This Week in the CHA: Oct. 24, 2002

The Battle for Respect

As CHA schools scramble for this year’s initial NCAA tournament automatic bid, fans of college hockey know that the derisive statements are just a few losses away. “They don’t deserve an automatic bid,” they’ll say. “These guys aren’t any good. [Insert Big Four school] should have gotten that spot.”

Of course, growth for college hockey is a good thing, and sensible fans know this. Last weekend, Alabama-Huntsville freshman Bruce Mulherin was asked why he came all the way south to attend classes and play hockey.

“The automatic bid was a big reason,” Mulherin said. “I wanted the opportunity to play for a national championship, and coming to a CHA school gives me that opportunity right away.”

Music to the ears.

These are the sounds that CHA fans need to hear. The story is undoubtedly repeated at the other five member schools. Everyone from Bob Peters on down knew what an effect this would have on the league.

But still, if the losses keep on mounting, it’s going to be hard to gain the respect of anyone outside of the CHA. The conference can’t continue to go winless against Big Four teams for long and not begin to hear the derisive sounds.

Struggling … Against the MAAC?

Even worse than those derisive sounds has to be tying a MAAC team. Kissing a MAAC sister? Perish the thought. Yet, that’s exactly what Bemidji State did when they tied Sacred Heart last weekend … twice.

Bemidji coach Tom Serratore said, “I want to give them a lot of credit. They’ve got 14 upperclassmen on their roster, and they’re a really good team.”

But still … this is a MAAC team. Bemidji was 9-0-0 against the MAAC all-time coming into the season.

“They would do well in our league,” said Serratore. “The top teams in the MAAC — a Sacred Heart, a Quinnipiac, a Mercyhurst — they’d do just fine in the CHA. Depth is what hurts them in the long run, but they’re good clubs.”

But … the MAAC?

“They played good defense. It was smart on their part [to go into a shell]. They had three or four guys in front of the net. We left our offense at home last weekend, and then we faced a darn good team. Both teams had good goaltending.”

How good?

“That was the best [Grady Hunt] has ever played, that Friday night game. Unfortunately, he hurt his groin and is going to be out for the next little while. But we’ll do with Dannie [Morgan] and see how it goes from here.”

Injuries seem to be mounting for the Beavers. Junior forward Travis Barnes hurt his left knee in a knee-on-knee collision last Friday.

“He had the MRI [Thursday] morning,” Serratore said. “It doesn’t look good. The preliminary diagnosis is that he tore his ACL and will miss something like four months. That’s pretty much the season.”

The injuries to Barnes and Hunt follow a broken thumb suffered by Kurt Knott during a preseason practice.

A rash of injuries is familiar in the CHA. Alabama-Huntsville had a bad run of injuries last year.

“We haven’t really thought about a medical redshirt for Travis yet. We’re still absorbing all of this now. I watched the replay on Tuesday, and it made me sick. It was so gross. I just couldn’t watch.”

Best wishes to Barnes as he recovers from whatever injury he has, and all CHA fans can hope that Bemidji doesn’t have a run like the Chargers did last year.

“These things happen,” Serratore said, “but you never like to see it, especially when it’s your program.”

Struggles Against the WCHA

Anyone who looked on the schedule and saw what Alabama-Huntsville had signed up for had to have one question in their mind, “Have these guys lost their mind?” Maybe, maybe not, but now that they’ve signed up for it, they’ve got to play it. This week, the Chargers face the No. 2 team in the country, Denver.

“We’re going to give them a game,” said Charger coach Doug Ross.

The Chargers certainly gave Wisconsin a run for their money last weekend. Many observers, including Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves, thought it could have gone either way, especially on Friday night.

“Their early chances not going in hurt them,” Eaves said. “If they score, who knows what the game’s like?”

But instead of the sweet sound of maybe 30 fans cheering a Charger goal, it was the “CLANG!” of puck hitting metal.

“It was frustrating,” Charger assistant Lance West said. “Karlis [Zirnis] had a couple that didn’t go in. If those go in, who knows? Our guys played well, though, and they know it.”

The Chargers will have to score this weekend, though, if they hope to take on the Pioneers.

