This Week in Atlantic Hockey: Oct. 16, 2003

State of the League

Two games total have been played in Atlantic Hockey, but that doesn’t mean that the work behind the scenes isn’t as heated as the league’s March playoff run.

Since early summer Commissioner Bob DeGregorio has had to lay the ground work for a hockey conference from scratch. That translates to everything from finding office space and furniture, to hiring, to working television deals and officiating contracts.

Amidst all of that, though, lie the themes that existed in the MAAC: scholarships, finances, expansion and contraction.

Simply put, the formation of Atlantic Hockey is nothing more than an adoption. The nine teams that remained after Iona and Fairfield chose to eliminate hockey carry with them baggage. Finances lead that list, with each of the nine schools at different financial points. Quinnipiac and Mercyhurst are in position to increase spending, while others such as AIC and Bentley can’t make that commitment.

The result is DeGregorio attempting to develop a road map that appeases each interest.

Scholarships are the first issue that his plan will tackle. Right now the Atlantic Hockey limit is 11, seven less that the NCAA limit. Schools such as UConn and Holy Cross posses policies similar to Ivy League schools and do not give scholarships. Army’s admission policy and service requirement pays for all of its students’ education, thus taking scholarships out of the mix.

These schools butt heads with Quinnipiac, Mercyhurst, Canisius, and Sacred Heart, all of which would give additional scholarships if allowed in order to make their programs competitive on a national level.

According to DeGregorio, this becomes a key issue.

“Scholarships are an issue that everyone has,” said DeGregorio. “We really haven’t had a full discussion because it will likely be a meeting itself at our annual meeting.

“There are those that want more and those that want status quo. At some point there will be a compromise, I think, and it’s an issue that bears a lot of discussion and planning.

DeGregorio said that though he anticipates an increase, it won’t happen this year and definitely won’t be an immediate jump to the maximum.

“We likely won’t jump from 11 to 18 but there will be some movement,” DeGregorio said. There has to be a well-drawn out plan, if we’re going to do that.

“No matter what they agree to, it will have to be spread out over a period of time that each school can easily digest. It has to be very doable for all concerned.”

DeGregorio understands, though, that the lack of movement on this issue could be detrimental to the league, should teams that want to add scholarships find opportunities elsewhere.

“There’s always the possibility [teams will leave],” said DeGregorio, citing Boston College’s recent jump from the Big East to the ACC. “That could happen to us tomorrow, and if one of our schools decides to go anywhere else it would be devastating.”

He noted that right now there isn’t anywhere for these schools to go. The ECAC, he said, could become an option should the Ivy schools form their own league. Or that other conferences could decide to expand. All of that, though, is beyond his league’s control.

“There are plenty of rumblings and if one team leaves it would create a problem,” DeGregorio said. “But we’ve had discussions with the directors of each school and the coaches and they’re all committed to build Atlantic Hockey.”

Part of that building process could be through expansion. The league has received a formal application from Robert Morris and rumors have surfaced that Navy, Rhode Island and St. Anselm could be potential members.

That, though, is still down the road.

“The directors are not prepared to expand the league at this point in time,” said DeGregorio. “They want to get through our first year’s growing pains. We’ve had to get incorporated through the legal end and work on a new officials’ contract. With all of this, and we started this in July, there’s just not enough time to be prepared for expansion. We’re just not ready right now, but by 2005 it’s a very strong possibility.”

DeGregorio’s number-one goal is to make the conference financially sound, quickly. When he took over as Hockey East commissioner in the mid-90s, the league was in a similar position as Atlantic Hockey is now, operating solely on members’ dues on a year-to-year basis. His plan for that league called for the ability to put one year’s operating budget in reserve and increase the league’s budget three-to-five percent annually. The goal at the end is to return dividends to each member.

Atlantic Hockey will follow the same financial model, which requires solid corporate sponsorship and revenue from the league tournament. This year’s tournament will be a two-week event at Army’s campus in West Point, N.Y. All nine teams will qualify for a single-elimination format that will produce five separate admission gates over the tournament’s four days.

The first three rounds, including a play-in game, four quarterfinals and two semis, will take place the first weekend. The championship game will be schedule the following Friday or Saturday contingent upon securing a television contract.

