MAAC Column: Oct. 12, 2000

Okay, folks. Was it me, or did it seem like hockey season would never get here? I know that the time between April 8 and today may not look long on a calendar, but let’s just drop the puck before I get hysterical.

And I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this way. At the MAAC’s media day last week, every single coach seemed to be saying, “Thank God! Hockey season is back!”

Then again, maybe that wasn’t because their offseason was too long. Maybe, just maybe, these folks want to get this season going a little quicker than usual. Could the newly-minted pot of gold at the end of the rainbow be a reason?

There’s no doubt in my mind that all 11 MAAC coaches have a little more bounce in their step because of the NCAA automatic qualifier granted to the conference this year.

As Jason Patton, play-by-play announcer for the MAAC Game of the Week said, this is the beginning of the “Road to Grand Rapids” for the MAAC. (For all of you hockey pundits left scratching your head, Grand Rapids is the site for this year’s NCAA West Regional, and almost definitely where the MAAC representative will end up.) And that road, as long as it may seem for some clubs, begins this Friday night at Iona College.

Last year’s MAAC runner-up, Iona, will open up its schedule, as well as the MAAC schedule, against Quinnipiac. The game will be a repeat of last year’s MAAC semifinal that saw Quinnipiac fall early in upset fashion for the second year in a row.

The Quinnipiac-Iona series may be the only one on the MAAC docket this weekend, but there’s plenty of exciting non-league action.

Defending tourney champion UConn, coming off arguably one of the best postseason runs in college hockey history, will travel to UMass-Lowell on Friday night. Lowell is coming off of one of the toughest years in school history — a last-place finish in Hockey East, often regarded as college hockey’s most competitive conference.

Lowell didn’t have a friendly open to this year’s campaign either, losing a 4-3 exhibition decision to Ottawa last Saturday night. That may have the Huskies licking their chops for the upset, especially in light of the last game these two teams played.

It was last Thanksgiving that Lowell and UConn faced off in the City of Lights tournament, hosted by Lowell. The River Hawks were reeling entering that game too, having extreme difficulty putting the puck in the net. But UConn was the victim of the revitalization of the Lowell offense, as the Hawks buried 13 goals en route to a 13-1 victory.

This year, I wouldn’t expect anywhere near as poor an effort from UConn. Though they may be a bit depleted, UConn does have a little more experience handling teams like Lowell this season. And throughout the year, that experience will increase. The Huskies will play non-league games Merrimack College, UMass-Amherst, Air Force and Union before the season’s end.

UConn is not the only school with an important non-league game this weekend. The Sacred Heart Pioneers, one of last year’s biggest surprises, will travel to upstate New York with a more unenviable task to face than UConn. The Pioneers will take on ECAC powerhouse and qualifier from last year’s NCAA tournament Colgate to open the slate.

Unlike the Huskies, Saturday’s game against Colgate will not be the first time the Pioneer players lay a body check on someone other than a teammate. Sacred Heart was fortunate to pick up an exhibition game last Saturday night against St. Nick’s, although realistically the 7-0 win that evening probably doesn’t mean much other than the fact that SHU will not have to walk into Colgate cold.

Sacred Heart coach Shaun Hannah, last year’s MAAC Coach of the Year, is no stranger to Colgate’s Starr Rink. Hannah made many trips there in his playing days at Cornell. So when the bus pulls into Hamilton, N.Y., on Saturday, at least Hannah will know where the entrance is.

In case you were wondering where Colgate stacks up against the rest of the country, the Red Raiders answered you last weekend. Playing host Michigan in the Ice Breaker tournament, the Red Raiders managed a 2-2 tie before beating the Wolverines in a shootout to advance to the finals. Colgate did eventually fall, 7-3, the New Hampshire in the title tilt.

And last, but certainly not least, on this week’s docket, is a two-game set for the American International Yellow Jackets with the U.S. Air Force Academy.

This will be a unique experience for Gary Wright and his AIC squad, whose most exotic trip last year was to Buffalo, N.Y., to face Canisius. Travel to Colorado Springs, Colo., will certainly be a little more exciting.

Wright joked that the biggest challenge of this weekend may not even be on the ice.

“Air Force will be a big trip for us,” said Wright. “We’re not exactly world travelers at AIC. So not only the competition of the game, but I think also changing planes in Chicago, might be a challenge for our team.”

Similar to Sacred Heart, AIC also opened its season against St. Nick’s last weekend with a 3-2 overtime loss in exhibition on Sunday.

More Exhibitions than the County Fair

As was mentioned, some MAAC teams began play last weekend. Sacred Heart and AIC both faced St. Nick’s in exhibition contests, while Canisius College battled the University of Guelph.

Sacred Heart, by virtue of its 7-0 win, was the only victor in the three games. AIC feel, 3-2 in overtime, while Canisius gave up two late goals to lose a late-game lead and fall, 5-4.

This weekend, the exhibition slate heats up. Canisius leads off this list traveling to Waterloo, Ontario, for the University of Waterloo Octoberfest Tournament. This eight-team bracket-style tournament will feature the Ice Griffs along with host Waterloo, Ottawa, Western Ontario, Guelph, Ryerson, McGill and Wilfred Laurier. Canisius opens against Western, and is guaranteed to play at least three games, regardless of the results.

