This Week in the ECAC: Nov. 29, 2001

Rumblings and Grumblings

It’s been getting louder and louder. And right now, people are screaming. Especially after this past weekend. From the span of Tuesday, Nov. 20 until Wednesday, Nov. 28, the ECAC went 4-15-1 against non-conference opponents.

The ECAC went 2-1-0 against the MAAC, 0-1-0 against the WCHA, 0-1-0 against the CCHA and 2-12-1 against the Hockey East. Ouch.

“There are certainly a lot of close games looking at the scores,” said ECAC assistant commissioner for ice hockey, Steve Hagwell. “Would we much rather be 15-4 than 4-15, of course, but I won’t say it across the board. But there were games that could have gone either way, but unfortunately it didn’t.

“They’re going to look at the 4-15 and I can’t do anything to change that. It’s not like the teams aren’t out there competing. I’ll lay it on the line, I’m going to take solace in some of those games. … there were a lot of close games.”

The big question is one that has loomed for the last few seasons, and is growing larger: Is this a permanent decline? And, even scarier, is this the bottom or not?

“People are going to have their opinion anyway. I don’t think our coaches are going to coach any differently and I’m not going to do anything differently because of how people perceive us,” said Hagwell. “You just go out there and I know they’re going out there every weekend to try and win, and this week is not something that we’re striving for.”

Overall this season, the ECAC is 14-36-3 out of conference, 3-18-1 against Hockey East, 0-10-0 against the WCHA, 4-5-1 against the CCHA, 4-1-0 against the MAAC and 3-2-1 against the CHA.

“I have a concern about it, there’s no question about it,” said Union head coach Kevin Sneddon, one of only two coaches this season who have over .500 records out of conference (Mike Schafer at Cornell is the other). “It’s all about league perception and bottom line is that it affects so many things, from a recruiting standpoint to coming down to the tournament. We’ve got to a better job as a league to win some non-conference games.”

So, the grumblings have gotten louder and louder. Just what is happening to the ECAC?

Many fans have stopped us at games in the last few weeks, and we wanted to address some of their questions, comments and words with some of ours. Explanations, or answers, perhaps, of their questions and comments.

The ECAC just doesn’t have players that are as good.

This is a very tricky question that has been made even more difficult to assess over the past few years due in part to the introduction of the MAAC (we’ll get to that one later).

It’s easy to look at the plight of the ECAC against other leagues and come to the conclusion that they are losing because they don’t have good enough players. If the shoe fits, right? It’s also easy to look at national awards and make generalizations across the board.

Take the Hobey Baker Award, for instance. The ECAC hasn’t had a player capture that honor since 1989 when Harvard’s Lane McDonald capped off a streak of three Hobey Baker winners in seven years for the Crimson. What has happened since that time? Does that mean that the ECAC hasn’t had any players good enough to challenge for the award?

If you answer that question in the affirmative, think about players such as Andy McDonald, Eric Healey, Kent Huskins, Joel Laing, Erik Anderson, Eric Heffler, Eric Perrin, Martin St. Louis and Ray Giroux — all finalists over the past few years. And wasn’t it just a few years ago that ECAC teams boasted some of the best first lines in the country (RPI’s Healey-St. Hilaire-Garver line; Vermont’s St. Louis-Perrin-Ruid trio)?

“I think our league has a lot of personality,” said Schafer. “We don’t have any major media markets that promote our league. Our league has a lot of personality in that we’re not driven by one or two teams. You don’t know which team is going to step up and that kind of uncertainty will hurt you in national media attention, but there’s a lot of good coaches and there’s not a kid that comes in that isn’t ready and then they blossom into good players.”

The truth of the matter is that the ECAC has been able to recruit and develop quality players, many of whom have been able to successfully advance to the next level. The problem has been the lack of overall depth throughout the 12 teams in the league. Although some may argue this point, the introduction of the MAAC has hurt the ECAC more than any other league in the country for two main reasons. One has to do with geography, in that coaches from the two leagues are going after kids in the same region. Add another competitor to the mix and your market share invariably goes down.

Another factor has to do with scholarship money and the decisions being made by the young players. Instead of filling out a third or fourth line and getting less scholarship money from an ECAC school, many kids are choosing a MAAC school where they know they can step right in on the first line and — in most cases — collect more scholarship money along the way. And the fact that more and more high-caliber schools are scheduling MAAC teams on their schedules each season, the national visibility is no longer a differentiation point for the ECAC.

