This Week in the MAAC: Feb. 6, 2003

Shockwaves Hit Southern Connecticut

In a week filled with major college hockey news, the ultimate shockwave might have come out of Bridgeport, Conn., when Fairfield University announced Thursday that it will drop ice hockey from its varsity sports.

The announcement was likely one of hockey’s best-kept secrets, as news simply was posted on the college’s Web site Thursday morning, with word circulating around the usual rumor mill of the game’s circles.

When everything was said and done, the MAAC hockey league had been reduced to 10 members, effective, of course, next year. More importantly, the league lost one of its core schools, as Fairfield — along with Canisius and Iona — was one of only three full-fledged MAAC members playing in the league.

According to MAAC commissioner Rich Ensor, the announcement is simply the culmination of a disturbing trend in college hockey.

“We know that college athletics is an expensive business,” said Ensor, who just weeks ago was talking about expanding his league, not contracting. “As the economy weakens and we see cutbacks on state aid and alumni investments, schools are going to have to make financial decisions and that includes athletics.”

Fairfield estimated that by cutting hockey along with football, the school can save around $570,000 per year, which in a tough economic environment is a major chunk of change.

Needless to say, the tremors of this earthquake were felt throughout the league, particularly at nearby Quinnipiac. Head coach Rand Pecknold was “shocked,” to say the least, and that his thoughts “go to the coaches and players … [in a] tough situation.

“All the players chose specifically to go to Fairfield,” said Pecknold, “so it has to be a shock to them.”

As far as the implications of the news on the MAAC, it could have gone well beyond the contraction of one team.

As also reported by USCHO on Thursday, the NCAA ruled recently that Division I conferences would be awarded autobids based on their Division I composition.

For a conference to receive an autobid it must include no fewer than six full-fledged Division I schools, a rule meant partly to discourage the formation of single-sport conferences and partly to limit conference’s opportunities to split to increase autobid chances.

The immediate impact was on the WCHA and CHA, which have three and two full Division I members, respectively.

The MAAC has seven D-I schools, but Ensor noted that there is still some question of when both Sacred Heart and Quinnipiac will be fully recognized, as both programs currently are considered emerging by NCAA standards.

However, the question appeared to have been rendered moot when it was announced that existing conferences — including the three hockey leagues in question above — would almost certainly be grandfathered in, and therefore retain their automatic qualifiers.

Fairfield’s hockey program has struggled since its inception. Under head coach Mike Doneghey, Fairfield’s first season in the MAAC was a disappointment as the Stags posted a 1-31-0 record, finished last in the MAAC and were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by Quinnipiac, 13-2.

One year later, with new head coach Mark Dennehy at the helm, things improved slightly, with Fairfield competing to a 3-28-3 mark and missing the league playoffs. Dennehy quickly departed the program for Massachusetts, where he remains an assistant under Don “Toot” Cahoon.

Rumors surfaced at that time that the university might cut the program, but according to athletic director Gene Doris, that was averted.

“It was an attempt at the time to try to keep [hockey] going by moving some resources to it without any new infusion of money from the institution,” said Doris. “We did become competitive, but going forward, that wasn’t enough.”

Current head coach Jim Hunt was recruited from the U.S. National Development Program to guide the team into the 2000-01 season. That year, Fairfield enjoyed its best season in Division I, posting an 11-19-2 mark and qualifying for the eighth and final seed in the MAAC playoffs, only to fall to Mercyhurst, 10-5, in the first round.

Last year, the program struggled to a 6-23-3 record, missing the playoffs once again with a 10th-place finish. And entering this weekend’s action, the Stags are 5-16-2 and in last place in the MAAC, despite some close games.

Performance, though, was not a deciding factor according to Doris. What was, was the need for a new facility to remain competitive and the athletic department’s inability to fund it.

“Over the last couple of years we played at the Arena at Harbor Yard in a search for a first-class facility, but that wasn’t a long-term solution,” said Doris. “We had a first-class place on the horizon in Shelton, [Conn.], but ultimately the price tag wasn’t what the school wanted to put out based on the resources that were there.”

Doris echoed the comments of Ensor that the financial climate is ultimately what drives decisions for universities to cut programs. As states slowly cut the funding they provide to institutions, the impact is felt nationwide.

“The institution itself is facing major losses from state funding and there’s a lot of money not coming in from corporate resources that once existed,” said Doris, who said the University’s only other choice would have been to increase the school’s already-high $34,000-per-year cost. “When those programs dried up, it significantly impacted revenue coming into the institution.”

The news was broken to the team in two separate meetings: one with the coaching staff early Thursday morning and one with the players shortly thereafter. Doris said that breaking the news made this “outside of death in the family, probably the worst day” of his life.

