This Week in the ECAC: Jan. 8. 2004

So much for slow starts to the new year.

We’re only a week into 2004 and already ECAC hockey is chock full of news: the departure of Vermont, the future of the league and hotly-contested rivalries. It is far from business as usual, but these topics are critical issues that have been forced to the forefront.

For starters, Vermont’s move to Hockey East is official. The school and Hockey East held a joint press conference Thursday in frigid Burlington to make the announcement we all assumed was a done deal from the moment the Catamounts approached the conference. UVM will start playing in its new conference home beginning with the 2005-06 season.

“We know that to rank with the best,” explained UVM President Dan Fogel, “we have to compete with the best, and that’s what entrance into Hockey East means to us.”

The decision-makers at Vermont realized early on the immense benefits that being in the higher-profile conference would afford the program, the student body and future enrollment. Both Fogel, at Louisiana State University, and Director of Athletics Bob Corran, at Minnesota-Duluth, experienced this first-hand before being hired.

Fogel, Corran and coach Kevin Sneddon are all relatively new to UVM, with Fogel having the longest tenure of the three. He took over in July 2002.

President Fogel’s vision, which includes a 10-year plan for Vermont, features athletics playing a prominent role on campus and for the University overall. Not coincidentally, Corran’s vision for the Catamounts’ athletic programs lines up well with that of the President.

“One of the things that impressed me when I was looking at this job,” said Sneddon, “was the ability of the administration to look outside the box. Part of their strategic planning has been how best to improve the University as a whole, the athletic department and, on a smaller scale, Vermont hockey.”

Clearly, one of those ways is moving to a new conference.

“In a lot of ways,” Sneddon explained, “Hockey East is a good fit for us. We’re the only public school in the ECAC.”

That will not be the case in Hockey East.

Sneddon continued, “Many were shocked when the ECAC first split that Vermont stayed with the ECAC. At the time, Vermont wanted to be associated with the Ivies and the other great schools in the league.”

Life is a bit different now, though, especially since many of UVM’s other sports teams are in the same conferences as its New England neighbors.

“This is part of the strategic plan,” Sneddon explained, “and something the administration wanted to explore. As we did, it became more appealing to us. I think we fit well and bring a lot to the table.”

“I can say with all sincerity,” said Hockey East Commissioner Joe Bertagna, “[that] there wasn’t anything that remotely resembled a minus presented in our meetings and our deliberations. It seemed a natural thing and a natural fit and we’re very excited about what the potential of this marriage holds.

“I think we would have been as excited without hearing of some of the plans and some of the vision that President Fogel and Director Bob Corran have spelled out. I think just on what we know and have always known about Vermont, this would have been exciting for us. But it is even more so knowing of some of the things that are on the docket down the line for the University of Vermont.”

In the midst of this tumultuous week, Sneddon was quick to point out, however, that the move will not be the last ECAC fans would see of the Cats.

“We will still play many ECAC teams,” he said. “We want to keep that connection. Both leagues are good leagues, it’s just a matter of what’s best for Vermont. It’s not about any bad feelings for the ECAC. I have 14 years of positive memories as a player, coach and assistant in this league.”

“The rivalries we have built up over the years with the ECAC teams are important,” Corran agreed, “and it’s only wise to continue them.”

Of course, sailing will not be smooth for the Catamounts. The program has struggled to recover from the hazing scandal that forced it to cancel the second half the 1999-2000 season — a move that left travel partner Dartmouth hung out to dry facing well-rested opponents each Saturday.

Even so, most experts agree that UVM is a sleeping giant with such an immense potential pipeline to recruits in Quebec that it may just be a matter of time before they start knocking on the doors of the Big Four — Boston College, Boston University, Maine and New Hampshire.

“We have a very serious intent here to build a nationally competitive hockey program on the men’s side and on the women’s side,” said Corran. “We really do believe this gives us the opportunity to do so. We have a coaching staff in place, we have plans in place, we have plans to advance the program.

“The fit is better for us from an institutional standpoint. It provides us some advantages in terms of recruitment. At the end of the day, being in Hockey East is an important piece of our plans.”

