At Long Last, Non-League Bliss
It’s taken nearly half a season, but the MAAC finally has a win over a “big four” opponent. After what seemed like an eternity of losses for the new guys to the old fogies, Mercyhurst broke through last Saturday night at the Syracuse Invitational, knocking off Colgate, 5-2, in the consolation game of the annual tournament.
Excluding the Mercyhurst win, the MAAC’s record against the “big four” is 0-11-1, Sacred Heart salvaging the only tie. The league’s top three teams played the only other close games, with Iona and Mercyhurst losing to RPI, 3-1 and 4-3 respectively, and Canisius losing two heart-breakers last weekend with Western Michigan, 4-2 and 4-3.
The question that begs is, when is the league going to become competitive with these schools? Even as one of the biggest MAAC supporters, I myself have to question how long it may take to achieve any level of competitiveness against established programs.
But that said, I will defend.
One of the biggest challenges facing the MAAC clubs is venue. More than 90 percent of the games played against the “big four” in the last three seasons have been on the road. Though it sounds simple, the factors going against these teams in road games are indeed that — factors.
Sleeping in hotels, playing in front of raucous opposing fans, traveling four, five or eight hours on a bus all wear on teams.
To note this as the “cause” would be an overstatement. But they remain factors, nonetheless.
Looking for a deeper cause would point to the lack of scholarships and funding for many MAAC programs.
“As you get more team playing out of conference, to be up against teams with 18 scholarships, you’re going in with one arm tied behind your back,” said Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin.
The topic of scholarships has always been hot in the MAAC, but particularly recently. According to multiple sources, extra attention was given to raising the scholarship limit from the current level of 11 to 15.
This was spurred by the thought that Niagara, a member of the CHA, would pack its bags and head to the MAAC. At that time, the status of the CHA’s auto-bid to the NCAA tournament was up in the air. That, though, has since been clarified and the bid will likely come for the 2003 tournament.
Niagara’s scholarship level is currently 15. In an attempt to lure Niagara over, reports were that the league would jump immediately to 15 scholarships.
But when the Purple Eagles made clear that they’re staying in the CHA for the long haul, talks of 15 deadened.
Commissioner Rich Ensor declined comment on the issue, but Ken Taylor, director of ice hockey for the league, confirmed that raising the scholarships “was part of the set up that would have enabled Niagara to come into the league. But when they chose not to, in the end, it never made it to vote.”
That, though, makes coaches like Mercyhurst’s Gotkin scratch his head.
“If we’re able to look at raising the limit when Niagara is coming in, why can’t we still look at that now?” asked Gotkin. “If it was a good idea in August, why isn’t is a good idea in November and December?”
Iona College coach Frank Bretti agrees.
“With [the thought of] Niagara coming in, it was an easier sell because they are a MAAC school,” said Bretti. “Speaking for myself, I’m going to be trying to convince my athletic director that it’s a good move. It may take Iona a couple of years to get to that point, but you have to go ahead and try to work through it.”
One person who you might expect adamant support of raising scholarships is Quinnipiac AD Jack McDonald. McDonald was instrumental as a founding father of the league and now serves as the chair of the Men’s NCAA Division I Ice Hockey Committee. He, though, doesn’t believe that scholarships can be the only measuring stick to the league’s success.
“Scholarships should not be the only indicator of our commitment to the sport,” said McDonald. “The key ingredient is the access to the national tournament. The MAAC has done better than many other sports have done on the national scope without the compliment of scholarships.”
That said, MacDonald also noted that 15 scholarships would keep consistent with the league’s policy on these awards.
— Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin
According to McDonald, when the league was first formed, the seemingly arbitrary number of 11 scholarships was derived by calculating the total amount of financial aid provided to hockey players at the original eight MAAC schools and dividing by the average tuition. The resulting number five years ago was 10.7.
Calculating the same number today, though, would lead to an average of slightly more than 15 players per school receiving full compensation through either scholarship or financial aid.
“The reality is that we are giving more aid so why not formalize it,” said McDonald. “It will only make us more competitive level.”
Addressing the scholarship limit, though, isn’t the only issue. Another is power.
Only three of the 11 members of the MAAC are full-fledged members — in other words, all of the school’s varsity sports are MAAC members. Those schools — Fairfield, Iona and Canisius — have a power advantage, as their Presidents sit on the Council of Presidents. Any matter pertaining to governance of the organization, particularly finance and membership, must first go through the Council.
