well, the Badgers will get a chance to find out when the teams hook up for a regular-season series Jan. 14 and 15, but everyone’s really waiting for the one in March…

The Great Lakes Invitational is always one of, if not the, highlight of the holiday season. This year was no exception as Michigan State’s Joe Blackburn turned in a 37-save effort to lead the Spartans past rival Michigan. Of course, those bragging rights only held until the teams hooked up again last Friday, when Michigan turned the tables thanks to the return of starting netminder Josh Blackburn. But, school loyalties aside, there’s not a whole lot better in college hockey than a packed Joe Louis Arena and the intensity of Michigan State-Michigan…

Also worth noting is Jeff Farkas’ five-goal outing against Vermont in the final of the UVM Classic. The Catamounts were poised for an upset, but Farkas’ Hobey-like effort carried the Eagles to a 5-4 win.

[Note: since the time of this writing, the University of Vermont has announced that it will cancel the remainder of the men’s hockey season due to findings related to the current hazing scandal.]

A court sanction, brought on by Freedom of Information Act litigation, has forced the University of Vermont to make public its records of an in-house investigation regarding the recent hazing allegations surrounding the hockey program.

The investigation determined that every player on the team was involved in some way in, at the very least, under-age drinking, possession of false IDs and/or distribution of alcohol to minors — in other words, the same thing that occurs on every college campus, sports or no sports. As a result, head coach Mike Gilligan decided to suspend every player for one game (with the suspensions staggered, rather than forfeit a game).

Until now, there had only been speculation as to why certain players were sitting out games, but the opening of the documents forced school officials to discuss it.

“All sitting out one game … is being unfair to the league and to opponents and to the fans, and I don’t think it’s a deterrent to any degree,” he said. “I think we suffer as a team much, much more from having a young man sit out each and every game, to adjust the lines and to have the boys reminded every single Friday and Saturday night that what they did was wrong.”

Let’s forget the obvious conflict of interest Gilligan has in making this decision, and let’s go back to the beginning.

Documents say school officials met with the hockey team in October, two weeks before the rookie initiation party, after concerns were raised by then-team member Corey LaTulippe. They drilled the players on the hazing policy, asked whether anyone had ever been hazed, or whether hazing would be taking place at the party.

Imagine that when the players all said “no.”

Athletic Director Richard Farnham seems to think the players weren’t lying, but that they merely misunderstood what hazing actually meant.

“I think you have a tremendously different understanding of what hazing is,” he said.

Has anyone seen Kenneth Starr?

Like gambling, some people do it anyway, but everyone knows the rules about it. To think the kids answered “no” because they weren’t clear on the definition of hazing, is preposterous. And, as if that matters.

Not feeling the school took proper measures to stop the activity, or punish those involved afterward, LaTulippe filed suit on Dec. 10 claiming freshmen were forced to parade naked while holding one another’s genitals, drink warm beer and liquor and eat until they vomited.

According to the school’s investigation, however, that never happened.

“We identified improper alcohol use and we’ve taken the proper sanctions,” Farnham said.

I’m not about to sit here high and mighty and condemn Gilligan or the school for looking the other way on underage drinking and the like. We know these things happen all the time, everywhere, and it doesn’t really bother me. Had the hazing allegations never happened, the sanctions for the underage drinking never would have been necessary because no one would’ve known. I have no problem with that either.

But does anyone really think LaTulippe would risk what he’s gone through just because he was annoyed at some minor freshman rituals and illegalities involving the drinking law?

I’ve personally asked numerous hockey players what they went through in their freshman initiations, even some who have played before for UVM. None of them did anything as severe as what’s being described here. Especially these days, even junior teams, once a bastion for the sick and perverse, have calmed things down after various nationwide investigations. All teams know where the line is. This is not something that has been going on in the past at UVM. For some reason, this group of upperclassmen may have decided to raise the stakes.

The state’s attorney general is currently investigating the matter. Of course, politicians will often point to underage drinking and proclaim horror, then find some scapegoat to put on the chopping block. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen. But if the attorney general finds severe hazing violations, even Gilligan admits that more penalties will be necessary.

Am I sure all of LaTulippe’s allegations happened? No. But it seems obvious that something happened beyond what UVM found in its investigation.

