This Week in the CCHA: Feb. 20, 2003

Spreading the Love Around

Last week was Valentine’s Day, and you know I can’t resist a holiday for a column gimmick.

Well, I received more email addressing last week’s column than I had cumulatively for the entire season. Thank you, readers, for letting me know that I don’t exist in a vacuum here in Columbus, O.

My favorite letter came from Dave B., a faithful reader from whom I had never heard before last week. His was the only negative letter — so, naturally, I loved it.

It read: “Your columns are not ‘cute.’ They are dead air. Step aside. Hand it over to the photographer guy that filled in for you.”

Isn’t he darling? He used the word cute in a sentence that somehow pertained to me — even after (presumably) seeing the head shot that appears with my weekly “dead air.”

As for that “photographer guy” who “filled in” for me, I assume he’s talking about Christopher Brian Dudek, whose excellent feature on his home team, the Ferris State Bulldogs, now graces our frontpage.

Last week’s column also, however, prompted some folks long-absent from my life to say hello, an unexpected bonus. In college hockey, you meet many wonderful folks who are sometimes a part of your life for a short period of time — players, their parents, their “family advisors,” officials, coaches, fans.

It was great to hear from all of you who wrote. The email I received was an unexpected — and delightful — Valentine.

So, in the spirit of mushiness (I am eyeing the slush on the side of the road as I write), let the lovefest continue!

Love, Love, Love

For some time now, shortsighted individuals have been advocating the creation of a Big Ten conference for college hockey. As you know, two Big Ten teams play in the WCHA (Wisconsin, Minnesota), and three Big Ten teams reside in our beloved CCHA (Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State).

The reason there is no Big Ten conference for college hockey? Only five Big Ten schools have Division I hockey programs, and you’d need a sixth to “mandate” a Big Ten conference — and, even then, if members protested loudly enough that they wanted to remain affiliated with their current conferences, creating such an animal would take a lot of time, more hot air than currently floats in the hallowed halls of the U.S. Congress, and a little puff of white smoke somewhere in Vatican City.

Those who — foolishly, of course — advocate a Big Ten conference for college hockey are all about adding Penn State to the mix, the same Penn State that currently has a club team, the same Penn State that also pushed the Big Ten to 11 schools.

(I’d apologize for so disliking a place called “Happy Valley” if I weren’t so certain that most of you dislike it as well.)

So, you take the current five Big Ten schools with Division I programs, add Penn State to the mix, throw in a dose of Antoine Pitts with his Ann Arbor News column dated Feb. 17, and this chestnut sees the light of day (how about that for a non sequitur, double cliché?).

These are Pitts’ actual words. Actually.

“Time to bid adieu to the Central Collegiate Hockey Association and join together with other hockey-playing Big Ten schools. Time to form the league that’s long overdue and makes so much sense.”

Apparently, Pitts had an epiphany last weekend during the Michigan-Michigan State series: everyone should be able to watch Michigan and Michigan State play each other, all the time.

“In the past decade of the CCHA, ridiculous overexpansion to faraway places such as Alaska-Fairbanks, Northern Michigan, and Nebraska-Omaha, and subsequent silly scheduling schemes have robbed everyone of more of these outstanding matchups.”

(Distance between Ann Arbor, Mich., and Marquette, Mich.: 346 miles. Distance between Ann Arbor, Mich., and Minneapolis, Minn.: 513 miles.)

Unless you’re a chaperone at a junior high dance, you know that segregation is never an answer — and that’s what a Big Ten conference would amount to. Perhaps because longstanding, non-Big Ten members of the CCHA and WCHA have established traditions of D-I men’s ice hockey, those programs wouldn’t face an untimely death.

But the growth of the sport is not dependent on a “super-conference” of big-name schools; the sport gained more widespread attention through the 1990s because it is so different from your basic college hoops and gridirons. It’s these smaller schools within the CCHA and WCHA that give the sport — at least out in these parts — the variety that allows it to thrive.

