The Journey From MAAC to Atlantic

This past year’s MAAC Hockey championship tournament at West Point, N.Y., was the league’s most successful. If your ear was to the ground, though, that tournament weekend, you might have left with a strong impression that it would be the league’s last.

In confirmation of the rumblings that existed three months earlier, the league’s nine members made it official Monday, disbanding from the organizational structure of the MAAC and forming their own conference — Atlantic Hockey.

And with the confirmation comes the end of a five-year run for the conference that included some good times, some bad times, and most of all, some memorable moments.

I can remember when the conference was formed. I was working in the PR department for New Haven (Conn.) of the American Hockey League and there were rumors that a group of schools, led by Quinnipiac athletic director Jack McDonald, would look to elevate their current hockey programs to the Division I level.

I had spent the five previous seasons working at Massachusetts-Lowell in Hockey East. To me, the concept of a fifth Division I conference was not only a joke, it was unthinkable. Ironically, though, a year later a career move brought me to USCHO and under my nook of responsibility came covering the MAAC.

I won’t lie — there was little glamour involved. Covering the first MAAC championship at Holy Cross was worse than covering a high school tourney. There were no lineups or depth charts. The official score sheet was cryptic at best. The media room was on the other side from the make-shift press box that included a couple of tables placed on a riser and insufficient power supply. Inside the media room was one phone line and a small banquet table. Little did the league expect a house full of media would show — so much so that I still vividly remember the image of a Boston Herald scribe writing while sitting on a milk crate.

Using that as a measuring stick, the MAAC league, in particular the tournament, made major strides. When the league moved the tournament to West Point last season, it hit its peak. Solid media facilities, excellent playing facilities, a four-star host hotel (albeit 30 miles from the venue), and an environment that fans could simply embrace.

It’s no surprise that McDonald — fittingly, the spearhead of this year’s move to independence — and Atlantic Hockey’s new commissioner Bob DeGregorio made sure their first order of business was to make West Point the tournament home next season.

The improvement, at least, of the conference tournament was marked and noticeable. So you might be left with the question “Why?” Why would teams move away from such a conference and organizational body. The answers to that question are gray — some are clear, some aren’t.

MAAC Power

A solution to this problem needs to be the league’s first priority. It is understandable that this may not happen in year one, but the issue needs to reach the table. If schools are going to be required to shell out more money they need notice. Nothing is better than a year’s notice, and that could be the only solution to keeping some of the league’s top teams in place.

— on scholarships

Since the first day of the MAAC, one thing that has been an issue to many of the coaches is power. In the end, that remained a major stumbling block. When the MAAC league was formed, it consisted of eight members. Of those eight schools, though, only three — Iona, Fairfield and Canisius — were full-fledged MAAC members. In other words, these schools were the only ones to have all of their sports — not just hockey — be paying members to the MAAC.

With full membership came power. Only full-fledged MAAC members were allowed to vote on league legislation. For hockey members, that created a quasi-lobbying structure. As teams were added and the league grew to 11, still those three core MAAC schools were all to account for voting.

Never at any time did this become an issue more than in the summer and fall of 2001. During that summer, Niagara, a full-fledged member of the MAAC that played hockey in College Hockey America, expressed interest in joining the MAAC. It was during that summer that the CHA feared it may be ineligible for an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament due to complications in the league’s formation.

Niagara’s only point of contention in joining the MAAC was scholarships. Niagara offered the NCAA maximum 18 scholarships. MAAC schools, by league by-law, could offer no more than 11. In order to stay competitive, Niagara wanted the scholarship level raised.

The result was a vote by the MAAC members, of which now four had vested hockey interest, to raise the scholarship limit to 15 — a halfway point that would be considered transitory.

Then, all hell broke loose. Niagara learned that the CHA was on track to receive its auto-bid (and did so this past tournament). At that time, the school decided to stay put in the CHA. Inside the MAAC walls, though, the voting members decided it better to return to the 11 scholarships, making many of the coaches whose schools had no voting power to become irate.

Once a couple of the coaches spurted to the media (including to yours truly) about this, the Commish put a gag order on MAAC coaches preventing them from talking about scholarships to the media. Not exactly pretty, when all was said and done.

And Then There Was Findlay

The inbred fighting about scholarships may have seemed damaging to the MAAC. The reality, though, was that this was an internal issue and the problems related stayed internally.

In August of 2000, though, the MAAC brought problems to the national stage, and in so doing, brought with it one of the biggest controversies to hit college hockey in decades.