Thus, if all of the three schools agree raising scholarships to 15, the chance that the rest of the Council would vote unanimously is strong. But variance from just one of these three parties could be what stirs the pot.
From this standpoint, the process seems to lack logic. Only 27 percent of the membership can vote on an issue that impacts the hockey program at all 11 schools. In essence, it makes the eight non-voting programs seem like constituents of the three members.
“I don’t think it’s healthy for three schools to control the fate of 11,” said Quinnipiac head coach Rand Pecknold. “There’s been a lot of speculation as to who has the power and how things work within our league. It’s a serious flaw in the infrastructure of the league.”
When asked if this would become a constituent-lobbying situation, Taylor affirmed, saying, “When you come down to it, [schools lobbying for scholarships] would have to happen.”
And that’s simply something that most coaches, including Gotkin, are hesitant to believe in.
“Only three MAAC schools decide [how many scholarships are awarded],” said Gotkin. “It’s up to those three schools to guide the course of the MAAC hockey league. I don’t have a problem with that, but I hope those presidents see how far the MAAC has come and what those teams have done. Ultimately it’s in their hands.”
Furthermore, though, the issue at hand really isn’t, will these three presidents vote for raising scholarships. The issue truly is, why would they not?
The MAAC was established as a cost-containment league. All of the member schools, with the exception of Army, were either adding a new hockey program or elevating themselves to Division I, from Division II or III. With that in mind, the object was to expedite this process in a relatively inexpensive way.
And certainly that works, if you plan on approaching the sport and the conference similarly to the way many college football programs do. You don’t pump a lot of money into the program. The programs exist basically as a way for the school to offer the sport. And you never set a goal of being competitive on the national landscape.
But somewhere along the road, someone forgot to tell that to the MAAC. Since its first season, the MAAC has begged the college hockey world to accept it as a brother. The NCAA granted some of that ratification last year when it awarded the league a bid to the national tournament. So the mentality of not competing on the national landscape has long flown out the window.
Now, though, particularly in a tight economy, it’s easy to think if something isn’t broken, there’s no need to fix it. That was even the sentiment of Taylor.
“We’re happy with where we’re at,” said Taylor. “The benefits reaped have been more than we ever expected.”
But how far can a league such as the MAAC go with a penny-pinching mentality. According to Gotkin, not very far.
“Now that we’ve got a team in the NCAA Tournament and we’re playing a more aggressive schedule, we need more resources to support that,” said Gotkin, whose Lakers received the conferences first berth to the NCAA tournament last season. “All the teams can do now is compete now and hope to steal a game. You’re not going to win these games on a regular basis the way that the scholarship structure is set up right now.
“Having 11 scholarships doesn’t mean you can’t work hard. Maybe it means you work harder. But you can’t ask kids to go out and compete against [schools with 18 scholarships] and win every night.”
According to Taylor, the MAAC Council of Presidents will revisit this issue in mid-December at their next meeting. Sentiments, though, around the league are not very positive that raising the scholarships will be allowed.
Bretti believes that the four years of growth that the league has felt could continue. But he also is clear scholarships are the key to that.
“If we don’t raise [the scholarship limit], there will be a bit of a leveling off point,” said Bretti. “You may see us at our best a year from now, but going to 15 is going to put us in a situation where we can’t not only get to the [NCAA] tournament, but we can also win those games.”
In the end, Gotkin sums up the argument well.
“If other schools don’t want to give 15 or 18 scholarships, that’s fine. Don’t give them. But don’t hold back other schools.”
More importantly, don’t stop the progress that the conference has made in three years.
ITECH MAAC Hockey League Player of the Week:
Anders Johnson, Connecticut
Sr., Forward, North Kingston, R.I.
Johnson had a goal and two assists on the week for UConn. He factored in both goals in the Huskies 2-2 with Army on Friday night, notching a goal and assist. And on Sunday, Johnson assisted on Connecticut’s game-winner late in the second period. Johnson leads the team in points with four goals and nine assists for 13 points.
ITECH MAAC Hockey League Goalie of the Week:
Derek Cunha, Holy Cross
Sr., Goalie, New Bedford, Mass.
Cunha recorded his first career shutout, a 2-0, Holy Cross victory over Findlay Friday evening. He made 24 saves to collect his fifth win of the season. Cunha holds an impressive .909 save percentage and 2.82 GAA in 2001.