Ferris State is in first place. Ferris State. They’ll go to the NCAA postseason tournament, and people around the country will ask, “Who is Ferris State?” When the answer comes — a small school in Big Rapids, Mich., that this year is playing great hockey up against the likes of Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State — these people will have a one-word response: “Interesting.”

Yes, the current size of the league makes scheduling difficult. The current “cluster” system is the best the league has offered to deal with this, to date.

But a CCHA without Northern Michigan? No Chris Gobert? No Rick Comley and now Walt Kyle?

A CCHA without Nebraska Omaha? No Mike Kemp? No — hold me now, because I’m feeling lightheaded — Dan Ellis?!

And a CCHA without Alaska-Fairbanks? As much as teams complain about making the trip to Fairbanks, I contend that UAF itself is the quintessential CCHA program: heart, guts, and in a city that lives and dies by the Nanooks.

Further puzzling is Pitts’ assertion that college hockey needs a “revolutionary thinker like former Michigan athletic director Don Canham” to make a Big Ten conference “happen.”

Pitts writes, “Canham stepped up and led U-M and MSU from the Western Collegiate Hockey Association to the CCHA in 1981. That forever legitimized a league that had no marquee schools.”

So, let’s find that revolutionary thinker who can undo what that revolutionary thinker did.

Anyone else have a headache? Pass the chocolate.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T?

Home ice is supposed to be, well, home ice.

Barring a major tanking, the Ohio State Buckeyes will likely wind up in second or third place in the final CCHA standings, giving them the right to host a first-round playoff series at the Schottenstein Center, where they have so far been 10-1-0 this season — that loss coming to current No. 2 Cornell.

A quick look at the schedule for March for the Schott, however, reveals a problem: roundball. Specifically, high school girls’ roundball.

The Ohio State University has a contract with the Ohio High School Athletic Association State Girls Basketball Championships, and those games will be played in Value City Arena Mar. 13-15 — the same weekend as the first round of the CCHA playoffs.

The conflict is not actually OSU’s fault. When the NCAA pushed back the Frozen Four weekend to April 10-12, the CCHA responded accordingly. Last year, the first round of the CCHA playoffs was Mar. 8-10, and the OHSAA girls’ tourney the following weekend.

But never fear, Buckeye hockey fans. You won’t be relegated to the OSU Ice Rink — I mean, Ice Arena. You won’t be heading to any area Chiller, or to the CoreComm Ice Haus.

No, Buckeye fans, you’ll be going to Nationwide Arena, the only rink in Columbus better than Value City.

According to a story by my esteemed colleague Craig Merz in the Feb. 19 Columbus Dispatch, the Blue Jackets, ever eager to create goodwill among all hockey-minded people in central Ohio, will allow the Buckeyes to play their games between home Blue Jackets’ games.

The puck will drop for the first playoff game at 7 p.m., Mar. 14; the second game will start at 1 p.m. the following day.

If a third game is needed, it will be played on genuine home ice, in Value City Arena on Sunday, Mar. 16 at 7 p.m., as the hockey gods and goddesses intended.

The Jackets host Colorado on Thursday, Mar. 13, and Minnesota on Saturday, Mar. 15 — hence the afternoon playoff game.

This is the Blue Jackets returning a favor. Before the Jackets were up and running, to introduce NHL hockey to Columbus fans, OSU hosted two preseason NHL games in Value City Arena, before construction on Nationwide was complete.

So there you have it — not home ice, necessarily, but no travel, and that could make the difference.

Games of the Week

Get used to reading about Michigan State. Not only is MSU one of the more interesting stories in the CCHA this season — 10th place in January, fourth now — but Rick Comley faces the team he built from scratch, Northern Michigan, this week.

Next week, it’s MSU-Michigan all over again, allowing Mr. Pitts to see excellent hockey without having to put too much wear and tear on his car.

Scheduling issues? This is great!