“I think the coaches were more stunned than anything,” said Doris. “The players felt everything from betrayal and anger to just a general desire to vent.”

All players now can transfer to another Division I program without the need to sit out under the NCAA’s transfer rule. Doris noted that the university will assist all of the players with counseling and with making transfers to other programs.

“If the players choose to stay, we want to assist them in that they have the access in everything that exists here,” said Doris. “For those who want to leave, we’ll help them and provide everything we need to do to make it happen.”

Hunt called the last 10 games of this season an “opportunity for players to showcase their talent.”

Hunt said that the support that he got from the other MAAC coaches on Thursday was “outstanding and supportive,” and that he hopes that they “take advantage and take some of these players into their individual programs and take a chance on them.”

He also described his disappointment.

“I came here three years ago with the hopes of taking the program in a positive direction and wasn’t able to do that,” said Hunt. “We brought players in with the desire to do the same thing and couldn’t fulfill our promise to them, which is devastating personally.”

A major reality of the situation is that with 10 games remaining in the regular season, some current Fairfield players may not want to complete the year, running the risk of injury that might impact their future college hockey careers.

“The only thing I left them with is tomorrow, with 10 games left, we need to know who is in and who is out,” said Hunt, who stressed that he does not feel betrayed by the Fairfield program, nor has any animosity towards the school. “If guys don’t think they’re up to going about their business the right way, I have to respect that and let them bow out gracefully.

“From there, what each guys does in terms of his personal future, we’ll deal with on a one-to-one basis.”

As far as what will happen next to Hunt, that remains to be seen. Right now it’s far too early for him to have any thoughts on his future, and only noted that decisions like these are “part of the business and the risk every coach takes.”

Certainly, in today’s economy, these are very real and threatening risks.

Weekly Awards

ITECH MAAC Hockey League Player of the Week: Brad Roberts, Army Freshman, G, Cassville, N.Y.

Roberts stopped 70 of 71 to lead Army to a weekend sweep of Holy Cross. The freshman netminder blanked the Crusaders, 4-0, on Friday night and shut them out on the power play (0-for-13) in both games. Roberts has allowed fewer than two goals in four of his last five outings. He made 37 saves in Friday night’s victory and stopped 33 shots in Saturday night’s 3-1 win to earn first-star honors. Roberts holds a 2.76 overall goals against average as well as a .915 save percentage.

ITECH MAAC Hockey League Goalie of the Week: Eddy Ferhi, Sacred Heart Senior, G, Charenton, France

Ferhi made a combined 62 saves in a split series with first-place Quinnipiac. He stopped 19 of 20 in a 4-1 victory Friday and faced 48 shots Saturday, stopping 43 in a 5-3 loss. Eddy records a 1.96 conference goals against average and a .926 conference save percentage. Both marks are good enough to put Ferhi atop all MAAC goalies in each statistical category.

ITECH MAAC Hockey League Rookie of the Week: Jamie Carroll, Iona Freshman, F, Andover, Conn.

For the second time this season, freshman winger Jamie Carroll tallied back-to-back multiple-point games. Carroll scored two goals and two assists in a weekend split with American International accounting for points on four of the Gaels’ five goals. On Friday, the rookie forward assisted on Mark Hallam’s goal to put the Gaels ahead by two goals. Hallam returned the favor the next night, setting up Carroll for his eighth goal of the year early in the third.

Major News From Erie

Until a 6-5 loss last Saturday night to Bentley, the second half for the Mercyhurst Lakers was the biggest story in the league. Mercyhurst was 7-0-1 in the month of January and had closed a near double-digit lead in the MAAC standings for Quinnipiac down to just three points.

The loss to Bentley was a bump in the road, one head coach Rick Gotkin might like to have back, but he’s also realistic. The loss may have cooled down college hockey’s hottest team, but the latest news out of Erie, Pa., will keep the Lakers in the headlines.

The school announced this week that goaltender Matt Cifelli, who spent two seasons as the heir apparent to phenom goaltender Peter Aubry, has decided to leave school. Thus closes a chapter on a promising goaltender, who, when the cards were on the table, was unable to play his hand.

According to Gotkin, Cifelli was hoped to be the number-one goaltender this season, but in the first half his performances made it obvious that the Lakers were struggling a bit at the position.

Come January, Gotkin decided to go with rookie Andy Franck between the pipes and his choice proved wise. On the month, Franck posted a perfect 7-0-0 record, sporting an impressive .939 save percentage and a 1.57 goals against average.

Gotkin’s decision to make Franck the number-one goaltender was apparently more than Cifelli could handle.

“He left the school because he had some personal reasons and also I think he was a little disappointed that he wasn’t the starting goaltender,” said Gotkin, whose Lakers kept pace with Quinnipiac last weekend, posting a win and a loss. “We were really disappointed to see Matt go, though. He was a really good player and a good kid, but he did what he needed to do and I couldn’t stand in his way.”