Recruiting is getting harder and harder for all schools and the ECAC is no exception. The one area in which the league has been able to protect itself over the last few years has been in player defections to the professional ranks. Compared to the other leagues, the ECAC has had fewer players leave earlier to try their hand in the NHL or affiliate programs.

This means that the ECAC should continue to have their top lines challenge the best in the country and come up with a few Hobey Baker finalists along the way. The big challenge is finding a way to either recruit or better develop the third and fourth line players who can help alleviate the pressure of the top players. You don’t win national titles by virtue of a good first line and a strong power play.

The ECAC is crazy in not having a television package.

There was nothing more disappointing than hearing that the ECAC had decided to forgo its regular-season television package this season. It was disappointing for the fans who would not be able to watch their favorite teams compete during the season from the comforts of their home. It was disappointing for the players and coaches who will not have the luxury of smiling for the camera. It was disappointing for the league proponents who have to the argument that the ECAC is on par with the other leagues. In the age of self-promotion, the lack of a television package was a harsh blow to the league.

As we reported when the announcement was made, many of the ECAC coaches were not pleased with the decision either. Clarkson coach Mark Morris perhaps summed it up best when he said:

“It affects recruiting, and it affects the perception of your league. People who watch our league on a regular basis know the quality of hockey that we play in our league. Sometimes, we don’t get our just due when it comes down to people realizing what our league is all about.”

The official word from the league office was that it cost the conference $20,000 per game to produce a telecast. Therefore, an 11-game package that was not generating much revenue cost the league a total of $220,000.

The fact remains, however, that you will always be compared to your peers. Instead of being placed alongside trendsetters like the Hockey East and CCHA — both of which have long-term regular-season television packages — the ECAC falls back into the pack of ‘others.’

Some say that naysayers should be satisfied with the fact that the ECAC semifinals and championship games are televised each year. The response to that claim is twofold: 1) three games broadcast a year does not equal the visibility and promotion of a regular-season package; and 2) the semifinals and championship games (shot from far-away Lake Placid, N.Y.) run into direct competition with the Hockey East semifinals and championship game played in Boston.

Once the economy settles down (another reason for the scrapping of the package), the ECAC will need to make a concerted effort to return its games to the television audience. Whether than means finding a corporate sponsor or absorbing the costs under the umbrella of marketing and promotion, it needs to happen. If not, the long-term effects will begin to pervade the very fabric of the individual programs.

The schedules of the ECAC teams are awful.

This is an issue that concerns a lot of people because, these days, you are who you play. Taking on national powerhouses not only makes you better, but it makes you more marketable and gives you more credibility on a national level. The ECAC has been criticized in the past for staying within its small Northeast circle when scheduling non-conference games. That perception may have been true a few years ago and some remnants of that narrow-minded mentality still exists today, but it is certainly changing.

Here’s what a few programs are doing this season:

  • Harvard – After figuring in the Beanpot and obligatory showdowns against cross-town rivals Boston College and No. 6 Boston University, the Crimson filled out its remaining non-conference schedule with a road game at No. 13 Michigan, No. 7 UMass-Lowell and a potential matchup with No. 4 Denver.
  • St. Lawrence – Joe Marsh bulked up his schedule again this year by lining up a two-game series with North Dakota at Appleton Arena in mid-December. He also scheduled Providence and Northeastern, two teams that were supposed to be strong coming into this season but have yet to reach their potential.
  • Yale – The Bulldogs traveled to Michigan State last year for a pair, and this year the coaching staff arranged for another tough road trip in January — this time a two-game faceoff against No. 14 Ohio State. Tim Taylor also improved his strength of schedule with an away game at No. 4 New Hampshire and a home contest versus No. 6 Boston University.
  • Clarkson – Aside from a two-game series against Mercyhurst, Mark Morris will fly his team out to Colorado for a two-game series with always tough No. 12 Colorado College and also has contests against New Hampshire and UMass-Lowell lined up in early December.
  • There is still a lot of work to do in terms of getting the better teams on the ECAC schedules, but you can certainly tell that the league and coaches are committed to taking that critical next step.

    “The national scope right now, you had one or two teams that ran with it last year, but other than that, there’s not a great deal of difference between teams right now,” said Brown coach Roger Grillo about the state of the ECAC. “There are a lot of things that skew the picture a lot, and we, as a league, are trying to change that. Teams coming into our buildings make a huge difference. If a Minnesota comes here, it’s
    going to be different.”

    As you can see from above, a lot of ECAC teams are taking it upon themselves to rack up the frequent flier miles now in order to get those big games on the schedule. That willingness on the part of the ECAC coaches will make it easier for them to put the onus on the western teams to travel east in the near future. And less traveling and more home games could lead to something else … more non-conference ‘W’s.

