The start of a new CHA season gives us a chance to take a look at the big picture and see where the conference is headed. Last year, the CHA secured its automatic bid, so now the conference sets its sights on more substantive success against the elite of college hockey.
In a lengthy interview this week, CHA Commissioner Bob Peters outlined his vision for the future of the conference. The young conference could not have a more optimistic man at the helm.
“This is our fifth year, and we are making major progress,” said Peters. “We’ve had Niagara make it to the NCAA Tournament in 2000 and Wayne State received the automatic bid last year, and in both cases the teams did well.
“We play a large number of nonconference games and we’ve played every conference without exception. That has been extremely helpful to our members, it helps with our recruiting and with our fan base as well as setting the bar for us.”
Peters made sure to pass the credit around to each of the programs on his conference’s success.
“As our programs mature, our coaches have been extremely effective in game tactics and recruiting, along with a financial commitment by the schools and athletic directors.
Although in most of our nonconference games we have suffered defeat, very seldom have we been beaten by large numbers. We are closing the gap.”
As part of the effort to close the gap between the CHA and the other major conferences, Peters stated that all of the conference’s programs are on firm footing at their respective schools, then turned to a desire to expand from the league’s current modest membership of six teams.
“There are about 190 club teams playing hockey on the men’s side and about 20 on the women’s side, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. I can visualize the future when those schools will want to elevate their programs to the varsity level.
“We are certainly open to expansion. We have a structured committee and we are ready to proceed. We’ve explored every option, although we are not ready to do something immediately. For hockey this is like the 1920s for basketball and football.
If membership expansion is not imminent, Peters’ focus is on growing the fan base and working on the playoff tournament.
“We have a television deal in the works,” he said. “Some of our members already have local TV deals and we will get exposure on the college hockey game of the week on CSTV.
“We are working on our fan base. Air Force and Bemidji have had the most success to date, but since Wayne State made the round of 16, it really put them on the map. Our schedules keep getting better, bringing in top teams that draw fans.
“Taking the conference tournament to a neutral site in Kearney, Nebraska was a major step for us. The home of the [pro minor-league] Tri-City Storm, they are very new to college hockey, but we’ve had our best attendance ever out there. We are spreading the gospel of college hockey to a new place and we have something to build off there.”
Peters constantly referred to his conference’s out-of-town schedule, taking pride in the fact that CHA teams will face Denver, Colorado College, Minnesota, North Dakota, Clarkson and St. Lawrence. And that’s not to mention Findlay’s berth in the Michigan State-hosted Ice Breaker Tournament this weekend.
Rather than outline grandiose plans, Peters emphasized patience as the key to the CHA’s long-term growth.
“To sum it all up, it is not about today, or even tomorrow. It is about 10 to 15 years from now. We are committed to this project. I’ve seen how far we’ve come and I can visualize our future accomplishments.
“I’m having a great time doing it.”
After a few near-meaningless exhibition contests against foes outside of NCAA hockey, CHA teams receive their first litmus tests this weekend. No one has a sterner trial — or better opportunity — than Findlay, playing at Michigan State in the opening game of the Ice Breaker Tournament
“This whole weekend is a test for us, even though it’s the second or third game of the season,” said Findlay coach Pat Ford. “We can’t worry about Michigan State or whomever we play in the next game. These games will stress our discipline, and will show us just where we are at.”
After their contest with the Spartans, the Oilers will face either Boston College or Minnsota-Duluth. And make no mistake, the team is excited to join one of college hockey’s new-yet-traditional season-opening tournaments.
Findlay has had a good first week of the season, defeating the U.S. Under-18 team, 4-1, last Wednesday, and, according to Ford, has had a strong week of practice. With 14 freshmen on the roster, these things count more than normal because Ford has to evaluate his talent. Two particularly have stood out this far: wingers Mike Batovanja and Chris Weller, who had a goal and an assist in Wednesday’s game.
“Weller had a real nice power-play goal and showed some poise in an assist,” Ford said.
At the Ice Breaker, Ford will also be looking at his veteran talent, especially junior winger Rigel Shaw, a 6-3, 215-pound power forward who had 21 points a year ago.
“Shaw has the potential, in my opinion, to be one of our best scorers,” Ford said. “He’s big and what I liked is that he has worked hard to be physical and when he gets down low, he is awfully tough to move.”
The Oilers have no delusions that they need some work before conference play, but this tournament will show just how much labor is left undone.
Just as you can really discard Findlay’s performance against Team USA, Wayne State’s victory over Windsor is almost as meaningless — except for providing an opportunity to stretch the legs before D-I competition.
The Warriors face the stiffest competition after the Oilers, traveling to the North Country to play a deuce against St. Lawrence. Underclassmen Mike Forgie and Derek MacKay flanked senior center Chris Vail in an effective combination that produced three goals. The Saints will provide a much stiffer test for the trio.