This Week in the MAAC: Feb. 14, 2002

For Once, Praise

Over the past years, this page has, at times, been filled with criticism of the officials who run the MAAC league. Though I’ll suggest that league issues such as scholarship limits and start-of-season legislation still aren’t handled perfectly, in the same breath I can tell you that MAAC commissioner Rich Ensor is doing his best to make the league successful and competitive.

All that said, it is time to give the league some praise. Since its acceptance into NCAA Division I, the MAAC has worked tirelessly to expand the national scope of college hockey. A major part of that growth has been a goal to expand the current 12-team field for the national tournament to 16 teams.

Two years ago, some believed that hurdle was close to being scaled. A vote by the NCAA Championship Cabinet earmarked ice hockey as one of the Division I sports to expand. At the time, though, there was a pecking order for budgetary distribution to make these expansions.

As the result made clear, hockey wasn’t high on the list.

Now understand, throughout the process, the MAAC has received strong support from other conferences: everyone within the game would like to see a 16-team, four-regional tournament. It’s quite possible this is the first time that the MAAC has ever felt it has the full support of the “Big Four” conferences. Still, their support was not enough.

For the tournament to expand, two things would have to mesh: a clear revenue potential to cover the costs, and gender equity. That concept seems pretty simple. The men’s hockey tournament has always been one of the top three most profitable championship tournaments conducted by the NCAA, so finances aren’t a problem. And some believed that to boost the men’s tournament by four teams, a reciprocal move within the women’s tournament would seem fitting.

But women’s hockey is new. Having only conducted one NCAA-sanctioned Frozen Four to date, it would seem too early to expand. That, again, is where the MAAC came in — particularly Jack McDonald, athletic director for Quinnipiac, chair of the men’s ice hockey committee and a founding father of the MAAC Hockey League.

McDonald had a concept, a plan, if you will. He sought out other sports that also wanted to expand. His idea would be to group together these sports — though only if they made the proposal more financially viable and created gender equity. Though meeting the main criteria for expansion, by grouping the plans together, the other sports would not remain ahead of college hockey in the NCAA’s pecking order, but instead would stand side-by-side.

Upon careful review, McDonald found two such sports: men’s lacrosse and women’s softball. Men’s lacrosse is in a similar situation to hockey — there is currently a 12-team field and the sport continues to grow. Women’s softball, though, has a large field of 48 teams, using eight regional sites of six teams. Softball sought to balance its regional sites and thus needed 16 more teams — two for each region.

Both softball and lacrosse faced financial hurdles in their expansion. Lacrosse is close to being a profitable tournament, last year losing only $94,727. Among Division I men’s sports, lacrosse ranks eighth in profit/loss. Women’s softball, on the other hand, is one of the biggest financial losses for the NCAA. Having lost $1,401,524 last year, the tournament ranked second behind only women’s basketball for the largest tournament expense.

Though the NCAA earmarks funds every two years for tournament expansion, sports like softball would need additional financial support. Enter hockey. Being the third-most profitable sport last year behind men’s basketball and baseball (remember, the football bowl season is not an NCAA tournament), the expected profits that can be realized from expanding the hockey tournament can be used to offset the loss from softball.

Thus, McDonald’s plan gained financial viability. The only other issue was gender equity. It doesn’t take a genius to recognize the proposal covers that. Sixteen additional women’s teams in softball, compared to eight combined men’s teams in lacrosse and ice hockey covers this.

Last week, the NCAA Championship Cabinet once again ratified the proposed expansion. Unlike two years ago, though, the Cabinet recommended that this proposal be at the top of the list of expanding sports.

A conversation with McDonald last week gave me hope. There was considerably more excitement his voice; though two years ago McDonald knew hockey had taken a big step in getting the Cabinet’s approval, at the time there was a sense of realism about the likely chances of final approval. That has given way to optimism.

For McDonald, this is truly a culmination of four-plus years of hard work. The work isn’t dissimilar to that which earned the MAAC its first autobid to the NCAA Tournament last year. But at that time McDonald and the league were seen by some as stealing a spot in the tournament.

Truly, it was more like a loan: if this expansion is agreed to by the NCAA Management Council and Board of Directors, it will be McDonald’s concept that earned college hockey four additional tournament-bound teams.

I have to admit that a part of me wishes the timing was different. With McDonald the outgoing chair of the ice hockey committee, he won’t have the privilege of seeding the first 16-team tournament. That will be left to his successors.

Maybe, though, Quinnipiac will be the first MAAC team to receive an at-large bid in the 16-team format.

In the meantime, let me offer my praise to Jack McDonald and everyone around the college hockey game for working hard for tournament expansion. Hopefully in April their efforts will be recognized.

Weekly Awards

ITECH MAAC Hockey League Co-Players of the Week:

Brad Olsen, Mercyhurst, Sr., C, Calgary, Alberta

Olsen figured in six of Mercyhurst’s eight goals as the Lakers posted a tie and a win on the weekend. He tied the game at 2-2 in the second period of Friday’s 3-3 overtime draw at Sacred Heart and had a goal and four assists in Saturday’s 5-1 win at AIC. His four assists and five points Saturday tied his prior single-game high, set in 1999. Olsen has scored at least one goal in five of the last six games.

Steve Tobio, Bentley, Sr., D, Belmont, MA

Tobio had a five-point weekend, assisting on one goal on Friday night and adding one goal and three assists in Saturday’s 5-4 victory over Fairfield. Tobio was a dominant force on the ice this weekend for the Falcons. With the five-point weekend, Tobio tied Bentley’s defenseman all-time scoring record.