One thing that will surely help in the intensifying recruiting war is a new arena, which is a prominent part of Fogel’s strategic plan.

“A new rink has been mentioned since before I got here,” Sneddon said. “In the planning process we wanted to explore that possibility. It has legs, but it is not a done deal. There are always a lot of decisions to make on something like this.

“There’s a lot of excitement behind it and we look forward to it when it becomes reality.”

First things first, though. The Cats will play the 2004-05 season in the ECAC before splitting for greener pastures. This begs the question: Where will the ECAC turn to replace UVM?

All we have to go on are the persistent rumors that Connecticut, Holy Cross, Quinnipiac and Sacred Heart have expressed interest. Others will likely apply, especially with the future of College Hockey America up in the air after Findlay’s decision this week to drop hockey at season’s end.

Quinnipiac, the strongest program in terms of on-ice success, currently plays its home games in a town rink — but plans are in the works for a new arena. That will be an issue when and if it applies for entrance into the ECAC, much like it was when Quinnipiac inquired with Hockey East a few seasons ago.

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

“It is our goal that this initial process will be concluded prior to the ECAC Championship in March, and that any decisions regarding membership are made not later than the conclusion of the spring meetings.”

As for the ever-present rumor of the Ivies splitting the ECAC, don’t count on it. While our sources confirm that the Ivies are rumored to have been meeting recently about the future of the ECAC, it would take a creative plan for them to leave and maintain some of the benefits they currently enjoy — not the least of which is an automatic NCAA bid. Of course, stranger things have happened.

Other Reactions

Now that the news is official, other members of the ECAC family are starting to share their thoughts. In our conversations today with Union coach Nate Leaman and Harvard assistant captain Rob Fried each had interesting ideas.

“Hockey East will be a nice fit for the Catamounts,” said Fried. “UVM is a swift, offensive team which will definitely benefit from the bigger ice sheets around Hockey East. Also, it is no secret that Hockey East is an extremely competitive league.

“Though ECAC teams have performed well against Hockey East, losing a storied program like UVM is a pretty strong blow to the league. Hopefully, the ECAC will find ways to keep other non-Ivy teams from following suit, so we can continue to compete on the national stage.”

Meanwhile, Leaman thinks the ECAC is at a crossroads of sorts.

“All you can do is wish them luck and wish them well,” he said about UVM. “For us as a league, we need to sit back and evaluate. We shouldn’t jump out and grab another team just for the sake of grabbing one.

“Maybe we can redo the schedule. What would make us better? Adding a team or not adding one? Maybe we get out of the travel partner system and have more league games. There may be some benefits that we haven’t thought about yet, but they may hit us when we get together in the spring and have thought about it more.”

D-III Proposal May Be Defeated

For months, Clarkson, St. Lawrence and Rensselaer have been battling opponents from all over the country in a contest with massive repercussions. None of this, of course, has taken place on the ice.

Proposal 65 has been the opponent squarely in the eyes of the administration, alumni and fans of each of the ECAC schools, as well as the five other colleges in the NCAA’s crosshairs: Colorado College, Johns Hopkins, SUNY College at Oneonta, Hartwick and Rutgers-Newark.

Players talk about it with regularity and recruiting for next season has been impacted as well.

“We continue to battle away on recruiting,” Clarkson coach George Roll said recently, “but there’s no doubt that [the proposal] has affected us adversely. It is the first question that kids ask and we know that other schools are using it against us in recruiting. We’ve lost kids to some good schools; who knows if it played a role?”

Proposal 65 is legislation that would eliminate a waiver that allows the eight aforementioned Division III schools to offer athletics-related aid to student athletes who play Division I sports at their institutions. The waiver has covered the eight schools since 1983.

Since news of the proposal first hit, most agreed that the programs in question seemed doomed, but as Monday’s critical final vote approaches, we’ve learned that things are not as gloomy as we’ve assumed.

From what we’ve been able to dig up, although no one is willing to go on record quite yet for fear of counting chickens before they’ve hatched, it appears that the schools at risk may just win the vote.

