Between the Lines

Another year in college hockey is gone, and it’s time to look back on what has occurred. We saw the usual assortment of scandals, suspensions and coaching changes. We also saw another exciting year on the ice, culminating with North Dakota’s second national championship in four years.

We saw the continued reemergence of ex-collegians making an impact at the NHL level, with one year’s group paving the way for future classes, and so on. In some ways, college hockey gained more respect than ever, in others, it showed how much still needs to go.

Big topics loom, like the deregulation of amateurism, changing the criteria for inclusion in the NCAA tournament, the possible expansion of the tournament to 16 teams, and the creation of an NCAA women’s tourney.

The personalities, the people, the issues, the play … it’s what makes the sport so interesting. It’s why I love it.

Each year brings its own set of hot-button topics, and when the hockey community converges upon that season’s Frozen Four site, certain issues seems to get a lot of buzz.

One of them was the reversing trend back toward NHL-size rinks and away from Olympic-size ones, and whether it’s necessary for the NCAA to ensure a uniform size in the postseason.

We’ll talk more about that one down the road.

Another was the selection process, which always seems to come up in some way, shape or form. But it’s become a bigger issue this year because the clean, objective-based selection process the Men’s Ice Hockey Committee came up with has been mucked up by the inclusion of minor conferences. Teams like Niagara and Quinnipiac wind up with higher rankings in the criteria than they might otherwise deserve because of the insular nature of their schedules.

Of course, then you have the CCHA coaches, led by Michigan State’s Ron Mason and Michigan’s Red Berenson, crying foul over only two CCHA teams being included in this year’s tournament, and over their teams’ relatively low seedings this year.

They say the criteria system needs to be revisited because teams like theirs, who win the conference tournament and finish first in the regular season, respectively, should not get such low seeds. They propose revisions that would take into account, among other things, past performance of CCHA teams in the tournament.

Of course, these guys never complained in years past when the CCHA received four tournament bids and their teams received high seeds.

Those kinds of remedies are pointless. I’m sorry, but the criteria system worked for Michigan State and Michigan this year. The CCHA deserved only two teams, and winning a conference tournament or regular-season title doesn’t automatically bring you a high seeding in any NCAA sport.

Some even suggested that the ECAC’s automatic bids be revisited, because that “weak” conference is handing out autobids to teams that can’t compete in the tournament. The ECAC had a 4-20 record in the tournament since it went to its current format, and 3-10 in the last five years.

Well, if you want to compare past performances, let’s point out that in those previous five years, the CCHA was 3-3 against the ECAC in the NCAA tournament, Michigan was a controversial no-goal in overtime to Colgate away from being eliminated, and Michigan State was eliminated in the first round.

The seedings seemed pretty appropriate to me.

So let’s not get ourselves sidetracked from the real issue: The criteria system is not able to handle the wildly divergent schedules that the new conferences bring to the table.

A number of complex remedies have been suggested, including some by well-meaning, passionate fans. Mathematical formulas can be devised that would do a better job at handling the anomalies we now see.

But I’m not sure it needs to go that far.

A few years ago, at the urging of then-ECAC commissioner Joe Bertagna, the ice hockey committee changed the makeup of the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) to 35% winning percentage, 50% opponent’s winning percentage, and 15% opponent’s opponents winning percentage. Every other NCAA sport uses a 25-50-25 breakdown, making strength of schedule a bigger factor.

The concern at the time was that top-heavy conferences, with some superior teams and a number of weak ones, would be hurt by the 25-50-25 weighting.

Ironically, today, the ECAC is the least top-heavy conference, with more top-to-bottom balance than ever before.

RPI is one of the five criteria used by the committee to determine how one team compares to another. These “comparisons” are used to determine who makes the NCAA Tournament. RPI is also a tiebreaker in many instances.

The simple act of changing the RPI component back to a 25-50-25 breakdown may solve a large portion of the problem. (The math people can run the numbers).

Beyond that, however, there is sentiment toward putting subjectivity back into the process. That was a heavy topic of discussion at the recent annual coaches’ convention in Naples, Fla.

“Whether anything happens or it’s just the first volley, I think you’re going to have people say, we’ve taken subjectivity out [too much],” said Bertagna. “They’re going to use Boston College as an example. Just because they lost some games their seed was lower, but everyone knew they were a better team than their record.

“It’s like the Cincinnati basketball situation [All-American Kenyon Martin broke his leg the day before seedings were announced and Cincinnati’s seed was lowered]. Or you might have a team riding a [Ken] Dryden-esque goalie who breaks his leg in March.”

I say, tweak the criteria, but ride it out. For all the problems with the criteria, it’s still the most fair way to do it, and, basically, it works.