All of this should generate revenues significantly higher that the receipts of past MAAC championships. Still, there’s work to do.

“We have a tight budget to maintain an office and a staff and all of the administrative costs that go along with the league,” DeGregorio said. “We hope to build a treasury by using the income from the playoffs … and our ultimate goal is to make this league fiscally sound.”

Weekly Awards

Player of the Week: John Kelly, Quinnipiac

Kelly was named the Quinnipiac Cup MVP after helping the Bobcats win their sixth title in eight years. Kelly assisted on the game-winner in Friday’s 3-2 overtime victory over AIC and a night later scored the OT marker to beat Air Force, 4-3.

Goaltender of the Week: Simon St. Pierre, Bentley

Splitting his team’s two games at last weekend’s Quinnipiac Cup, St. Pierre turned in two stellar performances. On Friday night he made 47 saves in a 4-2 loss to Air Force and Saturday bounced back with 33 saves in a 6-3 win over AIC.

Freshman of the Week: Reid Cashman, Quinnipiac

The Q-Cup ended up producing all of this week’s award winners, with Cashman collecting a goal and two assists in the Bobcats’ two games. He registered two assists on Friday versus AIC and scored on the power play Saturday night.

Home Sweet Home in Buffalo

There’s something strange to the start of the season for Canisius. Unlike other members of Atlantic Hockey who have to trek around to non-league road games, Canisius won’t leave the cozy confines of Buffalo for nearly the first month of the season.

Playing a schedule the features four home games the first two weekends and then two at Buffalo’s HSBC Arena (home of last year’s Frozen Four), the following week, head coach Brian Cavanaugh doesn’t have to worry about travel details for a while.

“We spend a lot of time on the road,” said Cavanaugh, whose Griffs have only Mercyhurst within reasonable distance among the eight other Atlantic Hockey clubs. “It’s nice to not have to travel right away.”

Canisius’ early homestand stems from solid negotiations on Cavanaugh’s part. It began last weekend when Holy Cross traveled to Buffalo for the first two league games in Atlantic Hockey history. According to Holy Cross coach Paul Pearl, he found making an early trip to Buffalo a relief — the series would have been scheduled instead amongst a very difficult month of February.

This weekend, Canisius hosts Lake Superior as part of a two-year exchange program. Rarely in Atlantic Hockey have teams been able to score home games against non-league opponents from the Big Four conferences. Cavanaugh, though, found that important when negotiating his non-league schedule.

“I’ve been trying to negotiate playing non-conference games on two-year deals where we play two games at their place and two at ours, as opposed to just going somewhere on a one-year, single game guarantee,” said Cavanaugh. “Fortunately it worked out on the agreement with Lake State that they’d come to Buffalo this year.

“We’ve done and will do everything to accommodate them when they’re in town to make sure they’re comfortable and enjoy the environment.”

The translation to Canisius and Cavanaugh is a luxury often missing for Atlantic Hockey teams: non-conference home games. Atlantic Hockey teams, not possessing the top-notch facilities or crowds of their Big Four opponents, have had a more difficult time scheduling home non-league contests. It’s a similar problem as that facing some of the Big Four’s lower-profile schools.

“When we play a school like Michigan, we have to travel to them,” said Merrimack head coach Chris Serino, who last weekend scheduled his club’s home opener against Sacred Heart. “If we play a team from Atlantic Hockey, they’ll travel to us because they want the game.”

That, though, is obviously a trend coaches like Cavanaugh want to buck.

“I think there’s a tremendous advantage to play at home,” said Cavanaugh. “It’s not like the NHL where all the buildings are the same.

“In the old days of the NHL you had some rinks will smaller ice surfaces and every one had their own aura. Back then, it was a tremendous advantage.

“College hockey has a certain semblance to the NHL back in that bygone era. You go to Omaha it’s a different game. Go to North Dakota and it’s a different game. You can’t tell me playing BC, BU and Merrimack that it’s all the same environment.

“So the more games Atlantic Hockey teams can get in their own rinks, the closer they can get to having wins against [nonconference] opponents.”