In a move that could redefine the NCAA Men’s Ice Hockey Championship, the NCAA Men’s Ice Hockey Committee approved an automatic bid for the MAAC, effective for this year’s championships. The move came during the Committee’s annual meetings, which continue through Friday.
The ratification signifies the halfway point in the process of finalizing the automatic bid. The NCAA Championships Cabinet, which will meet on September 12-14 in Atlanta, still needs to give final approval to the proposal.
“It is great to hear,” said MAAC commissioner Richard Ensor. “The decision represents the culmination of a lot of hard work by many MAAC administrators, coaches and student-athletes to form the league and develop it to the point where the league was eligible for a bid. The bid should be a big boost for our fans and the level of play throughout the league, and will help coaches’ recruiting efforts.”
“This completes an incredible two year growth period for the league,” added Jack McDonald, Director of Athletics at Quinnipiac and a member of the Committee. “The NCAA automatic berth endorses the MAAC to our student-athletes, coaches, prospects, and our campuses.”
The move came on the same day Quinnipiac announced it was ramping up a number of its athletic programs, including men’s ice hockey, with the intention of becoming a more formidable candidate for entry into the ECAC or Hockey East.
Should the Cabinet give final approval, which most expect they will, then the MAAC will join the other “big four” conferences — Hockey East, ECAC, CCHA and WCHA — in having an automatic berth in the tournament. That’s something that is music to the ears to MAAC coaches.
“I’m personally very excited and our players will be very excited,” said Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin. “The MAAC conference, commissioner Ensor and Jack McDonald have worked very hard to do this. I think as legitimate as we were before, we are twice as legitimate now.”
Though the participation from the MAAC is monumental in expanding the sports of college hockey, the conference is one year short of being the pioneer. Last season, Niagara became the first team outside of the “big four” to qualify for the tournament since Alaska-Anchorage in 1991. Niagara, a member of College Hockey America, qualified based on selection criteria and then went on to defeat New Hampshire in the first round. The Purple Eagles fell to the eventual national champion, North Dakota, in the quarterfinals.
Gotkin considers Niagara’s success last season extremely beneficial in attaining the bid.
“Little Niagara has given all of us credibility,” Gotkin noted. “I think the hockey world looked at Niagara and said, ‘Gee, there’s other teams out there like them.’ I think it was terrific what they did and it’s something we all benefited from.”
The conference announced that the bid will be awarded to the MAAC tournament champion, not the regular season champion. In the first two seasons, Quinnipiac ran away with both regular-season titles, only to fall in the conference-tournament semifinals.
“I think as coaches we had voted on [awarding the tournament champion the bid],” said Gotkin. “I think it’s kind of a mixed emotion type of thing. The way the league is set up, you win three games, you’re the champion. I don’t know [if] your best team end up in the NCAA.
“That, I guess is what March Madness is all about.”
There has been discussion about eliminating an automatic bid from each of the established conferences, which currently receive two each, but no other news has yet come out of the Committee meetings.
The MAAC has struggled to gain the respect of the “big four” through its first two seasons. Only the better-known schools, such as Connecticut, Quinnipiac, Canisius, Holy Cross and Mercyhurst were able to schedule games against big four teams. To this point, MAAC teams are winless in those games.
This season, however, Sacred Heart, Iona and newcomer Army will also play non-league games against big four teams, displaying at least a partial acceptance by the established conferences. In all, the MAAC will play 23 games against schools from Hockey East, the ECAC and the WCHA. The CCHA did not schedule any games against MAAC teams.
“I think having the bid will help us in scheduling against other conferences,” Gotkin said. “All our clubs can take some pride in [attaining a bid] and keep making our product better and better.
“When I think of the automatic bid, I think of legitimacy. You cannot deny that we’re the nation’s fifth conference.”
A conference number five is one whose growth and success will only continue to improve.