Born to Be Mild?
As the new year and the “second season” begin, it’s only natural to look back at the first half of the 2001-02 campaign to see what each team can learn from its performance.
Okay. So we did that last week.
There remains, however, plenty to analyze in the first three months of CCHA hockey — but why would we want to?
This has been, so far, a season of relative mediocrity, three months of “parity” that’s as enticing as last year’s Farmer’s Almanac.
The league has managed to put together a winning nonconference record so far for the 2001-02 season, going 39-22-6 against non-CCHA foes. But look at the competition. Western Michigan swept Canisius and Sacred Heart in two-game sets, and 10 of those 39 CCHA nonconference wins are against the CHA and the MAAC. Factor in another dozen wins over ECAC teams (and this isn’t bashing, folks — that league is struggling this season), and you have a full 22 non-league wins over opponents whose PWR are nothing to write home about.
(Yes, there are exceptions to that — few — so don’t flood my inbox with complaints.)
Then there’s Wayne State, the thirteenth member of the CCHA. The Warriors have played CCHA teams eight times this season, and the league has bested Wayne State by a record of 5-2-1. That’s eight games against a single opponent in the CHA.
Now let’s examine the league’s parity. I’ve been a big critic of that word for years and years, since coaches like to throw it around to prove the CCHA’s relative strength of conference compared to that of other conferences. Finally, the coaches are right — on one point, anyway.
Parity exists! Alert the media! The top two teams in the conference each have 21 points. The bottom team has six. In between, however, is this gridlock of squads separated by just seven points.
UAF and OSU are tied for third place with 17 points each, and Bowling Green holds onto eleventh with 10. Cheerleaders for the league will point to this as “proof” that the CCHA is a tough place to garner conference points, and they are correct. While the league may be tough in-house, this parity in no way proves the relative strength of the conference versus that of other leagues.
Cheerleaders for the CCHA will also use the seven-point difference between second and eleventh as “proof” of how exciting the league’s playoff race will be. “Any given team can beat any other given team on any night,” is the common refrain. And? At midseason, while nothing is a sure thing, odds are that Bowling Green won’t be hosting a first-round CCHA playoff series and Northern Michigan will — despite a mere six points separating the two teams now.
So the “race” for the playoffs this season primarily consists of two things: 1) who is going to avoid the privilege of losing to Michigan State in the first round, and 2) which middle-of-the-pack teams will win home ice.
All right. The second scenario is worth watching. With six teams hosting first-round series, folks we don’t usually see earning home ice may do so.
But the rest? I guess I’m having a difficult time getting worked up about the play of the league this season. In an effort to find something positive about the CCHA in a strange time during which Minnesota-Duluth won the Ice Breaker and neither Michigan nor Michigan State won the GLI, here are six things from first half of the 2001-02 season that are worth crowing about — or at least mentioning.
1. The Cold War
On Oct. 6, 2001, Michigan State hosted Michigan in Spartan Stadium in an outdoor game that drew more hockey fans to one event than any other hockey game in history. When 74,554 people watched the Spartans and Wolverines skate to a 3-3 tie, they not only made history, but they made a statement: college hockey is a great game that can draw an audience.
The contest reached a potential 38,000,000 homes by cablecast, and created enough buzz to be mentioned by nearly every major sporting news outlet.
And, for the record, it was a great game, too.
2. The Nanooks
Love an underdog? Then you have to be thrilled with the 12-7-1 Alaska-Fairbanks Nanooks, a team that travels further than any other D-I team just to play its nearest league opponent.
The nationally-ranked Nanooks are doing everything right in this current CCHA climate. Tied for third with Ohio State, all UAF has to do to secure home ice for the first round of the CCHA playoffs is keep on keeping on. Not a single Nanook has reached the 10-goal mark, but the team is scoring by committee, led by Ryan Campbell (5-13–18), Cam Keith (6-11–17), Blaine Bablitz (5-11–17) — and the list goes on. Check out defenseman Aaron Grosul at +14.
With Preston McKay (.918) and Lance Mayes (.896) splitting time in net, this is a hard-working, hard-to-beat team.