ITECH MAAC Hockey League Goalie of the Week: Peter Aubry, Mercyhurst, Sr., G, Windsor, ONT

Aubry stopped a combined 70 of 74 shots in a 3-3 tie at Sacred Heart Friday and a 5-1 win at AIC Saturday. Aubry is now 15-0-2 in the MAAC with a save percentage of .946 and a goals against average of 1.62. He also has three shutouts.

ITECH MAAC Hockey League Rookie of the Week: Jon Ames, UConn, Baldwinsville, NY/Forward

Ames scored two goals and an assist in UConn’s 2-0 weekend over Iona, including the game-tying goal with a little more than five minutes remaining in the second period on Friday night. He also set up UConn’s first goal of the game. On Saturday, he scored the game-tying goal on an unassisted tally with less than five minutes remaining in the second period.

Mercyhurst Close To Magic (Number)

And then there was one. One point, that is.

That’s all that separates Mercyhurst from defending its regular-season title. Either one point in the standings for the Lakers or a loss or a tie for current second-place Quinnipiac and the Lakers will win the regular season in back-to-back years.

With the clincher likely to come this weekend, the Lakers will have something to celebrate for the second week in a row. This past weekend, by virtue of a tie and win against Sacred Heart and AIC respectively, the Lakers clinched home ice in the first round of the playoffs. That feat in itself is satisfying to Lakers head coach Rick Gotkin.

“I don’t think people realize the travel that we go through,” said Gotkin, whose team has either made an eight-hour bus trip or flown to games eight times. And that’s not even all of it, as the Lakers will close the season at Army and Iona. “You throw in stuff like tests in school and girlfriends, and it becomes a grind. Our easiest trip is to Buffalo once or twice a year, and that’s still more than an hour away.”

From the beginning of the year, Gotkin has said that his team’s goals are simple: Make the playoffs, clinch home ice, and win the regular-season title. With two of those out of the way and one on the verge, the Lakers can now look to a something that probably wasn’t on the radar screen in the beginning of the season.

Currently with a 17-0-3 record in MAAC play, the Lakers could become the first team to complete a league season without a loss. Quinnipiac came close two years ago, posting a 23-1-3 record, its only loss coming on Nov. 6 — ironically at Mercyhurst. The 6-4 decision that night saw the Lakers rally from a 4-1 deficit, scoring once in the second and four times in the third period.

“We’ve never talked about being [unbeaten],” said Gotkin. “It was never one of our goals. Bottom line, we’re undefeated in the MAAC, but we’re not undefeated. We’ve lost to some good teams in Hockey East and ECAC and CHA.

“I think it would be terrific if we could do that. But if someone told me come Feb. 11 you won’t have lost a MAAC game, I’d tell them they’re crazy.”

A season ago, Mercyhurst was the best team in the MAAC as displayed through a league championship and playoff champion. To think that this team could improve was possible. To know that it actually happened, though, is something else.

In league play, the Lakers have been dominant. Outside of the MAAC, the outcome hasn’t been as good, although excluding one night that Gotkin will want to forget, a 8-0 drubbing at Clarkson, the Lakers have been in every non-league game right to the wire. One-goal, two goal games. Empty-netters. That’s been the story of the Lakers’ non-league season.

In essence, the season outside the MAAC has been similar to last year. One exception is that Mercyhurst finally broke through with a non-league win: a 5-2 victory versus Colgate this past Decemeber. It has to give one hope that the Lakers could again represent the MAAC in the NCAA tournament and maybe this time take things one step further.

What’d I Tell Ya

A week ago, I said it right here: If then-seventh place UConn could win half of its remaining games, it would finish in a position for home ice. One week later, I thank the Huskies for making me look like a noble prognosticator.

Last weekend, UConn swept a reeling Iona team, winning its sixth game in a row to move into a tie for fifth place — only two points out of second! Granted, given the state of the middle of the MAAC last weekend, we all knew that major movement was possible, but the chance that in a span of two weeks it is possible for UConn to move from seventh to second almost seems unreal.

When asked how and why this is happening, UConn coach Bruce Marshall said it simply: “I think our seniors are playing with that sense of urgency. Every day is one less they’re going to have as a group.

“I think we’ve learned that all the games are going to take three periods. There have been games that we’ve found ways to win right now.”

That was the case last weekend in the sweep of Iona. Both nights the Huskies trailed — Friday by one and Saturday by two. Friday night it was a lucky bounce in overtime that resulted in a 3-on-1 and the game-winning goal. Saturday it was battling from 2-0 down to score the final three goals.

This weekend, though, the test gets harder. The Huskies travel to the unenviable destination of MAAC West — better known as Mercyhurst and Canisius. Obviously, Mercyhurst is number-one on the list of “Places You’d Rather Not Play.” The Lakers are a near-perfect 8-1-1 at home this season. Canisius isn’t much friendlier, as the Griffs hold a 7-2-2 record on home ice this season.

“You can’t come back from [this weekend’s trip] without any points and still think you can control your own destiny for home ice,” said Marshall. “If you come out with some points, the next weekend we play Holy Cross, and they’d be right next to us [in the standings].”

Marshall, though, is secure in the fact his team is prepared for this trip and the rest of the season.

“I think our schedule has helped us,” said Marshall. “We’ve had to go to Vermont, Providence and Brown and play there. Those games will help us going into the playoffs.”

Tube Audience Grows

The league office announced this week that the MAAC championship game, to be played Saturday, March 16 at Holy Cross at high noon, will be picked up live on the New England Sports Network. This adds to the already announced package of MSG and Empire Sports — two New York-based cable sports outlets — that will bring the MAAC title tilt to the most houses of the six major college leagues.

It is the second consecutive year that all three networks will broadcast the game, though the first time that it will be live. In the past, NESN has tape-delayed and broadcast the game one day later. This past week, NESN televised the 50th annual Beanpot tournament, its first Division I games of the year, after ending a four-year agreement with the ECAC.