This Week in the CHA: Jan. 8, 2004

There are many tragic elements to the story of Findlay dropping varsity hockey, but the worst aspect of all may be the simple fact that nobody bothered to tell the coach until the last day.

Findlay coach Pat Ford may have started to see the writing on the wall, but at no point was he part of the decision-making process to shut down the program. Ford was told of the final decision on Tuesday, January 6 at 9 a.m. The press conference was scheduled for 11.

The school administration had made the decision on Dec. 9.

“This was a tough decision to swallow for our guys,” Ford said. “It’s a time to reflect and grieve. The university felt it was a decision that they had to make. Some of the circumstances surrounding it make me uncomfortable.”

All through the holidays, Ford blissfully watched his team nearly upend a trio of college hockey’s finest. The Oilers held a 1-0 lead over No. 1 North Dakota until eight minutes left and limited Brown and Notre Dame to one goal apiece the next two games.

After toiling for a half season, this was finally real and substantive progress that had a chance to carry over into CHA play, making the young Oilers a pesky threat and no easy win for whoever might end up league champion. But the suddenly vivacious squad was dead on arrival.

“I could just see the team starting to come together,” Ford said. “We were working hard and competing and they had made tremendous strides. They were outstanding both on the ice and in the classroom.”

This was a hard pill to swallow for a man who took the job in the summer with the expectation that his program had real support.

The administration claimed that hockey was a drain on Findlay’s finances. Perhaps. The team certainly struggled to attract fans. Ford felt cheated of an opportunity to develop the fan base.

He worked hard this year to instill close relationships with the town of Findlay’s youth hockey program and make his players visible members of the community. Goodwill plus a little success on the ice had to engender fan support over time, Ford figured.

“I definitely wanted a couple of years to turn this around,” he said. “That hasn’t come to fruition.”

His analysis may have been correct, but then again, three Stanley Cups later and the New Jersey Devils are still waiting for people to show up at the Continental Airlines Arena. Either way, the plan was not allowed to reach maturity.

“We had started to get some national recognition,” Ford said. “I just received a thank-you card from our host in North Dakota saying how much class we carried ourselves with. Ask the other coaches around the league; they will tell you.”

“It’s sad we can’t see the fruits of our labors.”

For a half a year, Ford has some pretty impressive things he can put on his resume. In his first game as coach, he went on the road and beat Michigan State. He inculcated a sense of class in a program noticeably evident in North Dakota over Christmas. Moreover, he combined with assistant coach Mike Szkodzinski to run almost every facet of the program from the budget, to the scheduling, to the busing, to the slotting of ice time at Clauss Ice Arena, down to the travel plans.

Not a bad job for a two-man show.

“I have a love of the game and I’ve had a lot of great opportunities here,” Ford said. “I have no bitter feelings, it’s been unbelievable and great experience. We [himself and Szkodzinski] had to run the program virtually by ourselves.”

Now, Ford has the unenviable task of convincing his players to try to find some meaning in the 16 games remaining on the regular-season schedule.

“We have a lot left to play for,” Ford said. “We just have to band together and play for pride and each other. Sometimes that can be the best motivation. The players in the locker room will share a special bond over this for the rest of their lives.”

A classy way for a classy act to go out.

The League Reacts

CHA Commissioner R.H. “Bob” Peters made an effort to avert a fatal ending for the Findlay program. Just before Christmas, he visited the school to assess the situation.

“I try to visit all CHA schools once every second year,” he said. “I had a visit with the administration and they were very noncommittal.

“It’s one of those things that you see coming because you hear a bit of the talk and discussion. I was aware that Findlay was evaluating their athletic program.”

Some anticipation did not lessen the sting of losing a member of his conference, however.

“Findlay has been making such progress as a program that this is not the most comfortable of days for us,” Peters said. “The decision was made by the administration and it is one that we will have to accept.”

The rest of the league offered its condolences.

“I’m disheartened,” said Niagara coach Dave Burkholder. “A lot of blood, sweat and tears went into the program, and as a body now we need to do the right thing. Our thoughts now are with Findlay and their players and coaches.”