Struggling to Get a Big Win

The Purple Eagles of Niagara have been so close and yet so far away.

“We haven’t had a bad game yet,” said Niagara coach Dave Burkholder. “At times, we played Michigan straight up, and for much of the game, I felt like we outplayed Union and [Lowell]. Of course, the won-loss record doesn’t show it, but we’ve had a good year so far.”

One thing that’s given the Eagles new life is young blood on defense.

“We have seven defensemen, and three of them are freshmen, so we know that two of them will dress every night,” said Burkholder. “Andrew Lackner and Brian Mills are junior-tested and aren’t over their heads.”

They’re also spending a lot of time in front of freshman goalie Jeff VanNyatten.

“Jeff’s playing really well for us. He’s got two big junior campaigns up in Ontario, and his team went to the playoffs both times. He knows what pressure is.”

The Niagara offense is coming from two players.

“It’s amazing to me that we’re six games into the year and only have two players with more than two goals. But Matt Ryan’s got five and Joe Tallari’s got six, and they’re really driving our offense now. We’re hoping that some other guys step up.”

Two guys that Burkholder wants to see move up are Chris Sebastian and Bernie Sigrist.

“Our two big seniors just haven’t broken out yet. We need Chris and Bernie to be scoring more, and I’m hoping that they get it going soon,” Burkholder said.

Burkholder could use that offense this weekend, as his team travels to No. 7 North Dakota.

No Offensive Struggles in Ohio

The Findlay Oilers sure aren’t struggling offensively. What is Craig Barnett feeding these guys?

“We just fed them a new season, is all,” Barnett said.

The Oilers coaching staff was a little concerned after Friday’s 3-1 win over Canisius.

“[Assistant] coach [Pat] Ford said to me after the game, ‘An ugly win is better than a pretty loss.’ And he’s right, because Friday’s game was just an ugly win for us.”

Saturday’s game was pretty, oh so pretty.

“Saturday we just outworked them,” Barnett said. “We came out and just made the most of our offensive opportunities.”

The Findlay offensive outburst is coming from surprising spots.

“Kris Wiebe is a hard-working kid, just like Mike Funk down at Huntsville,” said Barnett. “He’s gotten his opportunities and capitalized on them.”

Wiebe certainly did, scoring three goals and dished out an assist against the Golden Griffins, after scoring just 14 points last season. He’s joined atop the leaderboard by junior Nick Udovicic, who has five assists after only 19 points last year, and senior Jason Maxwell, who has a goal and three assists after having never scored more than 16 points in any of his three seasons.

Barnett hopes to take that offensive firepower up the road to Bowling Green this weekend.

“We’re just 22 miles apart, but we’ve never played each other in NCAA play before. I remember that just eight years ago, we took our club team up there to play theirs. Who would have thought then that we’d now be playing them on the varsity level.”

It’s not just offense with the Oilers.

“Jamie VandeSpyker is playing really well for us right now. Mentally, he’s in the zone. We’re going to keep riding Jamie, and if he has a rough time, we’ve always got Kevin Fines ready to go.”

VandeSpyker and Barnett may make me eat all my words yet.

“We’re going to give it our all for sixty minutes,” said Barnett, “and see what the scoreboard says at the end of the night.”

Everyone in Action

Finally … the first full slate of CHA play. It’s the last weekend in October, and CHA fans around the country can settle into arenas near and wide and see their teams play. Wayne State hosts St. Lawrence, the alma mater of Warriors coach Bill Wilkinson, and takes its NCAA-best 12-game active winning streak into the weekend. Bemidji hosts Union for a two-game set, and Air Force plays host to MAAC foe Bentley.

If your team isn’t at home, and you can get to a TV connected to a satellite dish, Alabama-Huntsville’s game against Denver will be broadcast on Fox Sports Rocky Mountain. The broadcast starts at 9:30 ET. Niagara travels to North Dakota, and Findlay travels to Bowling Green.

All in all, that’s two series against the ECAC and one each against the CCHA, MAAC, and WCHA. Here’s hoping that the conference represents itself well this weekend and keeps those naysayers at bay.