This Week in Division III: Jan. 8, 2004

Here It Comes

On January 12, delegates from Division III institutions will vote, and are expected to pass, a sweeping reform package know as “The Future of Division III.” From a D-III hockey standpoint, the future looks bleak if this plan is adopted. Unfortunately, it looks like it will pass. This issue is so important to the future of Division III hockey that I’m devoting the majority of this week’s column to it.

The major element of the reform package does not directly affect D-III hockey. It calls for the elimination of scholarships for the D-III schools currently playing at the D-I level. This will put in jeopardy such historic and successful programs as Clarkson, Colorado College, Rensselaer, and St. Lawrence. Between them, these schools have made 30 Frozen Four appearances and won four titles. Making it back to the NCAA tournament ever again will be tough if they are not able to compete for top players anymore.

While this proposal (which has a good chance to pass, since it’s being voted on by D-III, not D-I schools, most of which could care less about a small minority) has gotten most of the attention, the remainder of the reform package goes after, and adversely impacts, true Division III sports, including, and especially, hockey.

The high (low) points are:

1. Reducing the number of games by 10 percent. For most teams, this will mean dropping from 25 to 22 games. This is the fourth time in 20 years that small school hockey has had its season reduced. At one time, schools like RIT and Oswego could play as many as 32 regular-season games. This was reduced to 28, then to 25. How low can you go? When will it stop?

2. Shortening the D-III hockey season from 21 weeks to 19 weeks. Well, since we’re not playing as many games, let’s some eliminate some practices, too.

3. Eliminating “redshirting.” This means that players will have exactly four years to play, hurting players at schools with five year programs that encourage co-op and work-study, as well as players who get injured or may want to opt to take a year off from hockey for academic or personal reasons. I can’t think of any way this can be sold as a good thing. It’s awful.

Three words best describe these reforms; Dumb, Dumb, Dumb. They hurt athletes, coaches and fans.

But hey, it’s for our own good, according to the NCAA.

This package is being pushed forward by administrators like Middlebury president and chairman of the D-III President’s Council, John McCardell. McCardell and others are concerned that D-III sports are straying from the “Division III Philosophy”. He said, “Throughout this process we have been guided by not only the belief but the necessity that we need to bring our practices in line with our philosophy.”

Unfortunately, the Division III Philosophy is being interpreted and imposed in an elitist, paternalistic way by McCardell and other Division III presidents.

Is a return to an orthodox interpretation of the Philosophy necessary? Or does it do more harm than good? Let’s look at the Division III Philosophy tenet by tenet:

A. “Place special importance on the impact of athletics on the participants rather than on the spectators and place greater emphasis on the internal constituency (students, alumni, institutional personnel) than on the general public and its entertainment needs.”

I’m not sure how eliminating games and not allowing players to redshirt help to do this. And if the NCAA doesn’t care about fans at the D-III level, why is it more than happy to take their money for merchandise and tickets at the NCAA tournament? Why is it proposing to move the D-III Frozen Four from on-campus to neutral sites? Why does Middlebury build a new $25 fan-friendly facility? Why is Division III hockey a major sport in places like Norwich, Plattsburgh and Elmira, drawing fans not associated with the college? Funds generated by these successful programs support other sports at the schools.

B. “Award no athletically related financial aid to any student.”

This is a major difference between D-III and D-I, in my mind the ONLY major difference — money. D-III hockey players, coaches and fans are just as serious about the sport as their D-I counterparts. But they play for or follow schools not willing or able to make the major financial commitment associated with a D-I program. Schools like Clarkson and Colorado College have chosen to make this commitment for one sport only. They should be allowed to do that. Instead, the NCAA has made it almost impossible to do this, now it wants to outlaw the practice entirely.

C. “Encourage the development of sportsmanship and positive societal attitudes in all constituents, including student-athletes, coaches, administrative personal and spectators.”

And D-I and D-II don’t do this? Nothing special about Division III here.

D. “Encourage participation by maximizing the number and variety of athletics opportunities for their students.”

This is a valid difference that should be encouraged for students that want to play more than one sport. It’s easier to do at a Division III school where there isn’t a conflict of interest that may arise due to an athlete getting scholarship money to play one sport and wanting to participate in another as well.

Shortening the season will make it easier for those students to fully participate in more than one sport. Of course, they always could, but the chances were that they would miss the first few or last few games of a season due to the length of traditionally longer seasons, like hockey. Still, a small minority of hockey players play other sports. Why penalize the vast majority by taking games away to suit a smaller number of players who can voluntarily shorten the season themselves by missing games that conflict with their other sport(s)?

E. “Assure that the actions of coaches and administrators exhibit fairness, openness and honesty in their relationships with student-athletes.”

Again, this is not unique to Division III. We can be cynical about “big time” Division I sports, but the vast majority of D-I institutions follow this philosophy. It’s insulting and elitist to insinuate that they do not.

F. “Assure that athletics participants are not treated differently from other members of the student body.”

Once again, I don’t think the reforms in place, other than the scholarship elimination, do anything to assure this.

G. “Assure that athletics programs support the institution’s educational mission by financing, staffing and controlling the programs through the same general procedures as other departments of the institution.”

Another case of stating the obvious. Other than very major programs at very large schools, this is the case for all colleges, Division I through Division III.

H. “Provide equitable athletics opportunities for males and females and give equal emphasis to men’s and women’s sports.”

Again, not special to Division III. Title IX says the same thing.

I. “Support ethnic and gender diversity for all constituents.”

Of course. And not unique to Division III, so why state the obvious?