Northern Michigan (15-13-2, 11-10-1 CCHA) vs. Michigan State (17-11-2, 13-8-1 CCHA)
Friday and Saturday, 7:05 p.m., Munn Arena, East Lansing, Mich.

Last weekend, the Wolverines and Spartans split a pair of games, and first-year MSU head coach Rick Comley said that the ultra-hyped rivalry was everything he expected.

“It was a great series,” Comley told my esteemed colleague, Neil Koepke, of the Lansing State Journal. “Two very exciting nights of hockey. The crowds were great and the series lived up to its billing.”

Both games were, according to all involved, excellent hockey games. Koepke claims that even the Munn crowd was loud — Munn, loud! — Saturday night. Senior Spartan defenseman John-Michael Liles logged over 30 minutes in the 5-3 MSU win, netted the Spartans’ first two goals in the contest, and earned an assist on MSU’s third.

“This rivalry is so special,” Comley told Koepke. “We had Sports Illustrated here doing something for their 50th anniversary. I’m behind going, ‘It’s really neat to be a part of this.'”

(And if you know Coach Comley, you can picture him saying that — “neat.”)

This week Comley faces off against his former player, his former assistant coach, and one of his best friends, Walt Kyle. Kyle and the Wildcats also played archrivals last weekend and split — but the split itself was unexpected. The Lakers’ 4-2 victory over the Wildcats was LSSU’s second league win of the season. Ironically, the only other CCHA team the Lakers have beaten this season is Michigan State.

After beating LSSU 2-1 in Marquette the night before, NMU was tied with LSSU 2-2 going into the third, but the Lakers scored two unanswered in the closing stanza to clinch the win.

Part of what ails the Wildcats now is their lack of recent productivity on the power play. NMU is scoreless with the man advantage in its last five outings (0-for-18). Assistant captain and senior forward Mike Stutzel registered NMU’s last power-play goal at 16:53 in the second period of NMU’s 8-2 win over UAF Jan. 31.

The Wildcats seem capable of attaining the spectacular this season, both on the winning and losing side of things. The first NMU-MSU game this year saw the ‘Cats beat the Spartans 10-4 in Marquette in an emotionally charged game. In December, the Wildcats swept Michigan at home, and Northern is able to more than double-up the score on league opponents.

However, NMU’s losses can be equally interesting. A 7-1 loss to Miami followed by a 6-3 loss the next night; swept in Bowling Green last month; the loss to the Lakers last week.

Another piece in the puzzle is the inconsistent play of junior netminder Craig Kowalski. Kowalski arguably has the fastest glove in the league, but he has shown himself to be susceptible to very ugly goals. Kowalski’s overall save percentage last season was .916; this year so far it’s .901 (still down from his rookie season, .904), and his league numbers are even lower (.890).

On the other side of the ice, the Spartans are peaking at the right time, and they’re clicking on all the proverbial cylinders. MSU’s power play leads the league and is tied for sixth in the nation. The Spartans can score with the man-advantage and also down a man; over the past 12 games, 24 of MSU’s 52 goals (46.2 percent) have involved special teams (19 PP, five shorthanded).

Another boost for the Spartans has been the recent play of sophomore netminder Matt Migliaccio. Migliaccio is 3-1-0 in February, and seems to be settling down in net.

The Spartans lead this all-time series 21-12-2, and are 8-2-0 in the last 10 meetings between these teams. Here’s the matchup by the league numbers:

  • Goals per game: MSU 3.82 (third), NMU 3.23 (sixth)
  • Goals allowed per game: MSU 2.95 (sixth), NMU 2.91 (fifth)
  • Power play: MSU 27.9% (first), NMU 21.6% (third)
  • Penalty kill: MSU 80.4% (eighth), NMU 80.7% (seventh)
  • NMU’s top scorer: Chris Gobert (8-16-24)
  • MSU’s top scorer: John-Michael Liles (11-15-26), Brad Fast (9-17-26), Jim Slater (8-18-26)
  • NMU’s top ‘tender: Craig Kowalski (.890 SV%, 2.85 GAA)
  • MSU’s top ‘tender: Matt Migliaccio (.920 SV%, 2.37 GAA)

    After losing the LSSU last weekend, the Wildcats ought to be ashamed outright — and ought to give MSU all it can handle. If the NMU power play continues to be anemic, and if the once hardworking ‘Cats play with little fire in their bellies, the Spartans will win big, as they tend to do when they win.

