This Week in the CHA: Jan. 1, 2004

Now that the last cup of holiday cheer has been drained — and recovered from — we can get back to what truly makes our winters merry: college hockey. It sure seems like eons since we last conversed, so let’s try and get a hold on things.

Niagara received far worse than a lump of coal in its stocking. Santa Claus came and took its star rookie forward, Jeremy Hall, up the chimney and back to his old junior team, the Danville Wings.

Circumstances surrounding his departure seem fishy. Both the coach and general manager of the Wings were adamant that Hall made up his mind and the general manager, Josh Mervis, suggested that Hall had been unsure of his decision to go to Niagara from the get-go. In fact, Hall had quit Niagara once before in December.

However, a decision of this magnitude usually has a greater explanation than the vague “personal reasons” given by the Niagara official website or Mervis’ claim that Hall did not find “the right fit” as a Purple Eagle. Danville owner Lou Mervis (Josh’s dad) has not made a statement on the matter. Stay tuned.

Regardless of why Hall left, Niagara has to make sure that his departure does not cost it the CHA championship. Considering that it could tear a locker room asunder when a player with 11 goals midway through the year packs up and leaves town, the Purple Eagles were remarkably sanguine about the situation.

“We didn’t even talk about it as a team,” said Niagara coach Dave Burkholder. “He went home for Christmas and quit. We didn’t discuss it. The team saw an empty stall and knew that it had been in the works with Danville for over a month.”

It appears that with Hall having left once before, the team expected a maneuver like this. Rather than play team counselor, Burkholder has the more practical problem of finding a replacement to line up with Barrett Ehgoetz, right now the best player in the CHA.

During the Denver Cup, senior Chris Welch and freshman Sean Bentivoglio played alongside the captain, but for this coming weekend, Burkholder is going to turn back the clock to a season ago and skate Joe Tallari.

“Whoever plays on Barrett’s right wing is going to have 11 goals in the second semester,” Burkholder said. “Joe Tallari is back up there. I guarantee you he is going to start scoring.”

As has been well documented here, Tallari thrived a year ago skating with Ehgoetz, leading the CHA with 55 points. The senior forward has yet to crack double digits in points this year, with nine. The Purple Eagles have endured his extended slump because Ehgoetz jumped to the next level — and the team added Hall to the offensive lineup.

Slowly, Tallari has impressed in games and practice to earn his spot and he is very excited about his new opportunity.

“He said after practice that he has a good rapport with Barrett and he’s excited that he’s earned this opportunity,” Burkholder said. “He’s a pretty coachable kid and he wanted to do whatever it takes to get back to where he was last year.”

Niagara is built around its offense. The team played very well in the Denver Cup, losing to the hosts 3-2 despite outshooting the No. 5 Pioneers, 38-35, and then defeating Yale, 2-1. Without a shot in the arm, it could open the door for Bemidji State in the standings.

The team could also use a jolt on the power play. The Purple Eagles went 0-for-8 against Denver and then were 1-for-6 against the Bulldogs. The team is fifth in the conference with the man advantage.

“When you get to the second semester it’s all about winning,” Burkholder said. “Whoever produces is going to play and that’s at every position.”

The Purple Eagles have just Colgate on Saturday before preparing for a big home weekend next week against the Beavers. It will be a good test to see just how the team will coalesce for the second half.

Home on the Range

It happens every year, so it really shouldn’t be newsworthy when Bemidji coach Tom Serratore faces his brother, Air Force coach Frank Serratore, in a weekend contest. In the holiday spirit, the pair decided to make this contest all about family.

After playing at the usual John Glas Fieldhouse on Friday, Bemidji and Air Force will square off on Saturday at the Hodgins-Berado Arena in the Serratores’ hometown of Coleraine, right in the heart of northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. It will be the first ever Division I game held in the Range, and it’s teeming with sentimentality for the fraternal coaches.

“It’s a great facility that reeks of hockey tradition,” Tom Serratore said. “It’s a smaller building with not as much of a neutral zone, seating about 2200 with the fans right on top of you. It’s an historic venue, with a lot of character equivalent of playing in the old Boston Garden or the Auditorium in Buffalo.”