Now, if only my boyfriend, ex-Nanook Chad Hamilton, would drop me a line, or call. Sigh.
3. Rob Collins, Jeff Hoggan, Mike Cammalleri, and Greg Day
In a league where goals seem to be as elusive as a Dick Cheney spotting, these four have done more than their share.
Collins (10-23–33) not only leads the conference in overall points, but has nearly single-handedly heightened the profile of the Ferris State Bulldogs this season. And, as with the Nanooks, when an underdog digs his way out from under, the whole league benefits from greater exposure, more fan interest, and a raised awareness of college hockey itself.
Hoggan (12-14–26), the work-a-day senior from Nebraska-Omaha, proves this season that he’s the real deal, even though his Mavericks are struggling a bit.
What can you say about Cammalleri (14-10–24)? He is, quite simply, the best forward currently in the league. Cammalleri raises the level of play of every player on the ice around him, and with the rest of the young Wolverines catching their collective stride, he’s poised to help Michigan make some serious noise.
Day (13-11–24) is the most consistent Bowling Green player. On a team where he doesn’t get much support, he does shine.
4. The Buckeyes Remain Intact
The Buckeyes skated through midseason without losing a single man. What does this portend? Will milk sour all over Cowlumbus? Will crops fail? Is this the end of civilization as we know it?
No. What this means is that the long adjustment to a new coach — in this case, it took longer than usual — is finally over. Fans of the Buckeyes have been griping for years about the early departures and midseason flights, but if they take a good, hard look at every circumstance, they’ll see that OSU was the victim of both its own success and lack of success in recruiting.
What does this mean for the league? Well, if the Buckeyes avoid drama this season and continue to “play for the crest on their sweaters,” as Coach Markell likes to put it, they’ll be able to take advantage of this hockey climate (like the Nanooks) and make a run for the top. And since OSU is a high-profile school, this may mean good things for the league.
(If they put people in the seats at the Schott, that is.)
5. Ryan Miller
Fans, please remember that every time this young man shuts out an opponent, he’s setting a record. Please remember that it’s not only the defense in front of him — on one of the most offensive-minded teams in the league, by the way — that’s doing the work.
Please remember that when you watch Ryan Miller, you’re watching perhaps the greatest collegiate goaltender, ever.
How sad it is that we are no longer moved by extraordinariness in the everyday world.
6. Horcoff Scored, and Comrie Was in the Box
It was a great day for college hockey in Columbus. Shawn Horcoff scored the first goal, and in the third period, Mike Comrie took a familiar seat in the sin bin. And the two were on the same squad.
No, it wasn’t every Spartan’s and Wolverine’s nightmare come true. It was Oct. 25, 2001, and the Edmonton Oilers had come to Nationwide Arena to play the Columbus Blue Jackets.
So what, you say? Have you taken a look at the Oilers’ roster lately? Edmonton is officially my new favorite NHL team, and here’s why: Anson Carter (MSU), Mike Comrie (Michigan), Mike Grier (BU), Shawn Horcoff (MSU), Todd Marchant (Clarkson), Rem Murray (MSU), Tom Poti (BU), and Marty Reasoner (BC). That’s eight players (or one-third) from the college ranks.
That night, there were five former CCHA players, including Columbus’ Blake Sloan (Michigan), on the rosters of the two NHL teams.
And while he’s not currently on their roster, Ty Conklin was in net for Edmonton. He got the win.
Now, if only we could convince the television and radio announcers of such games to mention these players’ college experience, something you always hear about football players.
(“Hey, Stu, did you know that So-and-so was a fifth-string walk-on receiver at Nowhere State?”; “Gee, Stan, is that right?”)
A girl can dream, can’t she?
Games and Grudges, and Complete Irrelevancies
The Games of the Week and Grudges of the Week will return next week, O Faithful Readers! I will also be answering reader mail in next week’s column.
And here’s some new that will delight some, confuse others, and downright annoy many of you. Moxy, fabled cat with approximately 6.5 remaining lives, caught an honest-to-goodness mouse in my bedroom last night, becoming the only cat I’ve ever owned to earn her keep.