Gotkin noted that making a decision on the starter was difficult throughout the season, and that Cifelli’s departure makes things easier as Franck is now the clear number-one. But that in no way should suggest that Gotkin forced Cifelli out the door.

“It was Matt’s choice entirely,” said Gotkin. “It was a personal decision.”

Cifelli was thought to be a strong candidate for the number-one slot at the start of the season. Though seeing limited time behind Aubry last season, when he did play, Cifelli impressed.

He saw plenty of spotlight in last year’s MAAC championship game. After falling behind 4-0, Gotkin pulled the stalwart Aubry in favor of Cifelli. Though he would surrender one goal and ultimately take the loss, Cifelli came up big throughout his relief appearance and nearly saw his Lakers pull out the title game against Quinnipiac, rallying from 5-1 down to within a goal before falling, 6-4.

But throughout the early part of the 2002-03 season, Cifelli’s numbers were poor. He was pressed into action in a handful on nonleague games without much success. Couple that with a loss to close 2002 to Canisius and a 4-4 tie to begin 2003 against Connecticut and Gotkin decided to hand the reins to Franck. Once between the pipes, Franck was near-perfect, including pulling out back-to-back victories on the road against Quinnipiac in mid-January in which he surrendered only two goals.

All of this news overshadows the actual accomplishments of Franck. His perfect January earned him national recognition, as he was the recipient of the Ice Hockey Commissioner’s Choice Award winner as January’s rookie of the month. Franck became the first recipient from the MAAC of this national award.

“It’s awesome for him,” said Gotkin. “I’ve talked for years about how important goaltending is. It’s the key to this game.

“In the month of January, [goaltending] was the catalyst for us to get this season back on track. He had two huge wins at Quinnipiac and came through the month with flying colors.”

Though Franck faltered in his first performance of February, surrendering five of the six goals in a 6-5 loss to Bentley, he righted the ship nights later with a 5-4 win against Canisius.

The one question that remains unanswered for Gotkin is whether Franck can hold up come playoff time. Though Cifelli played little in his career backing up Aubry, he did gain experience of playing under the pressure of last year’s MAAC championship.

Still, that’s not much of a worry for Gotkin.

“[Andy] won a USHL championship in Sioux City last year. He’s played in big games before,” said Gotkin. “He showed us the things we wanted to see a few weeks ago at Quinnipiac.

“He’s like most goaltenders in that the more you play and the more shots you face, the more rhythm you get and he really enjoys it now.”

Battle For Military Honor

It’s a game for national pride in a rivalry that The Hockey News dubbed as one of the top five college hockey rivalries of all time. Saturday night Army will welcome its service academy rivals, Royal Military College, to West Point for the 72nd installment of the “oldest continuous international rivalry in sports.”

Army holds a 36-29-6 advantage in the overall series that began in 1923. This year’s encounter takes place at Tate Rink where the Black Knights have not lost to RMC since 1987. Army holds a commanding 23-12-1 lead over the Paladins at home.

“It’s a special game,” Army head coach Rob Riley said. “It’s an historic rivalry played with a lot of emotion on both sides.”

The winner of the Army-RMC game is presented with the “Challenge Trophy” at the conclusion of the game.

Despite dropping a 3-2 decision in overtime last year in Kingston, Ontario, the Black Knights have gotten the better of their neighbors to the north in the recent past. Army is 11-2-2 in the last 15 meetings, including a 12-year unbeaten string from 1988-97.

The Black Knights drop out of conference play the first weekend in February every year to renew acquaintances with RMC. Since Army joined the MAAC, some may argue that the importance put on the Army-RMC rivalry has diminished.

That is not the case if you talk to former participants in the series.

“The battle between Army and RMC is Army hockey at its truest form,” said former Black Knight Nathan Mayfield. “Size, speed, strength and skill are not the factors in the outcome of the game. Determination, desire and heart are factors which matter most.”

“Beating them in overtime my junior year, in our rink, ranks as one of the biggest highlights in my four years as a cadet,” said Rich Sheridan, a former MVP of the Army hockey team. “There is nothing more satisfying for an Army hockey player than beating RMC.

“This is the hockey team’s Army-Navy game and it’s the biggest game on the schedule. The battle on the ice is very rough and full of hostile energy.”

Army enters the showdown 12-12-0, sixth in the MAAC. The Paladins are 5-16-1 and in second place of the Mid East Division in the Ontario University Athletics Conference. The Black Knights used a 7-1 thrashing of RMC at Tate Rink as momentum heading into the home stretch of their schedule two years ago. Army hopes that will be the case this year as the team jockeys for possible home ice in the first round of the MAAC Tournament.

James Zuhlke contributed to this report.