ECAC: A New Direction?

It was in 1997 that I first suggested that all 12 ECAC teams should leave, en masse, and form a new hockey-only Division I conference. Six years later, this belief is making its way through the member schools.

For the first time, there is a contingent of athletic directors actively attempting to rally support for the member schools to leave the conference. How many are the leaders, how many are the followers and how many remain to be convinced is still unclear — but the tide is shifting in that direction. Furthermore, don’t be surprised if this actually comes up for a vote this summer.

ECAC coaches and athletic directors never have been more unified. From adding the two extra games for non-Ivy teams (which the Ivy League schools signed off on unanimously), to adding two playoff teams, to settling on the best possible postseason format, to resolving scheduling issues for Harvard and the Beanpot, to moving the conference tournament to Albany — the spirit of cooperation among the 12 member schools’ athletic directors and coaches over the past 16 months is the greatest it’s ever been.

This is great progress, and would not be possible without this unity.

But there’s a feeling that the progress has hit a brick wall — that more progress is impossible under the current ECAC structure, and under the current ECAC administration.

Everyone knows the league’s inherent limitations. The schools are small, academic requirements are stringent; keeping up with college hockey’s elite gets harder and harder. But, despite some positive steps in recent years, there’s a continued sense that the league office isn’t helping enough, and that communication is poor, which causes missed opportunities and damaged relationships — things the ECAC teams can hardly afford.

The schools are on the same page, but the league is reading a different book.

No one wants to be talking about this now. Not with Cornell ranked No. 2 in the nation, in a hot battle for first place against dangerous Harvard, with 13 NHL draft picks; not with Yale, and legendary coach Tim Taylor, poised for an ECAC playoff run with one of the nation’s best players in Chris Higgins; not with the continued resurgence of Dartmouth, and 6-foot-5 freshman phenom Hugh Jessiman.

But these issues exist, they are real, they need to be addressed, and they need to be solved … one way or another.

Same Old, Same Old?

The limitations of the ECAC structure always have been an issue. It’s not an all-sport conference in the sense that the Big East, Big Ten or MAAC are, and therefore, doesn’t have the same clout within the NCAA. And, it’s not a hockey-only conference like Hockey East, the CCHA and WCHA, and therefore hasn’t always committed all of its energy and resources to hockey. It has the worst of both worlds.

While this reality isn’t anyone’s fault, current ECAC commissioner Phil Buttafuoco doesn’t believe the ECAC’s structure hurts its hockey teams.

“Right now, I’ve got six people working on hockey in various ways, and only one and a half of them are being paid by the hockey league,” Buttafuoco says. “So if it was a hockey-only league like Hockey East, where they have [commissioner] Joe [Bertagna] and [Director of Communications] Noah [Smith], you could only do so much. And actually [here] there’s six, and Sarah [Hood] is working on women’s hockey.

“So we are gaining a lot of exposure for hockey and a lot of creativity here with people who are not funded by the hockey league, that if the hockey group went out on their own and could only afford one and a half people, they wouldn’t be gaining the same value that they’re gaining now.”

(Actually, Hockey East has two full-timers, yes, but it also has three part-timers, a practically full-time webmaster, an intern and four other associates that help with various league matters.)

Buttafuoco continues.

“For instance, last year, we went out and sold Avaya,” he says. “[ECAC Division I men’s ice hockey commissioner] Steve Hagwell didn’t do it, neither did our [hockey] intern. [Marketing director] Kelly [Stone] and I went out and sold Avaya. Hockey East was vying for Avaya at the same time through a marketing agency, and we beat out that marketing agency, which was led by Bobby Orr. So that’s value to our membership. And those are the type of things that I think are really good, and the reason I think ECAC hockey can gain by being part of the ECAC as a whole. …

“We hosted the 2001 Frozen Four and got a heckuva lot of branding and image. We have the 2004 women’s Frozen Four, and we’re lined up to host regionals. … Last year, we had the largest TV exposure for college hockey during the championship, with more households lined up, and a title sponsorship with JP Morgan Chase for the women’s event that no other league has.”

Too Late For Goodbyes?

It is fair to say that many of the league’s “issues” are not anyone’s fault. For example, the ECAC is well behind the other so-called “Big Four” conferences in television, but given the size of the league’s schools and its geography, it’s hard to blame anyone.