Apparently, a great deal of support has been garnered, with many of the other D-III schools that would not be affected up in arms at the NCAA’s attempt at forcing legislation yet again. The schools see the potential precedent this would set and are fearful of allowing it.

To that end, of the representatives who will vote Monday, it seems that a majority are leaning the way of the eight schools and may just kill this before major damage is done. We’ll all know for sure in a matter of days.

Crimson’s “Ticket Gate” Game Has Arrived

Remember the uproar caused by the change in Harvard’s ticket policy? The big issue was that the Crimson were trying to shut Cornell fans out of tickets to this Friday’s game.

Did they succeed? We’ll find out in 24 hours. Until then, however, we do know that many Cornell fans actually bought the full four-game pack just to be able to get tickets to the on-going rivalry. Earlier this week, Harvard put the remaining tickets to the contest on sale. The nearly 150 ducats were gone in an hour.

Players and coaches on both sides of this battle constantly downplay the rivalry aspect, preferring to leave it to the fans. Even so, players like Crimson senior Rob Fried are aware of what’s at stake.

“Harvard students and alumni know that Harvard-Cornell is always going to be a spirited game,” explained the Humanitarian Award nominee. “The fans at the Bright Hockey Center feed off the energy from the Lynah faithful.

“The new ticket policy should also make for a more balanced representation. Nevertheless, there is a ton of respect between the two clubs. We love playing Cornell because we know we are in for a great game every night.

“It is college hockey at its best.”

The Big Red, off last weekend, enter this contest, CSTV’s Friday Night Game of the Week (an 8 p.m. start which is a change from the original schedule), undefeated in the league at 4-0-2. In those six games, Cornell has allowed only eight goals while scoring 21.

The Crimson, meanwhile, continue to struggle. The preseason favorite to win the league, Harvard is one game under .500 overall and in the ECAC. They have accumulated 11 points, but have also played more games than any other conference foe — including twice as many as the Big Red.

In addition, as everyone knows by now, Harvard has not beaten Cornell since taking the 2002 ECAC Championship in the final year of the tournament’s run in Lake Placid. Could finally earning the elusive win turn things around for the Crimson?

“We have definitely had the Cornell matchup circled on our calendars for some time,” admitted assistant captain Fried. “It will be a pivotal game, but we know one win will not turn around a season. If we are going to gain some momentum, we need to have playoff caliber efforts right through to March.

“That starts with Cornell Friday, and a tough Colgate team Saturday.”

A New Job, A New Rivalry

The intensity will be high in New York’s Capital District this weekend when Union and Rensselaer renew their neighborly rivalry with a home-and-home set. The Engineers have held the upper hand of late, but a new twist will play a role this season when Dutchmen coach Nate Leaman takes his position behind the bench.

The first-year coach will be experiencing the heated rivalry for the first time, but he’s no stranger to all-out battles, having been an assistant at Harvard prior to taking the top post in Schenectady.

“Harvard-Cornell games are wars,” Leaman said. “We knew we’d be playing in a close game. It got to the point where you didn’t need to scout them because the guys knew them so well.

“I haven’t taken part in this game yet so I don’t know exactly what it will be like. The rivalry is huge to the area, it is great for college hockey and the people in the Capital District love it. It’s a good tradition. Both barns will be sold out and that’s great for the sport and for the guys to play in. I’m looking forward to it.”

Union, which jumped out to the best start in the program’s history, has struggled for wins. The Dutchmen have not tasted success since November 15 and are 0-7-1 in that span, including seven straight losses. Even so, Leaman has been happy with his team’s effort over the last four games.

“We’ve played really hard,” he said. “Believe it or not, we haven’t played that bad. The mood around the team is about sticking together until we find our way out of this funk we’re in.

“In two of the last four games, we’ve outplayed our opponents. Against Harvard, we were strong, but lost too many faceoffs. Against Wisconsin, we gave up 35 shots and the next night Ferris State won the tournament giving up 39. The time of possession was nearly 50-50 against Wisconsin, we just weren’t shooting. But each time they came down they popped one in.”