Universally, Gilligan is considered one of the greatest gentlemen in hockey. If he becomes the scapegoat for this, it would be a shame. Word is, retirement has been on his mind already. Hopefully, he won’t have to go out with this as his lasting memory. For all anyone thinks of him as a coach, good or bad, no hockey fan should wish for that.

Are Niagara and Wayne State using the CHA as a steppingstone to bigger things? There have certainly been rumblings to that effect.

Remember, Blaise MacDonald didn’t go to Niagara to be in a minor conference. MacDonald came in with a lot of respect, having been a part of the Boston University program for so long, and that helped him get good opponents, and thus build the program. The CHA was a nice idea, but he’s always been looking for more.

At Wayne State, former Western Michigan coach Bill Wilkinson started that program with similar things in mind. He wants to get back into the Division I mainstream as soon as possible.

They could leave as an entry for the CCHA within a couple of years. And, word is Army is all but assured of joining the MAAC for next season. Combine that, and it means a likely quick death for the CHA.

Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily, if it was used as a positive, though it would be nice to have more Division I conferences.

Yale’s Jeff Hamilton, a Hobey Baker candidate entering the season, has decided to take a medical redshirt for the season. Yale loses its top gun for the stretch drive, but it gets a healthy Hamilton all next season …

Minnesota had another player hit the Roed. Peter Roed was a high school standout, but didn’t have the grades for school. He went to juniors and now plays in the AHL with the Kentucky Thoroughblades, Florida’s top affiliate. His brother Shawn was off to a great start this season with the Gophers, but was suspended under first-year head coach Don Lucia’s no-tolerance policy for academic shenanigans. So, instead of sit out, Shawn hit the Roed, and is playing major juniors in the WHL for Portland. I applaud Lucia’s stance. Some kids are not made for college, and that’s not a knock on them. Part of what makes hockey great is that there are options for those kids. Unlike basketball and football, there is a junior system, or minor pro …

If you ever need to find an old Ivy League goalie, try to the broadcast booth. Ken Dryden popularized the notion when he sat in as color man for Al Michaels during the extraordinary 1980 Olympic coverage. Since then, fellow Cornell goaltenders Brian Hayward and Daren Eliot have made homes in Anaheim and Atlanta, respectively. Now, add Tripp Tracy to the list. The former Harvard goalie can be heard analyzing games for the Carolina Hurricanes. Of course, the Harvard footprint is all over the Hurricane organization. Owner Peter Karmanos’ son, Jason, played for Harvard with Tracy. Jason Karmanos’ pro career was cut short after he lost use of an eye …

Speaking of freak injuries: RPI graduate Eric Healey was tearing things up for Springfield of the AHL, until he was victim of a much more literal and scary tear. Playing in Worcester on January 2, Healey was tangled in a corner scrum with teammate David Bell and Worcester’s Sylvain Blouin when one of their skates accidentally severed the tendon nerve artery in his left wrist. Forgetting the severity of the wrist injury, he could have bled to death if not for the quick attention of the Falcons’ training staff. He was rushed to the hospital and there were concerns he may never have use of the hand again. However, the team released a statement two days later saying that Healey had successful surgery and is expected to make a complete recovery. This season, on the other hand, is over …

As Jeff Halpern continues to mark time in the NHL, the Capitals forward is already closing in on a record: most NHL games played by a former Princeton hockey player. But, wait, Halpern is a rookie, you say? Indeed. The previous record is only 48, held by Mike McKee in 1993-94 with the Quebec Nordiques. That doesn’t take away from what Halpern has accomplished. He has humble totals of 12 points so far this season, but has been one of the Capitals’ best faceoff men, and he leads the team with a +6 rating while playing in all 39 of the team’s games. All this while becoming the first Maryland native to make the NHL. He has a little ways to go, however, before breaking the goals record for a Princeton alum. That’s held by Andre Faust, who scored 10 goals in his 47 NHL games over two seasons. Halpern currently has five. The only other former Princeton player to taste the NHL? Ed Lee, who played two games with Quebec in 1984-85 …

Dany Heatley was recently ranked No. 1 by the Central Scouting Bureau among prospects for this year’s NHL draft. I suspect that gives Badger fans a lot of mixed emotions. Can you say “David Tanabe”?


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