Bemidji coach Tom Serratore echoed Burkholder’s sentiments.

“It’s too bad,” he said. “Too bad for the league, too bad for Coach Ford, and too bad for the players. The rug was pulled out right from underneath them.”

Peters and the rest of the league now face the practical problem of regaining its automatic bid for the NCAA tournament for next year. With only five programs, the CHA must add a team for 2004-05 or else it will not meet the six-team minimum for an automatic bid.

The early consensus centers on either Robert Morris or Quinnipiac. Peters confirmed only that Robert Morris has applied to join the CHA women’s league. It is also planning to start play in Division I next year as an independent. Its coach, Derek Schooley, is a former assistant at Air Force, so he has CHA ties. Conceivably, Robert Morris could be pressured to enter a conference right away, and make it the CHA. Furthermore, the Bobcats are already members of the CHA women’s league and there’s thought that athletic director Jack McDonald could be swayed to leave Atlantic Hockey.

Peters did not add any definite confirmations other than to flatly deny any inquiries for Mercyhurst, another rumored school to join the CHA, and to say that the athletic directors would have a conference call Thursday (stay tuned for the results of that meeting) and plot strategy.

“Quinnipiac is in the CHA on the women’s side. We haven’t had a formal conversation yet on anything further,” Peters said. “Our objective is to have everyone discuss and keep this in the proper perspective.”

This seems to be the year of the conference shuffle, between Vermont’s Hockey East bombshell and the turmoil between the ACC and the Big East in football. Obviously, as one of the two nascent hockey conferences, the CHA does not have a deep tradition to lure a program into its fold.

It does offer a program the opportunity to build a legacy in a growing conference — and the best odds of securing an automatic berth into the NCAA tournament.

“I’m not really concerned about losing our autobid,” Serratore said. “Things will take care of themselves. This is a strong league.”

Findlay’s departure puts the true health of the CHA to the test.

“I’m optimistic that we can solve the issues that need to be solved for next year,” Peters said.

Hockey Anyone?

Of course, the cancellation of Findlay’s program does not mean the whole CHA season has been cancelled. The Oilers still have to gear up for Alabama-Huntsville. Wayne State is in Colorado for Air Force.

And what was previously the story of the week: Bemidji State flies into Niagara for the first meeting between the two prime contenders for the CHA championship.

The Beavers are riding the momentum of a pair of convincing wins over Air Force to leap over the Purple Eagles. Niagara is coming off a 2-2 tie of Colgate, but has the confidence of a team that came back from a 2-0 deficit with ten minutes to go into third period, and one that saw its main guns, Barrett Ehgoetz and Joe Tallari, get back on track.

“We are a little sick, but we are ready for this series,” Serratore said. “This is why you play the games. It’s a good check to see where we are at.”

The two coaches essentially exchanged platitudes over each other’s offense. The Purple Eagles finally got some help from Tallari this weekend, scoring the game-tying goal against the Raiders. It is Ehgoetz that makes the top line run.

“We have to be aware of where they are on the ice at all times,” Serratore said. “They are about as quick a team as we’ve seen this year. They are always dangerous.”

Burkholder sees this as a chance to prove a lot of preseason prognosticators who picked Bemidji to finish first as wrong.

“This is a good series to see where we are at as a team,” Burkholder said. “They are in first place. And all season long we’ve heard from coaches and other people how good this team is.”

Bemidji catches a break this weekend as Niagara probably won’t have a full home-ice advantage. The school will be honoring alumnus and Basketball Hall of Famer Calvin Murphy on Friday, which is expected to draw the bulk of the interest of the student body. The Dwyer Arena should be rocking for Saturday.

Overall, it’s the first series of the season for any CHA team that has any real pressure. The league may have to wait until the last weekend of the regular season to get another one — it’s when these two squads have a rematch

“It’s good to see just how the guys respond,” Burkholder said. “We’ve played about the same number of games, played the same number of ranked opponents. First place is on the line this weekend.”