Mercyhurst College will join the exhibition fun on both Friday and Saturday as the Lakers host Brock University. One night after UConn faces Lowell, the Huskies will square off against Concordia University. Concordia is playing a two-game set this weekend, facing Holy Cross on Friday night. The MAAC’s newest member, Army, closes out the non-league plate. The Black Knights face Seneca at home on Friday.

MAAC Games of the Week

Quinnipiac University vs. Iona College
Friday, 7:30 ET at Sports Plus at New Roc City, New Rochelle, N.Y.
Saturday, 5:00 ET at Northford Ice Pavilion, Northford, Conn.

The old saying, “Life comes full circle,” certainly doesn’t exclude hockey. Just ask Quinnipiac University.

The Braves, who glided to the MAAC regular-season championship for the second consecutive year in 1999-2000, will probably have a hard time forgetting March 15, 2000. Not far away from home, in nearby Storrs, Conn., the Braves fell victim to the upset when sixth-seeded Iona College stunned them 6-4 in the MAAC semifinals. It was the second consecutive year that Quinnipiac fell in the penultimate game.

So when Quinnipiac — donning the name Quinnipiac University, an upgrade from the old of Quinnipiac College — takes the ice this Friday night against Iona, that circle will be complete.

But don’t tell that to head coach Rand Pecknold, who doesn’t believe that his team is thinking much about last March.

“I know the coaching staff hasn’t focused much on [the rematch with Iona], and I haven’t heard the players talking much about it either,” said Pecknold. “We’re just focused on playing a really good hockey team that is poised to have a really good season.”

Pecknold went on to say that Iona was simply doing what was expected of them on that March afternoon.

“The way I look at it, Iona was doing their job. They played well,” Pecknold continued. “The only team we had to blame [for losing] is ourselves. So I don’t think there’s a revenge factor.”

Ironically, Iona coach Frank Bretti felt a little differently.

“With the results of last year, I think Quinnipiac has been waiting for this game since the semifinal at UConn,” said Bretti.

Whether or not there is a revenge factor, there certainly is the building of a grudge match here, and not because of the results of past games, but because of the impact of future games. Iona was able to open plenty of eyes last March when they surged into the MAAC championship game before losing to UConn, 6-1. And with the addition of some solid recruits, Pecknold realizes that Iona could contend for the regular-season top spot along with his Braves.

The way I look at it, Iona was doing their job. They played well. The only team we had to blame [for losing] is ourselves. So I don’t think there’s a revenge factor.

— Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold, on the grudge factor between QC and Iona

Lost in the excitement of the opening weekend, then, may be the impact of the early games. Pecknold agrees.

“We try to talk about [the importance of early games] to the players a little bit, but it’s hard to grasp,” said Pecknold. “It’s hard to focus on where first place is at the beginning of the season.

“But to our credit, and what helps us with this, is the fact that our guys don’t take a night off too much. We come to play regardless of who the opponent is.”

Though it is early in the season to worry much about personnel, one face could look a little different in the Quinnipiac lineup this year. And that would be between the pipes.

Though Pecknold noted that standout goaltender J.C. Wells is still the number-one goaltender and will be the starter on Friday night, the coach would not rule out the possibility of seeing rookie goaltender Justin Eddy Saturday.

For Iona, this weekend will truly be a rebirth. The always-improving Gaels are more than ready for the season, according to Bretti. And the rebirth begins not necessarily on the ice, but in the ice itself. Friday night, Iona will christen its new arena, Sports Plus at New Roc City, just down the street from the Iona campus.

This will be a major upgrade from the Ice Hutch, which the team used to call home. According to Bretti, Sports Plus will seat around 1,000 fans with individual seating on one side of the arena. New lockers rooms and facilities are still under construction.

Not under construction, though, is Bretti’s lineup, one he feels is, for the first time since Iona joined the MAAC, deep and balanced.

“I’ve been dealing with depth this year — that’s something different,” said Bretti. “We’ve been trying to hide deficiencies for two years. Going into camp, there’s more depth from top to bottom.”

That depth is thanks in part to the development of top players, as well as a successful year of recruiting.

“I think we’re a better team, based on the fact that we’re dressing seven freshmen who are going to receive a considerable amount of playing time,” said Bretti. “I think our practices are a lot better than they’ve been.

“But our guys are looking forward to getting out on the ice and playing someone besides themselves. This weekend [against Quinnipiac] will be a good opportunity to evaluate ourselves, and see where we need to go. That’s the focus of our game plan.”

Though a team like Quinnipiac should not be hard for Iona to rise to the occasion for, that doesn’t mean that Bretti will not preach the importance of these games to his club.

“I walked in the dressing room the other day and wrote on the board, ‘Respect Your Opponent!'” Bretti said. “But I’ve never talked to the team about being picked third in the [preseason coaches’] poll. I’m sure they’ve read about it, but that won’t make us change our approach.”

Included in that approach may be goaltending. Last season, Bretti split the time between rookie Mike Fraser and Ben Brady, who returns this year as a senior. The only decision made to date about goaltending is that Fraser will start on Friday against Quinnipiac.

“We split much of the way down the stretch last season,” said Bretti, “But I’m not sure yet what the case will be this season.”

One thing we can all be sure of, though: the MAAC season is just about underway. Hold on tight!