This Week in Atlantic Hockey: Nov. 6, 2003

Expansion: A Commentary

Though this column always has a hockey focus, basketball and football are inspiring the words I lead with this week.

What began as a defection of three teams from the Big East — namely Miami, Boston College, and Virginia Tech — to the Atlantic Coast Conference, has turned into a musical-chairs mess of teams leaping from league to league in an attempt to build the better college sports conference.

After griping that teams were stolen it, the Big East did the same to Conference USA, which in turn scrambled to find six teams to fill that hole. Thursday, reports surfaced that the Atlantic 10 is looking to take two teams from C-USA as well.

You want to talk about an absolute mess? This hopscotch scenario is the case study.

The one thing in all of this that is good: it has no direct effect on college hockey. Boston College, right now, is the only affected program with a Division I team, and they’ll be staying put in Hockey East.

One issue, though, that plagues these major, all-sport conferences can be found in Atlantic Hockey: budget.

If there’s one thing that we all realize, it is the fact that no matter what industry you’re in — college athletics included — money is tight these days. Asking colleges to increase annual budgets is a very difficult thing to do.

Atlantic Hockey members are no strangers to money woes. The nine remaining teams are exactly that — remaining. They are left after two charter members of the then-MAAC — Iona and Fairfield — dropped varsity hockey, citing a need to reallocate funds.

Yet within this discussion of tightened wallets co-exists talk of the need to expand.

For Atlantic Hockey, that has existed for some time now. Names such as Robert Morris, Navy, Rhode Island, St. Anselm and a host of others have been thrown around as programs that are looking at starting or elevating to Division I men’s ice hockey.

At the same time, similar discussions (I tend to call them rumors) surfaced that teams might look to leave College Hockey America (read: Air Force). That rumor silenced itself a bit two years ago when the CHA was granted its autobid.

On a third level, there was talk of the opposite — contraction. Rumors that schools like Quinnipiac, Connecticut or Mercyhurst would leave for more competitive leagues have never been secret. That was so much so, that when Bob DeGregorio became commissioner he demanded written commitment from all programs to remain conference members.

Back to the topic, though, the rumors are all well and good when you don’t think about the financial impact. Adding money to the equation is what needs to be examined more carefully.

If leagues are going to expand, attention must be paid to geography. The Atlantic 10 ignored this by adding St. Louis, but the reality in that conference is that each school’s athletic budget is high enough to support extra travel expenses.

In a quasi-bus league like Atlantic Hockey, most teams do not rely on air transportation to travel to and from games. At last look, truly only Mercyhurst invested any significant dollars in air travel.

That, though, could change through expansion. The U.S. Naval Academy is based in Annapolis, Maryland — a cool six-hour bus ride from Erie, Pa., and Mercyhurst; seven hours from Bentley in Waltham, Mass.; and a three-plus-movie, eight-hour ride from Buffalo, N.Y., home of Canisius.

Robert Morris is in Pittsburgh, less than an hour from Mercyhurst. For the Lakers, that would be an ideal team to have in the league. But for the seven New England schools that’s equivalent to the trip to Mercyhurst and Canisius — and now the cash register is ringing.

I realize that a nine-team league creates a schedule with only 24 league games per institution, leaving a 10-game scheduling hole that needs to be filled with non-league games. The reality, though, is that many teams are able to do so without a strong budget impact: New England teams can schedule Hockey East and ECAC opponents that can be day trips.

There are, as well, economically viable expansion opportunities. The ability to add Rhode Island and Robert Morris simultaneously would create more balanced spending — Mercyhurst and Canisius would have new, local opponents, and the New England contingent would have the same. Balancing expense and expansion is not only fair, it’s smart business.

And at the end of the day it will be business that dictates whether decisions are smart or ill-advised. That means expansion needs to be (and likely will be) given a strong look from a business angle before decisions are made.

Weekly Awards

Player of the Week

Adam Tackaberry, Mercyhurst (Sr, F, Nepean, Ontario) — Tackaberry had two power play goals and an assist Thursday as Mercyhurst opened Atlantic Hockey play with a 4-1 win at Canisius. He scored the first goal of the game to put the Lakers ahead to stay, added an assist in the second period on Mercyhurst’s third goal, and concluded the Mercyhurst scoring with a power play tally in the first minute of the third period.

Goaltenders of the Week

Andy Franck, Mercyhurst (So, G, Lakewood, OH) — Franck came within 16 seconds of posting his second career shutout as the Lakers won their Atlantic Hockey opener 4-1 Thursday, October 30, at Canisius. Franck stopped 29 of 30 (.967) shots as Mercyhurst picked up its second win in three tries.