Just two years after the MAAC was formed as a conference, the league, under the direction of its by-laws, voted to eliminate Findlay from all of its members’ schedules for the entire season. The reasoning: Findlay was still classified as a Division II school and working on re-classification to Division I. MAAC by-laws, meant truly to govern some of the bigger-named sports like basketball, prohibit MAAC members from “playing down” — that is, playing Division II or Division III schools in regular-season games.

The decision itself was thought peculiar. Two years earlier, many of the MAAC schools were at the same point — reclassifying programs needing schools to play in non-league contests. But, the fact was, during that reclassification process, MAAC schools played only Division II and III members and didn’t look to outside Division I conferences for non-conference games.

The decision was met with anger from many, particularly college hockey’s “big four” conferences, which all concluded to keep Findlay on its schedule. It was the public relations nightmare from hell.

Even in days, months and years following this incident, fans remembered. When Mercyhurst made its first appearance in the NCAA Division I championship in 2001, fans bombarded the college hockey message boards with hopes that the Lakers would get trampled by first-round opponent Michigan. There was dissension included in these messages that the MAAC didn’t deserve its autobid. But to compound problems was the Findlay incident. All of this despite the fact that Mercyhurst was one of the schools in favor of playing Findlay, a school actually disappointed in the MAAC’s decision.

Not All Bad

Despite the in-league fighting over scholarships and the major problems associated with the Findlay incident, truth be told, the MAAC did more good for college hockey than harm. For one, the MAAC had one thing that no other college hockey conference had: power. Being an all-sport conference in the NCAA, the MAAC had the power to bring hockey-related issues to the table before the sport’s governing body.

Never was this more apparent than this past season when commissioner Rich Ensor discovered an NCAA by-law that threatened to take away the automatic qualifier from two of hockey’s six conferences.

The rule, which stated that each conference must posses six Division I core members, would have affected two of college hockey’s six leagues: the WCHA and the CHA. Ensor intervened at the early stages, bringing the matter to light in early 2003 thus allowing the conferences to put wheels and whatever power they had into motion. The result: safety for the two leagues. All six of college hockey’s autobids remain in place today.

And the fact that there are six can greatly be owed as well to the MAAC. With a long tradition of allowing only four Division I conferences access to their tournament, the Ice Hockey Committee was forced to recognize conferences like the MAAC and CHA. Put in basic terms, these leagues followed the rules. They established themselves as full-fledged Division I conferences, kept the required continuity, and for that were rewarded by the automatic qualifier.

College hockey’s payoff from all of this is an expanded market. The 42 teams that once were college hockey are now 58. Division I hockey exists prominently in markets like Connecticut, Alabama, and Buffalo, N.Y. In basic terms, college hockey is better off for the workings of the MAAC.

The Challenge Ahead

With the MAAC chapter now closed, Atlantic Hockey, its member schools and commissioner DeGregorio all have plenty of challenges set before them. First off, the conference must grow to a level of respect and admiration that would, in turn, lead to competitiveness.

To this point, the MAAC’s non-league record is dismal. Representing it in numbers would only serve as an embarrassment. Even against the CHA, a conference equally as young as the MAAC, there is little respect earned by looking at sheer numbers.

That will be the first point to change. The solution: scholarships. It may not happen in year one of this new league, but DeGregorio and his executive committee will be forced to immediately address this issue. Eleven scholarships is far behind the curve of NCAA’s 18, leaving even the league’s most competitive schools like Mercyhurst and Quinnipiac at such a far disadvantage that the games almost don’t warrant playing.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, the root of this comes at the formation of the league. Schools that wanted to devote all of its resources to hockey — like Quinnipiac and Mercyhurst — could not create a league just by themselves. In essence, they created a deal with the devil, joining in with school less dedicated to hockey, but equally homeless in light of changes to NCAA by-laws. The compromise was 11 scholarships.

A solution to this problem needs to be the league’s first priority. It is understandable that this may not happen in year one, but the issue needs to reach the table. If schools are going to be required to shell out more money they need notice. Nothing is better than a year’s notice, and that could be the only solution to keeping some of the league’s top teams in place.

There are other issues, such as officiating and funding for smaller programs, which DeGregorio and McDonald address in their Q&A, but in essence those should take a back seat. The nature in which this league has been set up — giving teams equal voting powers under the governance of a strong college hockey commissioner — will lend itself toward growth, stability and competitiveness. Those, though, can only be achieved through financial commitment from schools in granting sufficient scholarships to make each program competitive on a national level.

There is no doubt that the job in front of these nine schools and their new commissioner is daunting, but success could lead to the growth and power college hockey has long saught.