J. “Give primary emphasis to regional in-season competition and conference championships.”

This is a sore point with many players and fans. Players want to play the best competition, and it’s exciting to travel to play teams in other leagues and other regions. Fans want to see the best matchups. It’s a disgrace that the NCAA attempts to punish teams for doing this by ignoring these games during the tournament selection process. They are one of the top indicators of a team’s strength and a barometer for comparing teams from different regions.

K. “Support student-athletes in their efforts to reach high levels of athletics performance, which may include opportunities for participation in national championships, by providing all teams with adequate facilities, competent coaching and appropriate competitive opportunities.”

Sigh. I would hope so. Again, not unique to Division III.

So why is this happening? The reform movement consists of two groups: Elitist organizations like the NESCAC which have long imposed more rigorous restrictions on their athletic programs in the name of “intellectual integrity,” and smaller Division III schools which field teams made solely of walk-ons, i.e. high school level.

The holier-than-thou faction now seeks to impose their guidelines on all of Division III. Limiting their own programs is not good enough anymore. Their hypocrisy, short-sightedness and arrogance is stunning. One only has to review the NESCAC guidelines to see that these schools, much like the Ivies, consider themselves better than other colleges, and therefore more qualified to dictate to the rest of us.

Baloney. For example, the NESCAC wants shorter seasons so its athletes can play more than one sport, but then makes grand claims about the need to limit the athletic experience so that it doesn’t interfere with academics. Does anyone else see the inconsistency there?

The NESCAC mission statement says, “… our members are committed first and foremost to academic excellence and believe that athletic excellence supports our educational mission.” So does every other college in the U.S. And they have been able to accomplish that without shorter seasons and without eliminating redshirting. Why can’t the NESCAC?

The remainder of the schools pushing the legislation would be better off in a Division IV, which could prohibit recruiting. These schools field teams made up of former high-school players and have part-time coaches and limited facilities. You won’t find hockey at these schools, because hockey is expensive, and college hockey has highly skilled players, even at the Division III level. Rarely do you see players go from high schools to college hockey. Most have played prep school or junior hockey, most are over 18 (20-year-old freshmen are common at the top programs).

Since these schools do not have or choose not to allocate the resources to compete on a high level, their agenda is to bring the rest of Division III down to their level, hiding behind the Division III Philosophy in order to do so. Disgusting.

Want a realistic Division III Philosophy? Here goes:

1. Division III athletes, coaches and fans are just as committed to and take their sports just as seriously as their Division I counterparts. The only difference is the financial commitment made by their institutions, i.e., the emphasis they choose to place on athletics. Division III provides players the opportunity to play while allowing cost containment for institutions not willing to make a major investment.

2. Schools should be able to choose to make such an investment in as many or as few sports as they want. Schools like Clarkson should be encouraged and applauded for stepping up their hockey program. Other schools should be encouraged to do so.

3. The role and philosophy of academics is no better or worse at a D-III school than a D-I school. ALL schools in all divisions place the highest level of importance on education. The pursuit of academic excellence should not interfere and can complement the pursuit of athletic excellence. De-emphasizing athletics is a choice to be made by individual institutions and in no way makes them academically superior. If anything, it makes them paternalistic and pandering.

Enough of my manifesto. If you agree or disagree, I’d like to hear from you. This topic concerns anyone involved in college hockey.

Who’s Up, Who’s Down

Instead of team-based Power Ratings this week, let’s rank the conferences. Some leagues are up this season, others are down, some shockingly so.

1. NCHA — One of the strongest conferences year-over-year is head and shoulders above the crowd this season. All but one team has been ranked in the poll this season. It’s a shame that at most three and more likely just two teams will be able to play in the NCAA tournament.

2. ECAC East — This may be the season that the ECAC East steps out of the NESCAC’s shadow. Norwich is the best team in Division III right now, and New England College, Babson (which beat both Plattsburgh and RIT last weekend) and Salem State are on the rise.

3. NESCAC — Is having an off year by NESCAC standards. Middlebury is as strong as ever, but Bowdoin, Colby and Trinity have yet to catch fire. Amherst and Wesleyan are pleasant surprises, and Williams is coming on after a slow start.

4. SUNYAC — Here’s where things drop off dramatically. Plattsburgh and Oswego have had their moments, but are both slumping. Geneseo, Potsdam and Fredonia have not lived up to expectations so far.

5. ECAC West — Arguably the top conference in recent years, the West teams have not done well in non-conference games, their usually strong point. Parity within the league will make for an exciting race, but don’t expect the Pool B winner to go very far in the NCAA tournament.

6. MIAC — Last season the MIAC challenged the NCHA for western supremacy, but this season it’s no contest. Only St. John’s and St. Mary’s are over .500.

7. ECAC Northeast — This league is definitely moving up thanks to Curry and Wentworth. The top four or five teams would fit in very well in the ECAC East or West. It’s the bottom six to eight teams that drag the overall strength of the league down.

8. MCHA — Just 2-28-1 out of conference, they have a way to go.

Good News, and Sad News

USA Hockey scored a tremendous victory by claiming the gold medal at this year’s World Junior Championships in Finland. In the history of American hockey, I would but this win behind only the 1980 Olympic gold medal and the 1997 World Cup, and slightly ahead of the 1960 Olympic gold.

A somewhat beleaguered National Development Program will be bolstered by this win, and hopefully more attention will be paid to this tournament when it is held in North Dakota next year.

On a sad note, Adam Keeler, a first-year player at Mass-Dartmouth, was killed in an auto accident early in the morning of New Year’s Day. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Adam’s family, friends and teammates.

A memorial fund has been established in his memory:

Adam P. Keeler Memorial Scholarship Fund
c/o Peter Destos
Marshfield High School, Forest St.
Marshfield, MA 02050