The two-game set against Rensselaer will be critical for both teams if either is to make a move to the top of the standings in the league. Heading into Friday’s opener, the Engineers hold a four- point lead in the standings over Union.

“RPI has played a different system than what they’ve played in the past,” explained Leaman. “We’ll need to shore things up in the defensive zone. When we haven’t won some of the last four or five games, we’ve started to lose confidence. When that happens, guys tend to run around and try to do other guys’ jobs.”

Dartmouth-Vermont, The Sequel

Another set of travel partners collide this weekend when Dartmouth travels to Gutterson Fieldhouse for a rematch of last weekend’s game won by the Big Green. It was a wide-open 7-5 affair, but don’t expect the same offensive production if Sneddon’s Catamounts have anything to say about it.

“We played really well against them in the first and second periods,” explained Sneddon, “so we’re not going to do anything different in terms of the system or anything. But, we’ll show the guys through video how to shut them down.

“Part of [last weekend’s problems] were goaltending, part of it was in the defensive zone — especially in allowing too many odd-man rushes. We need to eliminate those.”

After starting the season with a forgettable 0-11-2 run, the Cats are 2-2-1 since gaining their coach’s first win behind the Vermont bench, a 4-3 overtime win versus Connecticut.

“I didn’t think it would take that long,” joked the bench boss. “We’ve played some really good hockey lately. I was impressed with how we came back against them and how we played in our holiday tournament. We were outclassed by Maine, so we’re just going to forget that one.”

A big reason for the recent upswing has been up front.

“We’re using our speed to our advantage,” remarked Sneddon, “getting traffic in front of the net and shooting the puck more. Shots are going in now that weren’t before and the guys are gaining confidence.”

Most impressively, UVM has bounced back while also being surrounded by speculation — which has turned to reality — of it moving to Hockey East.

“The focus of our players is on getting this thing back on track,” Sneddon said. “The best thing we can do is focus on the day-to-day operations. The guys just want to play our game.”

Mid-Season Awards

It’s been an up and down first half for most teams and a lot of players. And while there are plenty of games yet to be played, we polled league coaches to get their sense of the players that have stood out this far.

Most Valuable Player – Yann Danis, Brown. The Hobey Baker candidate was the unanimous choice of coaches. The senior netminder leads the nation in save percentage (.954), goals against average (.142) and shutouts (four) while leading the Bears to first place in the ECAC. In just half the season, he earned the following honors: ECAC Goalie of the Week (three times), ECAC Player of the Week, Hockey Commissioners’ Association Player of the Month (November), and USCHO Defensive Player of the Week (twice).

Top Rookie – Brian Ihnacak, Brown. Named on all but one of our responses, Ihnacak has made a major impact. After a slow start, he’s taken off and — with Brent Robinson and Les Haggett — is leading the improved Bears offense. He leads the league in points (15) and rookie scoring, and adds a new element to a team that once rely completely on Danis. Honorable Mention: Grant Lewis, Dartmouth.

Top Goaltender – Yann Danis, Brown. Once again, the unanimous choice.

Top Defenseman – Brian Van Abel, Dartmouth. There was a tie in this category so we’ve broken it. A little old school when it comes to picking a top D, we’ve gone with solid zone play over points, especially since Van Abel has helped lead the Big Green to an undefeated mark in ECAC play. The Dartmouth captain has filled big skates and anchored a young defense corps. Defense was the biggest question mark coming into the season and Van Abel has not only lifted the blueliners to a new level, but his work allowed Dan Yacey to settle in between the pipes. Honorable Mention: Ryan Glenn, SLU; Noah Welch, Harvard.

Top Coach – Mike Schafer, Cornell. Another tie that we’ve settled, but it was a very tough decision. Dartmouth and Cornell are both undefeated, but we’re giving the slight edge right now to Schafer for continuing to implement a system of defensive discipline that frustrates the life out of opponents. It’s helped ease key rookies into significant roles. Shame on us for thinking this team was going to be something other than it has been since his arrival as coach. Honorable Mention: Roger Grillo, Brown; Len Quesnelle, Princeton; Bob Gaudet, Dartmouth.

