Just days before its MAAC quarterfinal with Mercyhurst, Iona announced Tuesday that it will drop its men’s hockey program effective at the end of this season. Iona joins Fairfield as the second MAAC school to drop men’s hockey this season.
The announcement came after a meeting on March 6 of the college’s Legal Board of Trustees that approved the elimination of hockey and women’s tennis and the creation of a women’s lacrosse program. The deletions become effective for the 2003-04 academic year, though the addition of women’s lacrosse will not take place until the 2004-05 season.
“While we are sensitive to the fact that this is an unpopular decision in the eyes of many, particularly those that it directly impacts, we are also firm in our beliefs that this is the best decision for the overall well-being of our athletics program as we move forward,” said Iona president James A. Liguori, CFC. “We are certainly concerned about the programs and individuals whose lives this impacts and alters. However, we feel that this decision will have an overwhelmingly positive long-term affect on our remaining programs and student-athletes.”
“This decision was not easily arrived at,” said Iona director of athletic Shawn Brennan, a former assistant commissioner in the MAAC. “It comes following a long and arduous examination of our entire athletics’ program, focusing on issues such as facilities, student-athlete welfare and experience, conference affiliation, budget, personnel as well as overall competitive and excellence standards.
“We feel that this realignment will result in better overall excellence of our programs, improved allocations of our facility, fiscal and personnel resources while providing a more positive overall experience for the Iona College student-athlete.”
Iona struggled to an 11-21-2 overall record this season, but thanks to a late-season rally qualified for the eighth and final spot in the MAAC playoffs. The team will travel to Erie, Pa., this weekend for a single-elimination quarterfinal game versus Mercyhurst.
In five seasons in the MAAC, Iona had its share of ups and downs. The Gaels were predicted to finish last in the original eight-team league’s inaugural season but surprised many with a respectable 12-15-1 league record in 1998-99, good for a sixth-place finish.
A year later, Iona again finished sixth (out of 10 teams) with a 13-12-2 league record, but shocked many in the post-season, knocking off Canisius in the quarterfinals and top-seeded Quinnipiac in the semifinals. Iona feel that year to host Connecticut in the MAAC championship game.
In 2000-01, the Gaels posted their best Division I season ever, finishing at 18-13-4 (16-6-4 in the MAAC) and tied with Quinnipiac for second place. In a rematch of the year prior, Iona fell to Quinnipiac in the semifinals.
Last season, picked by many to finish near the top of the league, Iona struggled to a 12-12-2 league record and a seventh-place finish, falling to Quinnipiac in overtime in the quarterfinals.
Ironically, Iona’s last regular-season game this season was against Fairfield as that program, failing to make the playoffs, closed its doors on hockey.
The loss of Iona leaves the MAAC with only nine hockey members for the 2003-04 season, though commissioner Rich Ensor has on several occasions noted his desire to expand the league, with potential targets including Rhode Island, Robert Morris and Navy.
Iona’s departure also leaves the MAAC hockey league with just one core member of the full multi-sport MAAC — Canisius. Niagara, the only other MAAC school that will play hockey next year, is a member of College Hockey America in that sport.
According to Ensor, Iona’s decision to drop hockey is a disturbing trend schools are faced with in today’s economy.
“It’s just a reflection on the current state of the economy and the cost of operations,” said Ensor. “Schools are looking at the option of reassigning their budget to meet the overall goals of the programs.”
When asked whether the latest reduction in core MAAC members will affect the league, Ensor was not alarmed.
“We’d prefer to have more MAAC members, but it’s up to the overall membership to decide how to administer the league,” said Ensor. “When they came [in the beginning] with just three [MAAC] schools, we felt we could manage the hockey operations and we’re still willing to handle this if the membership wants us to.
“The full MAAC membership hasn’t raised any concern with us about that.”
Ensor said that Iona is the last program he knows of that is considering dropping hockey, but warns that doesn’t mean more change won’t happen.
“[Change] occurs on a regular basis,” said Ensor. “A lot of this came from a self-study that we as a league went through on overall costs as they relate to athletics. The presidents that ran that operation felt we were overspending on sports. But the study found that as a whole we do well economically whether as hockey or as a league in sports.”
Ensor dismissed thoughts that Iona’s elimination might press the league to further pursue Niagara. Ensor says the ball is in Niagara’s court on that issue.
“Niagara knows that if the option [to join the MAAC] makes sense for them, the option exists,” said Ensor. “I don’t think there’s any more sense of urgency now than there was before.”