His goal 13 years ago was to build a competitive hockey program on the NCAA Division III level. Now Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin is one win away from carrying his Lakers to the “Big Dance” — the NCAA Division I Ice Hockey tournament.
After surviving in a 4-3 victory over northern rival Canisius in the semifinals of the MAAC Hockey Championships on Thursday afternoon, Gotkin and his Lakers advance to the Championship game with a chance to grab the league’s first automatic qualifier.
The Lakers, a preseason favorite to finish around the top of the MAAC standings, captured the conference regular-season title and defeated Fairfield to advance to the MAAC final four for the second time in as many tries. Mercyhurst lost to eventual champion, UConn, in the semifinals last season.
But as exciting as the NCAA bid seems, a part of Gotkin doesn’t want to think about the automatic bid.
“I’m really not that focused on the automatic qualifier,” said Gotkin, smiling larger than is usual for this always-happy coach. “My focus right now is somehow to find a way to beat a very good team.”
Maybe this focus is truly because MCAA thoughts have always been so far beyond Gotkin’s wildest dreams.
“I remember when I first got to Mercyhurst [13 years ago], the thought of even being in the Division III NCAA tournament seemed light-years away.”
Building One Step at a Time
Under Gotkin’s guidance, Mercyhurst not only became competitive at the Division III level, as was his original goal, they became dominant. Gotkin arrived in the second season of the program and struggled a bit through a tough ECAC West schedule. But within four years of his arrival, in 1991, the Lakers qualified for the Division III NCAA tournament. Two years later, Gotkin’s program was escalated to the Division II level, enjoying success almost immediately.
That year, the Lakers played in the first of two NCAA Division II championship games (1993, 1995). Sandwiched in between was an ECAC West Championship in March of 1995.
“I remember after we had sort of graduated to Division II, I was thinking that they were only going to take two teams in the tournament,” said Gotkin. “It was going to be hard [to qualify] if we had teams like Mankato [State, now MSU-Mankato], Bemidji State, and Alabama-Huntsville.
“But we worked hard and we had the right kids and the right staffs to work with those kids. And we found ourselves playing for two NCAA championships.
Still, Gotkin knew that NCAA Division II hockey was in danger. What was once a strong, 15-team organization, was slowly diminishing.
In 1997, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, then known best for the sport of basketball, announced that it was going to establish a hockey conference, adding to the well-known Division I “big four” conferences — Hockey East, ECAC, CCHA and WCHA. It didn’t take long for Gotkin and Mercyhurst to show genuine interest in taking the step to Division I.
“A few years ago, we looked at our scenario in Division II and in the ECAC West, and we were afraid that this was about to dry up,” Gotkin said. “We saw Canisius head to the MAAC and we heard rumblings of schools like Elmira, RIT and Hobart returning to the SUNY (State University of New York) conference. We thought we had to do something or we might lose our entire program that we’d worked so hard to build.
“Then the MAAC came along and we thought it would be great to be in such a structured league with all of these great teams. So we made a conscious decision to take our Division II program and reclassify. And the structure that came with the league and the expanded schedule was great.”
Mercyhurst, though, would have to wait two years, a mandatory period established by the NCAA for all teams to transition from Division II to Division I. As the MAAC league began play in the fall of 1998, Mercyhurst, was forced to play one more season in the ECAC West, but was allowed to join the MAAC in 1999.
“Besides building a new rink on campus [in 1991], joining the MAAC is the biggest thing that we’ve ever done.”
Immediately, the Lakers were though of as the x-factor. The only team very familiar with Mercyhurst was Canisius, itself a member of the ECAC West before moving to the MAAC. The other eight members of the league knew one thing: in Erie, Penn., Mercyhurst was very close to the Canadian border.
“Our proximity to the Canadian border gives us a great advantage,” admitted Gotkin. “But there’s so many hockey players out there, we don’t look for a Canadian player. We try to look for the best student-athlete we can find that fits into our philosophies on and off the ice.”
MAAC Coaches Endorse Gotkin
After winning this season’s regular-season championship, guiding the Lakers to a 19-6-1 record, Gotkin received one of the top personal honors at the MAAC banquet Wednesday night, the MAAC Coach of the Year. The selection, made by the other ten MAAC coaches, came as a bit of a shock to the Laker coach.
“I was shocked — totally shocked,” said Gotkin, who is the first conference champion coach to win the award. “As the MAAC has grown as a conference, it’s had some great coaches. To be recognized by your peers is a great honor, and it’s something I didn’t expect.
“This, though, is a team award. It’s what our guys go out and do every day, and without that I wouldn’t have this honor.”
His coaching brethren, though, agree that Rick is something special.
“Rick’s put a great team together — they’re such a complete team,” said Sacred Heart coach Shaun Hannah. “His kids work so hard. He’s done a great job with that team.”
“I’m really impressed with the team,” said AIC coach Gary Wright, whose Yellow Jackets put one of the few blemishes on the Lakers’ schedule with a 1-1 tie in November. “I think [winning coach of the year] is always a special thing knowing that your peers were voting for it. Mercyhurst has done a real good job and they’ve obviously had good coaching.”
Not the Easiest Road
As a member of the MAAC, a league that has seven of its eleven members in Massachusetts and Connecticut, one of the biggest challenges Mercyhurst faces every week is simply getting to the game. Coming from Erie — besides Canisius in Buffalo, N.Y. — every other league opponent is a minimum eight-hour bus trip.
That fact prompted the Mercyhurst athletic department to change its mode of travel for most trips … to air.
“We decided it was best for the players to fly to most of the Connecticut and Massachusetts games,” said Gotkin. “We didn’t want to have them missing class every other Thursday so they could bus to games. This way, the kids can go to class, we can practice at home on Thursday and get on a plane Thursday night.”
Gotkin joked that, though flying makes things easier on the players, for the coach himself, it’s not all a piece of cake.
“I find myself watching the weather channel everyday,” Gotkin said. Twice this season the Lakers flights from Erie were canceled, forcing games to be rescheduled. “The bottom line, though, is that the kids don’t have to miss class on Thursday and for our student-athletes, that’s important.”
Flying obviously shows that the athletic program values academics, as well as fresh legs, but most importantly shows that the school is committed to putting financial resources into their program.
“We wouldn’t be anywhere for the support that we’ve been given [by the college],” said Gotkin. “From our athletic director Pete Russo to our president Bill Garvey down to our sports information director [and former athletic director] John Leisering.
“Those three people have been huge in the things that we’ve been able to do. We’ve made some mistakes, I’ve made some mistakes, but we’re learning and growing every day.”
Possibly an understatement — but the Lakers have now grown into what could be the MAAC’s first berth in the NCAA championships.