    “If you look at the home-away stats, I think a lot of teams are going into other buildings in non-conference games and we have to get more teams into our rinks,” said Sneddon. “But the bottom line is, we have to win some games. It’s no secret.”

    The finances to support hockey at the schools aren’t there

    Funding is always a critical issue when it comes to anything, and the ECAC and hockey certainly isn’t any different.

    Does the hockey budget at an ECAC school differ than those of schools in the CCHA, WCHA or Hockey East? You have to respond with a resounding “yes,” or do you?

    North Dakota just built the magnificent arena, complete with all the facilities imaginable that could even support the best of NHL teams. Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Michigan State, all of those schools also pump money into the program with facilities and other things. So, the answer there is “yes.”

    But is it?

    What about the other schools in these leagues? Not to put down any other schools, but would a Ferris State or a Merrimack or a MSU-Mankato have the same facilities as the other teams that we have mentioned? Without looking at raw numbers, one would have to assume that this is not the case. So, in reality, are the finances that ECAC schools are providing towards its hockey programs lacking?

    Does the financial situation have to do with the hockey culture at the school? Are the schools in the ECAC not geared towards a hockey culture? You can’t say that when you have schools such as Clarkson, Rensselaer, St. Lawrence and Union as Division III schools and the only sport which is Division I at these schools is hockey. There is a framework for hockey as one of the main cultural activities at those institutions. Hockey is as much a part of the culture at these schools as it is at North Dakota or St. Cloud State.

    How about the issue of dues from the schools themselves to the ECAC? How do those compare to the other hockey leagues? At the same time, you also have to remember that the ECAC sets the dues fees, not the schools, so you can’t say that the schools are the ones who are not fronting the finances for the league, because the schools themselves are only doing what is asked of them.

    The ECAC is too old-fashioned and the ECAC in itself is not an administration that can handle a sport.

    The ECAC has been called a dinosaur by some, a league that still works in the old ways. And because of that the ECAC is not able to handle the demands of this sport in this day and age.

    The ECAC has been operating as a conference for a long time, there is no doubt about that, and while this statement might have been true a few years ago, the ECAC is moving in a direction to get rid of this idea.

    A new Commissioner of the ECAC has been in place. Phil Buttafuoco has come into the ECAC and instilled a system that he wants to work. It’s an admitted work in progress, but signs of a new age in the ECAC are there.

    Steve Hagwell has been installed as the Ice Hockey Guru in the ECAC and people have been asking for it for a long time, that one person be in charge of the sport. One contact person, one visible person for all to speak to and through to the upper echelons of the ECAC.

    Change is happening in the ECAC and to say the above comment is not noticing what is going on.

    The ECAC is used as a stepping stone by head coaches.

    There is no evidence to back this grumbling up at all. If one takes a look at the last 10 years in the ECAC, there have only been two coaches that have left the ECAC to become head coaches in other leagues; Buddy Powers in 1994 and Don Cahoon in 2000.

    In fact, the ECAC has a plethora of coaches who are approaching 10 years in tenure and some that have passed that mark already. Mark Morris, Joe Marsh, Mike Gilligan and Tim Taylor are right up there, and you can count Bob Gaudet in with that mix as well. Dan Fridgen and Don Vaughan are approaching 10 years at the helm and Mike Schafer is halfway to that mark.

    This grumbling has no evidence to back it up.

    The ECAC schools just fight too much amongst themselves.

    There certainly has been some dissent in the ranks of the ECAC in years past and we are sure there is now. But, the league, as evidenced by the actions of the coaches and the athletic directors coming to almost unanimous voting in recent league decisions, have shown that they are banded together to do what is best for the sport.

    The Ivies, who only play 29 regular season games as opposed to the 32 allowed to non-Ivies, went with the vote to give the non-Ivies 34 regular season games.

    There may have been fighting in the past, but is there right now? It certainly doesn’t look like it.

    The ECAC should split and the Ivies and non-Ivies should go their separate ways.

    When in doubt, blame it on the Ivy League. After all, the ECAC is the only league that has the two-for-one deal as part of its structure. With no athletic scholarships to offer, the Ivy League can’t possibly bring good players and successful programs to the table, can they? And it is the Ivy League that has held back the number of regular-season games allowed each year and messes up the schedule each year because of prolonged and ill-timed exam breaks. This is what we hear from the stands at least. Are they correct?