    Picks: MSU 5-3, 4-2

    Welcome, Liam McAuliffe

    Liam James McAuliffe entered the world 18 minutes after the puck dropped Valentine’s Day night in Yost Arena.

    His daddy, of course, is Spartan assistant coach Dave McAuliffe, who was with his wife, Gwenn, for the more important event of the evening.

    McAuliffe — the father — told the Lansing State Journal, “We had the game on in the room, but there was too much other stuff going on to watch it.”

    Congratulations to all. Gwenn and Liam are fine.

    Tickets for the Midwest Regional

    Tickets are now on sale for the 2003 NCAA Midwest Regional, Saturday and Sunday, Mar. 29-30, at Yost Arena. Call the Michigan Athletic Ticket Office at 734-764-0247.

    Super Six Tickets

    Tickets are now available for the CCHA’s Super Six, which will be held Mar. 20-22 in Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena.

    These are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday games to accommodate the NCAA’s postseason selection scheduled for Sunday, Mar. 23.

    And remember, there are six games this year, including a consolation game Saturday afternoon.

    For tickets, call 248-645-6666. Group discounts are available by calling (313) 396-7911.

    Notes From The League

    UAF: The Nanooks are one point away from their second-best league effort of all time. Prior to last season’s best-ever effort — fourth place, 33 points — UAF’s top showing was a 21-point season.

    BGSU: Senior goaltender Tyler Masters made his first start since Jan. 17 in a 3-2 loss to Notre Dame on Valentine’s Day. Masters made 34 stops in the loss, and stands second on the Falcons’ career saves list with 401.

    FSU: Uber-Bulldog Chris Kunitz was kept off the scoresheet for just the sixth time this season in FSU’s 5-3 win over WMU on Sunday.

    LSSU: Senior forward Jeremy Bachusz scored twice when the Lakers snapped their six-game losing streak with a 4-2 win over NMU last Saturday night. Bachusz also had a pair of goals the last time LSSU won, its uncharacteristic 7-1 thumping of MSU. (Here’s a clue: give the puck to Jeremy.)

    Miami: Junior forward Mike Kompon became the first RedHawk to register 40 points in a season since 1998-99 with his game-winning, shorthanded goal in Miami’s 1-0 blanking of OSU in Cincinnati last Saturday.

    Michigan: Freshman Jeff Tambellini netted four goals in Michigan’s split with MSU last weekend. He’s the sixth rookie to register at least 20 goals in a season since Red Berenson became coach in 1983-84.

    MSU: After notching three points in MSU’s 5-3 win over Michigan last week, senior defenseman John-Michael Liles has 13 goals and 35 points on the season — exactly the same numbers he had for the entire 2001-02 campaign. Last year, Liles became the first blueliner since Jason Woolley (1990-91) to lead the Spartans in scoring.

    UNO: The Mavericks host Michigan this weekend in their final regular-season series at the Omaha Civic Auditorium — ever. Next year, the Mavs will move to the 15,000-seat Omaha Convention Center. UNO is 34-20-4 all-time in the Bullpen.

    NMU: When the Wildcats’ nine-game win streak against LSSU came to a screeching halt last weekend, one factor was power-play conversion — or lack thereof. Since Jan. 31, the ‘Cats have performed more like kittens, going 0-for-19 with the man advantage.

