ECAC Reacts, Plans For Future

The decision by Vermont to leave the ECAC for Hockey East, beginning in the 2005-06 season, has the potential to impact not just the two aforementioned conferences, but up to two more. In today’s college hockey landscape, with just six conferences, that’s a lot.

A lot of that depends on how the ECAC reacts to the situation.

ECAC commissioner Phil Buttafuoco said Thursday that the league’s executive committee, comprised of five athletic directors, will have a conference call next Wednesday and begin the process of figuring out what the league will do. The hope is to have a decision by the ECAC tournament in March. Buttafuoco said nothing was off the table, including leaving the ECAC at 11 teams, adding one to make 12 again, or even going higher.

“I don’t think it’s imperative at all at this point [to have 12],” Buttafuoco said. “That committee’s goal is to look at all the ramifications of staying at 11, the need, if at all, to stay at 12, and the advantages or disadvantages of going beyond 12.”

He also refused to rule in, or out, any particular school.

“Although several schools already have contacted us, the league will work through its committee structure to review the membership criteria and the philosophical and institutional fit of any prospective member,” Buttafuoco said.

It’s safe to assume, however, that the ECAC, if it decides to add a school, will look for a new member that fits into the league’s academic and geographic profile.

“We have not expanded since Hockey East broke off, except for Union coming in early on,” Buttafuoco said. “So we’re going to be evaluating criteria and certainly academics is going to be a high priority to any expansion. I would venture to say that the quality of the facility, the commitment of the institution to the hockey program and its overall hockey program, and certainly geography is something that will be considered, but I couldn’t tell you right now how important that is in relationship to the other criteria.”

Among the schools rumored to be interested in entering the ECAC are Sacred Heart, Holy Cross and Quinnipiac, all currently members of Atlantic Hockey. As a result, Vermont’s move could ripple down into a third conference. Or perhaps Niagara would be interested, which would impact College Hockey America. And with the CHA desperate to fill a hole left by the departure of Findlay, the machinations could continue.

The ECAC is in further flux, depending on the result of Monday’s vote at the NCAA convention on whether Division III schools that “play up” in hockey will be allowed to still give scholarships. Three of the affected schools — St. Lawrence, Clarkson and RPI — are in the ECAC.

“It’s ironic we’re discussing this [Vermont] issue today,” said Buttafuoco. “As diverse as ECAC hockey is, with our different memberships, institutions that are Division I, with scholarships and without, with Union … we have such a diverse membership, there’s a number of issues facing ECAC hockey that we’re addressing.”

The ECAC didn’t put up much of a fight to keep Vermont, and Buttafuoco indicated that it really had no way of doing so.

“I talked to them a number of times during the last couple of weeks, and certainly in the last conversations that we had, it was clear the university had gone through a strategic analysis to determine this was the best decision and the best fit for the institution,” Buttafuoco said. “It was clear the university had made this decision prior to submitting its application to Hockey East.

“The ECAC appreciates the fact that Vermont is about to begin a $250 million capital campaign to include a new state-of-the-art arena and that its alumni base is largely located in Hockey East communities. We also understand the existing partnerships Vermont has with America East institutions and the fact that Vermont is a public land-grant institution played pivotal roles in this decision.”

Buttafuoco said he was not concerned this move would have a ripple effect and cause instability in the ECAC to the point of dissension.

“Our administrators have really bonded together in the last year and a half with a committee structure that has provided much more leadership and overall involvement than our structure had previously,” he said. “So I’m pleased with where we’re at, and I think that the more that our committee structure works together, the deeper the commitment of our member institutions will be.

“We’ve got 11 great other institutions as a member of ECAC hockey. In the short term, it creates challenges because of the way we’ve scheduled games in the past with travel partners. That’s our most immediate issue. I wouldn’t say it’s a blow. ECAC hockey is doing very well with its other 11 institutions and we’ll continue to evaluate our needs.”