    Not quite. When people start blasting the Ivy League as dead weight that is bringing down the entire ECAC, they are showing ignorance and not insight. The Ivy League has not held the ECAC back in any way. In fact, it is the Ivy League that has helped the league earn a reputation for overall respect and appreciation for the student-athlete. Although it’s never been talked about much, some of the non-Ivy schools actually like the academic association they get by being in the same league as the Harvards and Princetons of the world.

    People also talk as if the Ivies dominate the 7 through 12 spots in the league standings. If the Ivies are at such a disadvantage and can’t compete with the scholarship schools, why is Cornell the only ranked team in the league right now? And why did the Ivies represent three of the five schools at Lake Placid last year? And of the four ECAC teams that have shown up in the national poll this year, why are three of them Ivy institutions?

    Scheduling has also never been a problem for the ECAC as all teams are able to find time to take on top-notch teams across the country. These days it is more about the quality and not the quantity of games on your schedule. The late start by the Ivies actually gives the other ECAC teams a jump start and a chance to schedule non-conference games early in the year as a tune-up for the long haul.

    In addition, the Ivy League didn’t stand in the way of the increase in the regular-season game limit. In fact, due to existing guidelines, the Ivy League has been forced to suffer when it comes to scheduling as compared to its peers. Despite the increase to 34 games, the Ivy League teams — pending future voting by Ivy League directors — will still only be allowed 29 regular-season games with a season-start date of Oct. 15.

    There is a reason why there have been no substantial talks about a change in league structure. Someone — whether that is the coaches, athletic directors or league directors — wants the Ivy League around. And if you really think hard, there are more reasons to support that stance than not.

    But one reason that is often overlooked deals with the Ivies leaving the ECAC fold. The Ivies can certainly leave the ECAC and form their own league. The Ivies have been playing hockey for a long time within the Ivy League structure.

    The present NCAA rules governing automatic bids to national tournaments are in favor of the Ivy League should it break away. The Ivy League, being an established hockey league as of 1999 and having six members, qualifies as a hockey conference that could potentially get an automatic bid to the NCAA hockey tournament. So there is a prime reason for the Ivy League to break away and become its own conference.

    So What Have We Learned?

    It’s up to you, the reader, to decide that.

    Seeing Stripes

    Another issue that always faces everyone is that of the officiating. People always say that if you have nothing nice to say, you shouldn’t say it at all.

    Two weeks ago, that cost Mark Morris, as he was suspended for one game, the first game against Colorado College, by the ECAC for comments about the officiating after the Golden Knights’ game against Princeton the weekend before.

    In that game, Kevin O’Flaherty and Kerry Ellis-Toddington of Clarkson, along with Neil Stevenson-Moore of Princeton, were given game disqualifications for fighting towards the end of the game. That didn’t sit well with Morris.

    “The win is tarnished,” he said regarding the disqualifications. “We’re shorthanded as it is, and this is a tough pill to swallow. There wasn’t that much that happened that merited that type of infraction. We’ll review it with the powers-that-be, and make sure that it doesn’t happen again.”

    This could have been the comment that resulted in the suspension, but no one who knows for sure is talking. Steve Hagwell had no comment regarding the situation.

    This past weekend, Mike Schafer had a beef with the officiating. On Saturday afternoon, the Big Red were put down a man with a penalty late in the third period. Boston University scored the winning goal on the power play in the last minute of regulation.

    “[It] killed us,” said Schafer of the call. “There’s a neutral official from the WCHA waves it off and the Hockey East linesman calls it a penalty. So, is it a penalty? I don’t know, but the head official’s looking right at it and the Hockey East linesman’s looking right across at it, and he ends up calling it from standing directly in front of their bench, and it’s a pretty frustrating call for a linesman to make with a minute and ten seconds to go in the hockey game.”

    The game was one where the Hockey East and the WCHA exchanged referees and Mike Schmitt of the WCHA was the referee for the game.

    “To me I think it’s an awful call by the linesman, but at the same time we’re the ones–we didn’t end up killing the penalty off,” Schafer continued. “They did a good job, they scored the goals, and I’ll take care of the bitching about the officials — just one official. I think Schmitt did a great job.”

    On Sunday, there wasn’t a lot more happiness with the officiating either.

    “Pretty similar situation to where we were last night,” said Schafer after Sunday’s game. “I thought we overcame a lot of adversity. We had again two [assistant referee] calls tonight: I thought the difference was this time our guys rose to the challenge and killed them off.

    “We’ve just got to get some consistency across the country in officiating in the sense of who’s calling the game. Is the referee calling the game, or is the A.R. calling the game? We used that last night not as an excuse. We made our own mistakes last night.”