The University of Rhode Island seems like a natural for ice hockey, especially considering nearby Woonsocket has produced two of the more highly-touted NHL rookies in recent years, Brian Boucher and Bryan Berard. And, especially considering it is the only New England state school without a varsity hockey program.

This could happen sooner than you think under a new plan. Last month, the school’s Board of Governors for Higher Education gave its approval for a new convocation center and ice rink, a plan expected to cost $66 million.

The key to the deal was getting boosters of the basketball team and club hockey team on the same page. The two have often battled, but, believe it or not, there are some local politicians with strong ties to the hockey program. So, the two sides were able to marry their ideas together into one project.

Of course, basketball is king at Rhode Island, but local politicians began to realize that Rhode Island was becoming known for producing some good players, and felt the state school should have a representative.

The plans for the new rink include the construction of 2,000 seats. This would probably hinder inclusion in Hockey East, but would not rule out the MAAC.

Of course, this is all still down the road, and minds have a tendency to change.

In a similar vein, North Dakota State University, in Fargo, will apparently not have a hockey program now. Taxpayers turned down the funding of a new rink that would’ve housed a men’s and women’s team.

As first mentioned in our February BTL, getting funding for another arena when the new 19,000-seat Fargodome was just built, seemed like a risky proposition at best. NDSU had a tremendous season-ticket drive, but now what? Give those people their money back, or try something else?

Not to mention the fact that the NCAA has put out a two-year moratorium on programs moving up in classification. There’s no confirmation one way or another on how that would affect NDSU, a D-II power that would be looking to play “up” in hockey.

The increase to a 16-team NCAA tournament, which so many people in hockey were looking forward to, is not going to happen. Not for next season, anyway.

The NCAA Budget Subcommittee, which makes recommendations on budget items that includes the expansion of championships, has fallen under a mandate to expand only women’s sports until there’s a 50/50 equity in opportunities for men and women.

Despite a number of solid reasons for expanding the men’s ice hockey tournament, and despite the recommendation of the Championships Cabinet, the proposal will be shot down because of this new mandate.

It’s all very unfortunate, because the NCAA does not need to create this kind of antagonistic atmosphere. They do not need to punish legitimate men’s cases just to reach equity, and they do not need to play men’s and women’s sports off of each other.

Even with the increase in the men’s bracket, the gap was going to narrow this year. And, most importantly, the men’s tournament could bring in enough additional revenue to fund the creation of the women’s ice hockey tournament, and then some.

Consider MAAC Commissioner Rich Ensor’s comments:

“A problem for the men’s ice hockey community is the politicization of the gender equity issue by certain [women’s sports] advocates,” said Ensor. “In my 12 years of being involved in NCAA governance, any proposal for bracket expansion has always been made on the merits of the case, not on political concerns, caps or quotas. To see such influences come into the process would be very unfortunate.

“I hope to see the NCAA just continue the expansion of sports opportunities on the merits of school sponsorship, conference sponsorship and fan interest. I expect that process will continue to provide sustained growth for both men’s and women’s sports opportunities as it has for the past decade.”

The MAAC has a vested interest, partially because it could get some backlash when the men’s ice hockey committee awards the MAAC is automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament.

That’s just one the major topics on the agenda for the men’s ice hockey committee meetings in Idaho on July 18-21.

The MAAC meets all of the NCAA criteria for earning an automatic berth. The ice hockey committee doesn’t have much of a choice but to award them a berth, and they should anyway. The committee is likely to then reduce the number of automatic berths in the other four conferences to just one, making five, total.

The MAAC believes it should get the same treatment as everyone else, and with solid reasoning. No other sport distinguishes between conferences like hockey does. If the MAAC is given one berth now, and the others stay at two, how do you determine at what point in the future that the MAAC deserves the second automatic berth?

By the way, also on the agenda for the committee: choosing sites for the 2004-2006 NCAA tournaments. USCHO will be keeping an eye on all the hot topics as the meetings draw closer.

Jeff Halpern’s charmed season came to an end when the Washington Capitals lost to Pittsburgh in Round 1 of the NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs. The former Princeton captain and All-American was sixth among NHL rookies with 18 goals, third in the league overall with four shorthanded goals, and was second on his team in plus-minus.

To put his rise into perspective, consider this: He’s one of only four Princeton graduates ever to play in the NHL (the first to play more than 48 career games), one of only four Jewish players in the NHL this season, and the only Washington-area native to ever play in the NHL. Any one of these things would be interesting and noteworthy in and of itself. All of them combined, to go along with his successful rookie season, makes for a truly remarkable achievement.