The move is part of Bemidji’s ongoing attempt to inculcate itself more deeply in Minnesota’s hockey tradition. The Beavers created a traveling trophy of Babe the Blue Ox, to be awarded at a now-annual meeting with Minnesota-Duluth. Now, the school is bringing live action to fans who usually have to trek a lot farther to see college hockey.

“Bemidji is on break so there won’t be as many people around to see us in our home rink,” Tom Serratore explained. “It’s an opportune time to play there. We’ll have lots of family and friends there. More importantly, a lot of people are going to be exposed to Division I hockey and it will be nice for them to see a game in their home barn.”

Beyond the Kodak moment, Tom Serratore needs this series to keep pace with Niagara. Bemidji is off to its best CHA start ever at 5-1 and can eclipse the Purple Eagles in the conference standings by sweeping. Niagara will have two games in hand.

It will not be an easy task. Air Force had an excellent Christmas tournament, scoring twice in the final ten minutes against Sacred Heart to tie the game before winning in a shootout. If ever a team deserved a comeback, the Falcons did, sending a 50-shot barrage at the Pioneer goal.

In the finals, goaltender Mike Polidor stopped 33 of 34 Connecticut shots. However, the Huskies’ freshman netminder, Scott Tomes, was even more spectacular, gobbling all 32 Falcon volleys to give his team a 1-0 win and the UConn Hockey Classic championship.

“They have good speed and move up and down the ice very well,” Tom Serratore said of his brother’s squad. “We are going to have our work cut out for us.”

Out of the Frying Pan…

Wayne State upset Brown in the first round of the Subway Holiday Classic to drop the Bears from the national rankings. For those efforts, the Warriors had the honor of playing the host, No. 1 North Dakota.

The Fighting Sioux, perhaps a little irritated at needing a third period comeback to defeat Findlay in their own first-round game, drubbed the Warriors, 8-2. Coach Bill Wilkinson was philosophical about his team’s defensive style against the top-ranked program in the country.

“The Sioux are big, fast, and skilled up front,” Wilkinson said. “All of the things that we are not.”

The road doesn’t get any simpler for Wayne State. Now, it gets to travel to Colorado for games against No. 6 Colorado College and No. 5 Denver. Adding to Wilkinson’s woes is the fact that star sophomore Derek MacKay broke his ankle against UND and is likely lost for the season.

Expectations, therefore, are low.

“I don’t think that you can ever get ready for the teams that we are playing,” Wilkinson said. “We just have to go in there, realize who we are and who they are and not to stray from that. With our kids playing a top-quality team, it raises their level and that helps us down the stretch drive.”

The bright spot from Christmas came in putting three past Brown’s Yann Danis, who may be the best goaltender in the country. It featured the first collegiate goal by Mark Nebus, a talented freshman who has not been able to get untracked. Wayne State will need him to get going.

“I think [Nebus’] expectations were a lot greater than he realized,” Wilkinson said. “He just thought that he could walk in here and it could happen. This has been a learning experience and an adjustment for him and it’s good to see him get his first goal.”

Findlay and What Might Have Been

With eight minutes left against North Dakota, Findlay had a 1-0 lead and seemed poised to do the unthinkable — drop the best team in the country on its own rink. The Oilers, not only unranked, but also tied for fourth in the conference, were in a position to steal a game thanks to the spectacular play of goaltender Will Hooper, who made 38 saves.

The Sioux finished the game with a 41-15 shot advantage and a 3-1 victory, but Findlay came oh, so close. The Oilers came back and tied Brown in the consolation game before losing the shootout.

Not Everybody Loves Christmas

Bemidji and Alabama Huntsville stayed home for the holidays. That’s just how Tom Serratore likes it:

“A long break is healthy, you get the bumps and bruises taken care of,” he said. “We were in a Christmas tournament last year and it’s pick your poison….It’s always fun to be in a Christmas tournament, but then it seems that guys never have a break. Our final exams went all the way to Dec. 19. We could’ve been in a Christmas tournament, but our schedule dictated that it wasn’t beneficial to us.”

For the homebodies, their games this weekend will be their first since Dec. 13, when they played each other. It was a 5-3 win for Bemidji.

Happy New Year, everyone. Thanks for reading.