    It’s not just happening in the ECAC either.

    This past weekend, Cansius visited Western Michigan. Canisius head coach Brian Cavanaugh certainly had something to say about the officiating.

    “I thought we played pretty hard, especially considering the fact that we were down most of the game,” he said referring to penalties called. “I wasn’t real pleased with the officiating. I watched the videotape of last night’s game, and I didn’t think some of the calls that were made, the tripping call in the first period [of Saturday’s game] to put us down two men, wasn’t a strong call. And tonight we get three things in the third period when we killed two penalties when it was four-on-four.

    “I’m not trying to blast the officials, but I feel when you come in here and you get CCHA officials with a CCHA team, you have to overcome that adversity.”

    And then over in the WCHA, there was the suspension last season of assistant referee, Jay Kleven. Kleven was suspended after a weekend series between Minnesota and North Dakota in which he made two penalty calls.

    The WCHA Supervisor of Officials, Greg Shepherd, decided that Kleven should not have made those calls because the referee had seen the plays and decided not to call a penalty.

    This caused some controversy, especially with North Dakota head coach Dean Blais.

    “The referee is supposed to watch the puck and the A.R.s watch everything behind,” Blais told USCHO’s Todd Milewski last year. “Now, when an A.R. is suspended because he made a call, if I was an A.R, I wouldn’t call anything.

    “[That could be bad for] the integrity of the league.”

    It brings up an interesting scenario that one has to think about. If it is a league game, the leagues can suspend or fine coaches that comment about the officiating in a negative manner.

    But what happens in terms of governance when it comes to non-conference games?

    We guess that is the $64,000 question.

    If It’s So Easy, You Try It

    Chairman Brule is not happy. Thus far in three weeks of competition, his Iron Columnists have gone 1-1-1. This last week, Ben Flickinger has defeated the Iron Columnists by one measly game.

    The competition thus far:
    Vic Brzozowksi t. The Iron Columnists – 7-2-1
    The Iron Columnists d. Vic Brzozowksi8-3-1 to 7-4-1
    Ben Flickinger d. The Iron Colunists – 11-4-2 to 10-5-2

    So, Ben Flickinger, bring your skills into USCHO Stadium again and see if you can take down the Iron Columnists for the second week in a row. Whose picks will reign supreme?

    The Picks

    Friday, Nov. 30
    Cornell at Yale
    Ben’s Pick – The Big Red wins this one going away. Cornell 4, Yale 1
    Becky and JaysonCornell 4, Yale 3
    Colgate at Princeton
    Ben’s Pick – Two struggling teams, but Colgate is better in-conference. Colgate 3, Princeton 2
    Becky and JaysonPrinceton 3, Colgate 2
    Clarkson at Brown
    Ben’s Pick – Clarkson comes out of Providence with a ‘W.’ Clarkson 4, Brown 3
    Becky and JaysonClarkson 5, Brown 2
    St. Lawrence at Harvard
    Ben’s Pick – SLU continues to struggle. Harvard 4, St. Lawrence 2
    Becky and JaysonHarvard 5, St. Lawrence 3

    Saturday, Dec. 1
    Cornell at Princeton
    Ben’s Pick – Cornell shows why it is contending for a conference title. Cornell 5, Princeton 2
    Becky and JaysonCornell 5, Princeton 1
    Colgate at Yale
    Ben’s Pick – Yale garners a weekend split. Yale 3, Colgate 2
    Becky and JaysonYale 5, Colgate 2
    Clarkson at Harvard
    Ben’s Pick – Which Clarkson team will show, the one that’s 3-0-0 in conference or 1-6-1 out-of-conference? My guess is the latter.Harvard 4, Clarkson 2
    Becky and JaysonClarkson 4, Harvard 3
    St. Lawrence at Brown
    Ben’s Pick – Close one, but Brown rights the ship for now. Brown 5, St. Lawrence 3
    Becky and JaysonSt. Lawrence 3, Brown 2
    Union at Rensselaer
    Ben’s Pick – Union gets on the board in the conference standings. Union 2, Rensselaer 1
    Becky and JaysonRensselaer 5, Union 2
    Dartmouth at Vermont
    Ben’s Pick – Battle of the Northerners, round one. Will being in the Gut help UVM? Yes, but not enough. Dartmouth 4, Vermont 3
    Becky and JaysonVermont 4, Dartmouth 2

    And remember that if you are interested in putting your money where your mouth is, drop us an email to be eligible to be chosen when Ben bites the dust.

    Scott Weighart, Pat Host and Dan Fisher contributed to this column this week.