    Notre Dame: The Irish snapped a nine-game winless streak with their 3-2 win over BGSU Valentine’s Day. Notre Dame scored the first goal in that game and the following night, when the results were repeated verbatim. The Irish are 8-0-3 when scoring first this season. The Irish have 11 wins overall this season.

    OSU: The RedHawks are capable of having the Buckeyes’ number — if David Burleigh is in net for Miami and that number is zero. Miami is responsible for three of the six shutouts the Buckeyes have suffered over the past 108 games (three seasons, including this one). Last weekend, OSU lost to Miami 1-0.

    WMU: Broncos’ assistant coach Chris Brooks has been signed by the Kalamazoo Wings of the United Hockey League to play select home games. Brooks was the 1993 CCHA Rookie of the Year.

    Too Good to Ignore

    Former Wolverine and current Boston Bruin Mike Knuble established a new NHL record last week for the fastest two goals by a single player to open a game. (Yes, there is such a stat.) Knuble scored at :10 and :27 in the first period of the game between Boston and Florida on Feb. 14 — and the Bruins still needed overtime to beat the Panthers. In fact, the Bruins needed another CCHA alum to seal the deal; former Laker Brian Rolston netted the overtime goal in the 6-5 win.

    Words of Love

    Last week, I encouraged you to write in to identify this snippet of poetry:

    Oh, love is the crooked thing,
    There is nobody wise enough
    To find out all that is in it,
    For he would be thinking of love
    Till the stars had run away,
    And the shadows eaten the moon.

    As a bonus, you were supposed to identify these song lyrics:

    What is love made of?
    Nobody knows.
    What are you afraid of?
    Everyone knows. It’s love. It’s love.

    The first person to correctly identify the poetry was a CCHA on-ice official, who asked that his name be withheld. Of course, the poem is, “The Young Man’s Song,” from W.B. Yeats’ Responsibilities and Other Poems (1916).

    Several readers wrote to admonish me for picking something so easily found on the Internet. The whole point, of course, was to see who knew this without doing the research, and I’m happy to say that Mr. On-Ice Official did.

    Two people wrote in about the song lyrics, and they cheated, both having to look it up on the ‘Net, goshdarnit. The song is “So You Think You’re in Love,” by Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians (Perspex Island, A&M Records, 1991).

    Since the official wants to remain nameless and no one really got the Hitchcock tune, my esteemed colleague Dave Hendrickson is without company for dinner Saturday night — again.

    Words of Love, Part Deux

    The response was so good last week that we’re going to do it again.

    Name the poet and poem, given here in its entirety (completely appropriate for the week after a blizzard, I think):

    Among of green

    stiff old bright

    broken branch come

    white sweet May

    again

    And here are lyrics for you to identify (artist, title):

    Cuddle up with William S. Burrow, leave on the light for Bell Hooks,
    I’ve been flirtin’ with Pierre Berton ’cause he’s so smart in his books.

    (Hint: it’s Canadian.)

    Broken Hearted

    For the entire season — 102 days, going back to Nov. 8, 2002 when the season began — the Fredonia State Blue Devils were at the top of the SUNYAC standings

    On the 103rd day — Fredonia’s last regular-season game — the Blue Devils faltered, losing to league-anchoring Buffalo State, and letting their first SUNYAC title since 1996-97 slip through their fingers.

    Tuesday, Feb. 18, with nearly 900 fans packing Steele Hall, the Blue Devils lost 3-2. Coupled with Oswego’s 7-0 win over Cortland last weekend, it was enough to cost Fredonia State the single point it needed to capture the conference and an automatic bid for the NCAA D-III tournament.

    Why am I telling you this? Not only is it a great story, but it’s a story that breaks my heart. SUNY College at Fredonia is my alma mater. I was there when they began the hockey program.

    Coach Jeff Meredith told the Dunkirk Observer, “Second is great from the standpoint that we finished seventh last year, but we just didn’t play to our potential here at the end. I’m extremely disappointed.”

    Sigh. Coach, you’re not alone.

    Heartless

    Please, Chris. Please.

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