On the other hand, when the Penguins eliminated the Capitals, it marked the third straight year that Halpern’s season ended on a fluke goal.

In 1998, upon Princeton’s first-ever trip to the NCAA tournament, Michigan scored the game-winning goal in the third period when a centering pass went off Halpern’s skate and in. The next season, Princeton overcame a 4-0 deficit and had the game tied, 5-5, with under a minute to go in the ECAC tournament semifinals, only to see Clarkson’s Willie Mitchell put in a slapshot from center ice with three seconds remaining. This year, the Penguins knocked off the Capitals when a centering pass from Jaromir Jagr went off of Washington defenseman Calle Johansson and in.

As a friend of mine says, “You see, that’s God’s way of evening things out.”

The Coaching Carousel: Speaking of Princeton, it lost its most irreplaceable component when coach Don Cahoon left to take the job at UMass. To say Cahoon resurrected Princeton’s program would be wrong; that would imply it was successful at some point before.

After decades of failures, Cahoon brought enthusiasm and an unwavering positive attitude to Princeton that helped the Tigers to the most successful season’s in the program’s 100-year-plus history. Princeton may never have been a contender for a national championship, but considering it has, perhaps, the toughest recruiting job of any school in Division I, to simply have had as much success as it did, is remarkable.

Cahoon started gaining respectability for the program through the early ’90s, but the turning point came far from Princeton, during what was then called the Dexter Shoe Classic at Maine just before Christmas in 1994. The Tigers had come in with an eight-game unbeaten streak. Maine was undefeated and No. 1 in the nation. Princeton stunned the Black Bears with a 3-2 win in the final. From there, Princeton made it to the ECAC Final Four for the first time in school history, losing in the final to RPI.

After a disappointing 1995-96 season, the Tigers would go to Lake Placid the next three years, winning the ECAC Tournament in 1998. The next season, Halpern’s senior year, they won 20 games for the first time in school history but missed an NCAA at-large bid by losing both games at Lake Placid.

Cahoon was a rare bird: a non-Ivy graduate who succeeded at an Ivy League school. I’m not sure anyone else can make that claim. Harvard’s Bill Cleary was an alum, Yale’s Tim Taylor is a Harvard graduate, Cornell’s Brian McCutcheon and Mike Schafer are also alums of that school; Bob Gaudet, who had success at Brown, is a Dartmouth graduate, where he now coaches.

Who’s the last non-Ivy League coach to succeed in the Ivy League? Ned Harkness? Eddie Jeremiah? That’s lofty company.

Cahoon, a graduate of Boston University and member of their 1971 and 1972 NCAA championship teams, always had an eye on heading back toward the Boston area. Amherst is close enough. Many people thought he was waiting for the Boston University job to open. It almost did a couple of years ago. But Cahoon is no lock for that position … people like Blaise MacDonald, Brian Durocher and Mike Bavis all would be on the short list. And it doesn’t look like it will open anytime soon.

If Cahoon succeeds at UMass, as he almost certainly will, it will only put him in better position for the Terriers’ job down the road.

Cahoon might be like a kid in a candy store now. I can see a potential recruit calling.

Cahoon: “What’s your SAT score?”
Recruit: “750.”
Cahoon: “Is that your math or verbal?”
Recruit: “No, that’s overall.”
Cahoon: “Good thing you didn’t call me last year.”

Meanwhile, joining Cahoon at UMass, will be Fairfield coach Mark Dennehy, which is good for UMass, but bad for Fairfield and the MAAC.

Dennehy continues to work out of his office in Fairfield out of loyalty to the program, while UMass goes through the hoops necessary to complete the hiring process.

We’ve sung the praises of Dennehy in this column all this past season, and for good reason. The cynic will say Dennehy bailed after one year and went to Fairfield merely as a stepping stone — but so what. Most coaches are looking to move up to a bigger gig. It doesn’t mean they aren’t loyal to the program while they’re there.

Despite being at Fairfield just one year, heading to UMass was an opportunity Dennehy couldn’t pass up. It allows him to reunite with Cahoon, a man he has tremendous respect for, and return to UMass, where he was once a graduate assistant. He had no way of foreseeing Cahoon’s hiring at UMass when he took the Fairfield job.

So who will be the new coach at Princeton? Well, the one candidate with the credentials and the Ivy League background is assistant coach Len Quesnelle, a former Tigers defenseman who was Cahoon’s right-hand man for nine years. He’s the only person known to have applied, though there’s assuredly others.

There’s no scuttlebutt, however, on who else might be interested. Two names that instantly came to mind were Stan Moore and Ron Rolston, current assistants at Colgate and Harvard, respectively. But there’s no indication that either is interested. Both would have the credentials, but not the Ivy League background.