Jamie Holden, Quinnipiac (Jr, G, Telkwa, B.C) — The preseason Second-Team All-Atlantic Hockey pick made 35 stops for the Bobcats in the 4-2 win over UConn on Friday. Holden kept the Huskies off the scoreboard in the third period with 10 saves. Holden also had an assist in the win over UConn, marking the first goalie helper since Dan DiLeo did it against Bentley on March 3, 2000.

Freshman of the Week

Scott Champagne, Mercyhurst (Fr, F, Cornwall, Ontario) — Champagne’s first collegiate goal proved to be the game-winner Thursday, October 30, in a 4-1 win at Canisius. His power play goal came six minutes into the second period.

Earning Respect

One win against a nationally-ranked opponent shouldn’t earn too much for any team, particularly Mercyhurst. The somewhat insular schedule of Atlantic Hockey is enough to make it nearly impossible for Mercyhurst to have any traction in the PairWise Rankings, let alone national polls.

Reality, though, shows that the Lakers — after two trips in the last three years to the NCAAs — should be on the radar screens of Big Four teams as a potential opponent in the national tournament. Most coaches will tell you exactly that — that throughout the season teams like Quinnipiac and Mercyhurst in Atlantic Hockey, as well as the top schools in the CHA, are scouted just in case they become first-round NCAA opponents.

But while coaches will take hard looks at those clubs, pollsters usually do not. Voters on each of the national polls have a hard time recognizing that the Lakers — or anyone in Atlantic Hockey — are capable of competing at the level of the top teams. Until, that is, such a team knocks off a nationally-ranked team like the Lakers did Ohio State just a couple of weeks ago.

Even then, though, what does that merit? One win can be dismissed as a fluke. Repeating that task, though, has to open eyes.

Thus, from a national standpoint, the most critical portion of the Lakers schedule is fast approaching. A two-game series at Western Michigan November 21 and 22, along with a single game at defending ECAC champ Cornell on November 29 are barometer games that will give the best measure of where, if anywhere, in the national picture the Lakers belong.

Add to that the balance of Mercyhurst’s non-league schedule to get the full scale: at St. Lawrence on December 13; at the RPI tournament Christmas weekend; and a two-game set at Clarkson January 2 and 3.

“The [Ohio State] win was nice. Now we have to do it again,” said Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin. “We were excited when we beat Ohio State and we’ve proven to ourselves that we can do this. It’s proven that we can [win outside the conference] now and we’re expecting to do that a few more times this year.”

So what percentage of these games would Mercyhurst need to win to gain the respect of the pollster? That’s hard to measure. The only comparison available is recent years is the 1999-2000 Niagara team that went 9-6-2 against Big Four teams, captured the CHA title in its inaugural league season and received an at-large bid to the tournament. That club went on to upset New Hampshire in the first round of the tournament — possibly the most monumental upset in recent NCAA tournament history.

“Niagara’s win in the NCAAs against UNH was unbelievable,” said Gotkin. “What they did in the few years they were together was a tribute to the coaches. That was the first time that the whole nation said that these small programs have some great commitment.”

That is the path Gotkin would like to see his Lakers take. Reality dictates it’s a long road ahead, though, and the NCAA itself will make the road longer. A revamp in tournament criteria a year ago made it difficult for a MAAC team to receive an at-large bid because of its low cumulative conference RPI (for more on that, see USCHO’s explanation of the NCAA tournament criteria under the NCAAs link at the top of the page).

With the Ratings Percentage Index as a major part of the criteria for selection (it’s not only a criterion but is also the tiebreaker should you match criteria with another team), Gotkin concedes that at-large bids can’t be the focus.

“Honestly, I don’t think the NCAA would be happy having two Atlantic Hockey teams in the tournament,” said Gotkin. “But if you win your out-of-conference games on the road and you have a great conference season you should have a case for the NCAA tournament just like Hockey East or the CCHA.

“We have to focus, though, on the one way we know will get us there and that’s winning our conference tournament. Maybe that should be our motto for the rest of the year: just win.”

Ugly Opener

Getting shut out in college hockey is never pretty. It’s even uglier when it comes not in the goals department, but rather in shots on goal.

That happened to Bentley last Sunday when Union held the Falcons without a shot in the first period. All told, Union outshot Bentley, 16-0 in the first frame and 38-13 in a 5-1 Dutchmen win.

Not surprisingly, the story for the season for the Falcons has been similar. Opponents have outshot the Falcons 192-139, as Bentley has opened with a 1-3-1 overall record.

Welcome back

American International is the final Atlantic Hockey team to begin league play. Though having played three non-conference games against league teams, the Yellow Jackets have not played a game that actually counts towards the league standings — until this weekend.

AIC will play two at league leader Holy Cross. Besides looking for its first league win, AIC (0-6-0) will hope to enter the overall win column for the first time.