“People want to know why we don’t have more of a television package during the regular season,” Buttafuoco says. “Well, when you’re in the diverse towns you’re in, they’re not very attractive to television markets. … NESN doesn’t want to air a Clarkson-Colgate game.”

Buttafuoco also insists that the ECAC structure provides a much greater benefit than any hockey-only conference could.

“Do you know the hockey league went into a deficit the last two years, and I carried from the ECAC general funds? I carried that deficit for two years,” says Buttafuoco. “We’re not making money in ECAC hockey these days. Our championship in Lake Placid has not done well financially for this league, based on what we want to achieve from an expense side. So to say the ECAC is taking in more money than it gives back, is just a total fallacy.

“If you’re going to promote [a] hockey-only [conference], you’ve got to take a hard look at the value the league gets from being part of the ECAC, because it’s tremendously greater than a hockey-only conference. You’ve got to look at it from an NCAA position, and the involvement that I have with the NCAA that the hockey-only commissioners don’t have.

“I go to the national commissioner meetings. So I’m in meetings with the Big Ten and SEC. Those other guys are not. I’m on the distribution list with the NCAA for all of the legislative issues, those other guys are not.

“Our coaches are much more informed with legislative issues than the coaches in those other leagues are. I feel that I’m much more educated and up to date with national issues affecting all sports and how they affect hockey than the other commissioners are. And I’m much more in the NCAA loop than the other guys are. And that’s tremendous value for our schools, especially when we have so many D-III schools playing D-I hockey.”

Communication Breakdown

Meanwhile, a feeling persists that the league office either misses too many opportunities to help hockey or makes missteps that hurt the league’s image.

A few years ago, there were issues of bungled marketing opportunities, mistakes the league vowed it wouldn’t make again. And bringing up legislation — through the MAAC — to reduce the length of the season rankled many in the hockey community.

The ECAC learned from its mistakes, but there remains a palpable lack of communication — or miscommunication — that frustrates many who are associated with the league.

Coaches, media and potential business partners often feel as though they can’t get answers from the league — can’t get heard. Does Buttafuoco mean to blow off Lake Placid, or the new College Sports Network, or his league’s coaches or the media? I should hope not. But it happens. Why? Does Buttafuoco just have too much on his plate?

This was supposed to be rectified a couple of years ago, when, at the urging of league athletic directors, Steve Hagwell officially was named the ECAC assistant commissioner in charge of Division I men’s hockey. It was the next logical step, after Bertagna left the league in 1997, after Jeff Fanter became the league’s first full-time hockey commissioner and Hagwell came in to take Fanter’s spot. This came during a time when the league was becoming united on many of the other aforementioned issues, and was hailed as a tremendously positive step. While Buttafuoco was busy, Hagwell would have the ear of ECAC coaches and athletic directors, and, even more importantly, have the authority to make decisions.

It’s clear from day-to-day dealings with the league that Hagwell is no longer out front, and/or no longer allowed to be out front. Why?

As a result, the same frustrations from the past have crept back in.

Meanwhile, Buttafuoco denies there are any communication problems within the league, and that any issues that may exist are a normal part of any conference’s business.

“That’s why last year we completed our mission statement and our vision statment, and we’re addressing those things,” Buttafuoco says. “And we identified some areas that we really wanted to concentrate this year and move forward, and that’s what we’re doing. So we’re certainly answering the issues that were raised by our athletic directors and our coaches. But sometimes, coaches’ issues aren’t necessarily supported by ADs either.

“You also have to realize that some of the frustrations that the coaches express toward us is because they want us to do things that some of their institutions may not be able to do. For instance, they want us to promote the individual teams and individual players more than we do, because their SIDs [sports information directors] aren’t hockey only. You look at Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, etc. … they have hockey-only SIDs. Our schools are smaller and they don’t have the staffs like that.

“So some of the coaches’ frustrations with their own situations on campus are pointed toward the league. And they get concerned, for instance, when the Hobey Baker finalists are announced. It’s not the league’s position to promote Hobey finalists.”

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Though I’ve been a proponent of the ECAC’s 12 member schools forming their own hockey-only conference, you wonder, sadly, whether it matters anymore.