ITECH MAAC Hockey League Rookie of the Week:
Ron Miller, American International
Fr., Forward, Freeland, Mich.
Tallied two goals (one power play) and added an assist in the Yellow Jackets’ win over Sacred Heart. He scored the first goal of the night to put AIC on the board at 4:06 and added his second with three minutes left the second period. His assist on AIC’s third goal gave the Yellow Jackets a two-goal advantage.
Quinnipiac, UConn Make MAAC TV History
As UConn and Quinnipiac battled last Sunday afternoon, both schools were a part of league history. For the first time in the four-year history of the league, a regular season MAAC game was televised. WCTX, the UPN affiliate in Connecticut, broadcast the game that saw UConn rally from a 2-0 first period deficit en route to a 3-2 victory.
“To televise a regular season game on a Sunday afternoon is fantastic,” said Quinnipiac’s Jack McDonald, whose school funded the telecast. “To know that our school is supporting our team, it is very, very pleasing.”
McDonald also noted that each news outlet in Connecticut had major clips of the game.
Sword Fighting, of Sorts
In two separate games last weekend MAAC players got into hot water when they were assessed the rare penalty for spearing.
Sacred Heart’s Peter McRae played the role of sword fighter with 10:52 remaining in the Pioneer’s 6-3 loss at Alabama-Huntsville. And UConn’s Mike Boylan received the same punishment for his Zorro imitation on Sunday afternoon in a 3-2 win against Quinnipiac.
The difference between the two incidents was the result of the power play. UConn was lucky to hold Quinnipiac off the board, though were aided by a penalty by Quinnipiac’s Wade Winkler 1:31 into the power play.
Sacred Heart, though, was not as lucky. Alabama-Huntsville struck for a power-play tally just 32 seconds after McRae was sent off, extending Huntsville’s lead to 4-2. And only 10 seconds after the penalty expired, the Chargers struck again to all but put the game out of reach.
It was the second time in a month that the Pioneers were victimized by penalties late in a game. Against Mercyhurst on Oct. 27, the Pioneers surrendered five power-play goals in a 5-2 loss that featured 15 Mercyhurst power plays.
Both players will be suspended for the first game this weekend. McRae will miss the first of a two-game series at Western Michigan. Boylan will be absent for Friday’s game versus Canisius.
Pecknold Looking to Challenge His Tender
When Quinnipiac hosts Mercyhurst on Friday night, sophomore goaltender Justin Eddy will get the nod in net. Eddy led the Braves in net for much of last season as a rookie, and was even pursued by NHL scouts with the hopes of pulling the young netminder out of college hockey.
But this season, Eddy has struggled, posting a 1-3-0 record to date, with a 3.72 goals against average and .863 save percentage. Eddy surrendered six goals in a relief effort at Maine two weeks ago and was pulled in a 5-3 loss to Fairfield in early November.
Still, coach Rand Pecknold won’t write off Eddy.
“I’m going to play [Justin] Eddy on Friday night and challenge him a little bit,” said Pecknold. “He had such a great year last year but he’s struggling a bit this year. I’d like to see him get over the hurdle and play well.”
Standing in the top role for the Braves to date has been rookie Jamie Holden. But even he has had his tough times lately. Pecknold pulled Holden in the first period of the 9-0 loss to Maine. Last Sunday, Holden made only 10 saves in a 3-2 loss to UConn, though Pecknold noted he couldn’t be faulted for that game.
Gales Continue to Fly the Friendly Skies
The tragic events of Sept. 11 have certainly made many Americans feel a bit uneasy about traveling by plane. Many college athletic teams have been effected with policy changes to team travel and other measures aimed at guaranteeing safety of the student-athletes.
But the MAAC school closest to the center of the tragedy, Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y., is keeping air travel status quo. In the MAAC, most teams can bus to all their games, but Bretti said that his team will continue to fly. Bretti’s club boarded a plane Thursday morning at Newark airport to travel to Findlay in Ohio. He also noted that the team will fly to Canisius and Mercyhurst later this season.
“We’ll all be thinking about [airport security] a little bit when we fly,” said Bretti, “but our school hasn’t change any of its policies on air travel.”
This weekend’s trip will be the second of four consecutive weekend that the Gaels will travel a long distance to play. Two of those four trips require air travel.