Another possibility is Bill Beaney, the five-time championship coach at Middlebury. His named popped up in the recent hirings of coaches at Cornell and Harvard. He interviewed for both spots but pulled himself out of the running late in the process. Word is the New Hampshire graduate is waiting for an opening at his alma mater, or at nearby Vermont.

However, with Dick Umile staying at UNH and Mike Gilligan apparently being given the thumbs-up to stay at Vermont — at least for now — Beaney might want to consider Princeton, especially since his son, Trevor, will be a sophomore defenseman there this coming year.

But again, there’s no indication that he’s interested. So, otherwise, I can’t think of any other logical candidates.

Back to Gilligan, for a minute. Of course, he came under fire in the aftermath of the Vermont hazing incident. Last winter, Vermont cancelled the second half of its season after determining players lied to school investigators over the nature of hazing allegations, brought on by a lawsuit from former walk-on goalie Corey Latulippe. Gilligan, the school and a number of players are defendants in a lawsuit that’s still pending.

Gilligan is proceeding as if he’s returning for next year, and the school isn’t indicating otherwise. There is speculation, however, that the school could try to entice Gilligan to take a buyout package that’s current being offered throughout the school.

The NCAA’s “opt-in” rule reared its ugly head recently, as BU goalie Ricky DiPietro, coming off an outstanding freshman year, was forced to make a decision whether to leave school or enter the NHL draft. He ultimately chose to leave, figuring he will be a top 10 pick in June’s draft in Calgary.

This was an issue because DiPietro was a rarity, a sophomore-to-be still classified as an 18-year old. His birthday, Sept. 19, 1981, is four days shy of the cutoff. If he was four days older, he’d be considered 19, and would not have had to opt in to the draft and lose his eligibility in the process.

The draft age used to be 18, period. For some reason, the NHL and NHL Players Association decided to change the rule under the collective bargaining agreement. Instead, 19 was the eligible age, but, if you were 18, you could opt in, just by letting the NHL know of your intentions.

Well, every major junior player opts in. Why wouldn’t you? There’s nothing to lose. But the NCAA has decided that players who do that lose their remaining eligibility, whether they eventually sign a pro contract or not.

The benefit to college hockey of a 19-year-old minimum is that many more players get drafted under the banner of their college team. For example, when the St. Louis Blues drafted Marty Reasoner, “Boston College” was listed next to his name, not the name of his prep school.

But, for the sake of public relations, the rule is hurting players like DiPietro. Had the draft age still been 18 — or if opting in didn’t force you to give up your remaining eligibility — DiPietro could have been drafted, but still stayed in school, like so many other drafted college players.

To be fair, players like DiPietro are very rare. He missed the deadline by just four days. But it’s still a rule that needs to be revisited.

In late April, the U.S. National Under-18 team came in eighth place in Sweden, one year after finishing seventh in the inaugural international tournament. A few days later, the leader of the U.S. National Developmental Program, Jeff Jackson, was fired, along with assistant Bob Mancini.

There’s a lot more than meets the eye here, and in coming weeks, we’ll hopefully have a more complete picture of what’s going on with the program. For now, there’s some things that deserve to be pointed out.

I’ve always been a big supporter of the program, and have followed its successes and failures in this space. This is a website devoted to college hockey, but if you’re a fan of the college game, you should have an appreciation for the American hockey system.

By 1996, the idea of a national junior developmental program was one whose time had come. Jackson left as the highly-successful coach at Lake Superior to help run the program, at a time when he could have taken any number of high-profile jobs, either in college or the pros.

I don’t know Jeff Jackson that well personally, but it’s hard to believe he took over the program for any reason other than a genuine desire to improve the quality of play, and opportunity, for American kids across the board. But, despite Jackson’s urgings, the program never developed a grassroots, across-the-board program for all age levels.

To say the only goal of the program was to win more medals at the junior level is an oversimplification. The idea was to build a program from the ground up, to develop young players and put them in an environment where they could succeed, by having them compete against the top competition all the time.

The number of U.S.-born players being taken early in the NHL draft, and the resurgence of college players in the pro ranks can be at least partially attributed to the U.S. National Developmental Program. An eighth-place finish at the Under-18 Tournament, or similar results, should not, in and of itself, be justification for Jackson’s dismissal.

So, either the powers that be don’t realize that, or there’s a lot more to it. Almost always, it’s the latter. Was it a power struggle? Hopefully we’ll know more soon.

After four years, I still believe the original ideas and goals of the program are solid, and I still believe Jeff Jackson was the perfect choice to run the show. We’ll let time be the judge of his replacement.

The big question is, what’s next for Jeff Jackson? Well … the Princeton job is open …