The ECAC schools are great, filled with revered institutions and revered coaches. They are, as a whole, more rich in tradition than anywhere, dating back to the 1800s. But this kind of personal, nostaligic, home-spun aura means nothing, unfortunately, in trying to keep up with the Joneses. The ECAC is Mr. Cunningham’s corner hardware store, and the rest of hockey is Home Depot.

The ECAC schools are just smaller, on average, than schools in other conferences. As a whole, they just don’t have the money to bring in the big bucks, build huge new arenas and get large TV deals.

This phenomenon is not unique to college hockey. As the big money comes into any industry, the rich get richer while the less rich just spin their wheels. The idea that a rising tide lifts all boats is clearly a fallacy in most walks of life. Take a look at baseball. There was always a gap between “rich” and “poor” major league baseball teams, but never enough to seriously impact competition. But as more money flowed in, the gap widened until you have a ridiculous imbalance such as today’s.

The same could be said for the cable industry, radio stations or hardware stores. A small gap always widens, as the larger entity leverages its small advantage and snowballs it until it’s a huge advantage. That’s just the dynamic of a capitalist society, and it doesn’t change unless through artificial means — and I don’t see much revenue sharing on the horizon in the NCAA.

“I don’t care what league structure you have, if the schools aren’t winning games, it’s not because of what league they’re in, or whether it’s a hockey-only conference or part of the bigger picture,” Buttafuoco says. “The impression of a league is based on wins, and we’re starting to turn that around.”

But the impression of a league is also based on perception. I could be a great writer, I could be a crappy writer, but how would I be treated if I came to games looking like a slob? Why has the league’s Web site improved from pathetic, to merely awful?

You would expect Buttafuoco to defend the ECAC. That’s his job, and it’s in the ECAC’s self interest to keep hockey, its bread and butter. But, as a fan of, and reporter on, ECAC hockey for almost 20 years, I’m only interested in how the hockey programs, coaches and players can best thrive. None of the arguments in favor of the ECAC convince me.

That the ECAC has fallen behind the other three major conferences in on-ice performance may not be anyone’s fault. But a new hockey-only conference cannot hurt, and might help.

If being in an all-sport league helped that much, the Big Ten hockey conference would have figured out a way to be formed by now. But (despite the suggestion of some numbskulls to do just that), Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State — as upstanding members of the hockey community — know better.

The commissioners of Hockey East, the WCHA, CCHA and CHA, are the most accessible, down-to-Earth, honest people in the sport. And when they make decisions, they have at least one eye cast towards “the sport” and not just their conference.

This kind of “we’re all in it together” attitude is what makes college hockey unique, and what makes it great. That’s one reason why, whereas a single-sport conference may not be the right thing for other sports, it makes perfect sense for hockey.

This ideal, combined with the frustration of dealing with the ECAC office, makes a switch to a hockey-only conference worthwhile.

So, how could this happen?

Would all 12 members have to vote yes? Is it as simple as flipping the switch and just deciding? Or are there logistical issues that need to be addressed, like setting up the new infrastructure, arranging the budgets, figuring out a chain of command or picking a home office? Couldn’t they just carry over exactly what they have now, and go from there with minimal change? After all, you don’t have to change the schedule, or travel partners, or scholastic requirements, or games limit or anything like that. They’d all just be leaving, together, under the banner of a new hockey-only conference.

There are obvious sticking points. For example, the Division III schools (St. Lawrence, Clarkson, Union, RPI) are, in many cases, more directly tied into the ECAC in all sports. That might make it more difficult for them to break off their ice hockey affiliation. Second, there is a question on whether the NCAA would force the new conference to wait the mandatory two years (for new conferences) before regaining an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

But most of all, it seems that the only thing holding back the schools at this point is fear of change.

Certainly, it should be a unanimous move. The idea of a hockey-only conference is to continue the feeling of unity among member schools, not wreck it. But if the vote is 10-2 in favor of a move, are the two remaining schools really going to leave themselves behind to become independents? That would be suicide.

Schools that are on the fence should know the rest of the hockey world is behind a hockey-only conference. There isn’t a soul on Earth that will criticize you for it.

So, come June, get together, take the vote, and just do it.