Quiet Times, Less Than Stellar Results
With week one complete for many MAAC teams, it goes without saying that the momentum the league had gained in the final weeks of the 2000-01 season is a little lost.
There are a total of six games in the books and accompanying them, a 0-6-0 record for MAAC clubs. The closest any team came to a win was Bentley’s 3-2 loss to Alabama-Huntsville.
A little discouraging is the fact that all six losses came to opponents of less-than-stellar quality. Three CHA teams — Air Force, Alabama-Huntsville, and Findlay — that dismantled Fairfield, Bentley and defending champ Mercyhurst, respectively.
Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin, though, says that it is early in the season and hopes for improvement.
“We didn’t lose a lot of guys, but you realize the guys you lost were a big part of [the team’s success],” said Gotkin, whose Lakers dropped 4-2 and 5-2 decisions to Findlay. “It’s a new year and a different team. Some guys have to assume roles that others had last year. When the smoke clears I think we’ll be a different team.”
Things won’t get much easier for both the Lakers and the other MAAC members. This weekend three clubs will face off against Hockey East members: Sacred Heart travels to Providence, Mercyhurst to Northeastern and Connecticut to UMass-Lowell.
Not to be lost in the negative non-league vibe was another spectacular beginning between favorites Iona and Quinnipiac. For the fourth consecutive year, these two clubs squared off in the MAAC league opener, and for the first of those four, Iona was victorious. The clubs had tied the past two years, and Quinnipiac won the inaugural MAAC contest, 5-1, in 1998.
MAAC play will continue to be sparse this weekend, with Iona’s Friday night matchup against Connecticut the only league game on the slate.
That, though, is deceiving.
For the first time ever, the Q-Cup tournament, played at Quinnipiac, will be comprised of all MAAC teams: AIC, Bentley, Fairfield and the host Braves. (All of the games, though, will be considered non-conference.) Fairfield and AIC square off in the opener Friday night at 4 p.m., while Quinnipiac meets Bentley in the nightcap at 7.
Balancing the Equation
As play on the ice continues to heat up over the next few months, off-ice activity will also see action.
After a quiet summer from the MAAC in a year that most of us expected plenty of noise, it seems the league is finally ready to rumble a bit.
The first of those rumblings is likely to be the sensitive issue of scholarship limits.
Pretty much anyone familiar with the MAAC knows that the league from its outset put member institutions in a bit of a hole in terms of recruiting, limiting the number of scholarships distributed annually. Currently set at 11, the limit is seven less than the NCAA cap of 18, giving schools in the so-called “Big Four” conferences the edge in attracting talent.
“I think we have to [increase the scholarship limit],” said Gotkin. “If we’re going to be the fifth Division I conference, we have to raise that number of scholarships.
“I’m not speaking for our administration or for other schools. But the quicker we can bridge the gap to 18, the better we’ll be doing.”
But at the outset, and even possibly to the current day, the league’s reasoning for the limit has had a sensible side. The MAAC hockey league, in every sense of the word, is a cost-containment league, as league officials consistently call it.
In other words, a top priority for the league is to allow teams to play Division I hockey without the pains of a Division I budget. And that goes well beyond scholarships.
Any fan who has traveled to see a MAAC game knows that no team plays in buildings similar to BC’s Conte Forum, Michigan’s Yost Arena, and nowhere close to the new Engelstad Palace out in Grand Forks. There are still plenty of teams like Fairfield, Bentley and Sacred Heart who play games at community youth hockey rinks. Only UConn, Mercyhurst, and Holy Cross even possess on-campus facilities.
So right away, it’s easy to get a sense of cost containment. But the challenges that the lack of a quality rink can pose can be overcome with the added appeal of the league’s NCAA auto-berth. It’s easy for a player who might be recruited as a top player at UMass-Amherst or Alaska-Fairbanks to believe that he may never have a chance to play for a national championship. But given the MAAC’s single-game, winner-take-all playoff format, eight teams every year have a very legitimate chance to do the waltz with the NCAA.
But can the NCAA bid alone combat the current scholarship issue? It’s doubtful.
If a player had to make a choice between being the 18th-best player at Merrimack and going to school for free and being the 12th-best player at Mercyhurst and having a legitimate chance each year to see the NCAAs while paying for his schooling, it’s seems hard to turn down the money.
League coaches recognize this. Schools like Mercyhurst, Iona, Canisus and Sacred Heart that currently are at the 11-scholarship limit or very close to it have been vocal supporters of the increase. But what about those teams that offer little to no scholarship money? Where do they fit?
Teams like Bentley, Holy Cross and AIC seem far from ever matching the 18 scholarships put on the table by some of their NCAA brethren. And seeing that the league was formed under the principle of cost containment, is increasing the scholarship limit fair?
“I don’t know exactly what they give and don’t give [in terms of scholarships],” said Gotkin. “Some of those schools can give financial aid packages that can equate to our scholarships. So those schools can survive and compete as long as they’re attracting quality student-athletes.”
If the number does increase, though, it could be an immediate call to schools like Bentley, Holy Cross and AIC to make some sort of an investment in the program’s future. To this point, the MAAC standings almost seem dictated by the level of financial commitment a school can make.
— Holy Cross coach Paul Pearl, whose school does not give athletic scholarships, on the push for a higher MAAC limit
The top scholarship givers — Mercyhurst, Quinnipiac, Iona, Sacred Heart and Canisius — seem to find their ways to the top of the league. UConn, Army and Fairfield have a middle-of-the-pack positioning and scholarship offering. And pulling up the rear are the aforementioned Cross, Bentley and AIC.
But Holy Cross coach Paul Pearl disagrees.
“I think we’ll be fine,” said Pearl about his school’s choice not to give athletic scholarships. “I look at the ECAC and see an Ivy or two (Ivy League schools do not give scholarships, either) at the top every year. We’ve got a great school with a lot to offer.
“Holy Cross is not going to give athletic scholarships. Other than that I can’t speak for what other [programs] are doing.
“If I’m Rick [Gotkin] or [Canisius coach] Brian Cavanaugh, I’m screaming ’18! 18! 18!'”
So the interest in competitive hockey may dictate the next steps. The league has finally made the first move in the eyes of the media, talking on the record about the consideration — though most knew the discussion began long ago.
Nothing close to concrete was reached in the past offseason, but it may not take a season’s length for the members to bring up the legislation again.
Regardless, the scholarship limit will continue to be a closely watched topic; almost as closely watched as the potential fallout associated.
Coming Next Week
Individual team previews begin. More in-depth game coverage as the full MAAC schedule gets underway.