Two Minutes For …

As promised at the start of the season, each week we’d like to give a fan the opportunity to express their thoughts on an issue related to the ECAC. This week, we welcome D.D. Forbush of Peekskill, N.Y. The following is his “Two Minutes For …” contribution. Readers are encouraged to submit their own thoughts to us at [email protected] D.D., the stage is all yours, and thanks!

Several weeks ago, as I was indulging in my chosen form of escapism (reading college hockey scores) it occurred to me that an inordinate number of ties have been played this season in men’s Division I hockey. So many, by my reckoning, that fan satisfaction could be compromised.

I went into the archives at USCHO and selected six schools for no particular reason other than that they have played hockey for a long time; Michigan, Boston University, Minnesota, Clarkson, St. Lawrence and Harvard. I took their records for the last 30 years and counted the number of tie games as a percentage of total games played, beginning with the season of 2002-03 working back to 1993-94, then 1992-93 to 1983-84 and finally 1982-83 to 1973-74.

(These numbers are distorted downward somewhat because playoff games, which can’t end in a tie, are included in the sample.)

Team 1993-2003 1983-1993 1973-1983
Boston University 9% 7% 3%
Clarkson 9 8 3
Minnesota 9 5 4
St. Lawrence 9 4 3
Harvard 8 6 4
Michigan 7 5 3

Ok, so there definitely is a creeping, long-term trend towards more tie games. If the first six teams I randomly pick show the same thing, then that surely means that all teams would show the same thing.

But what made me sit up and say “whoa!” is that a quick analysis of the current standings indicates an explosion of ties this season, well beyond what I found in the analysis of the six teams going back 30 years.

In conference play this season, 20 percent of all Hockey East games ended in a tie; the figure for Atlantic Hockey is 19 percent. The WCHA has tied a little over 14 percent of the time; the ECAC is at 10 percent and the CCHA is a little under 10 percent. The CHA, bless their hearts, skates to a draw only three percent of the time; at least when they are playing each other. The inter-conference tie percentage is 19 percent of games played.

But why all the sister-kissers? One reason is lower scoring games. Fewer goals increase the odds of a tie game. It’s easier to stop goals than to score goals. Goalies and defenders are bigger, fitter, faster, better. Goalies wear bigger equipment and fill up more of the goal than in the games of yore. With the exception of that last truism about the equipment, these developments are all good and make for better, closer hockey games. So no one wants to stop that stuff.

Obviously, the problem is the overtime period. It’s too short. Here is a solution from Joe Fan. Forget about a ten-minute overtime. Play a full twenty-minute sudden death overtime period.

What? You say the players will be too tired for their next game? Buffalo chips! These guys are young, incredibly fit and they usually play only two games a week. They can handle an extra period of hockey now and then. Besides, many, maybe most, overtime games would end long before twenty minutes. The long overtimes would be randomly spread around the conferences so fairness is not an issue. Plus they would try harder to win the game near the end of the third period knowing they can no longer play for a five-minute tie in the OT.

If a game ends in a tie after that, it’s a well-deserved tie and the fans can leave the arena without that still-hungry feeling, satisfied in knowing that all was done that could be done and the two teams really are that even.

I have read, and heard it said frequently, that every game matters in college hockey. There has to be a better opportunity, for the sake of the fans, for a team to win, or lose the hockey game.

I say to the NCAA, it’s time to do something. Look at the numbers.

What’s On Tap

Fifteenth-ranked Brown (8-3-3, 8-2-1 ECAC) and Harvard (7-8-2, 5-6-1) host Colgate (8-7-3, 3- 3-0) and No. 9 Cornell (6-2-5, 4-0-2). The Raiders hold a 39-16-1 advantage in the all-time series, including a 6-1 win in Hamilton earlier this year. The Big Red hold a 56-37-5 lead in the series and are 1-0-2 in the last three games against first-place Brown. Cornell coach Mike Schafer is 14-1-3 against the Bears in his career. The Big Red also lead the Crimson in the all-times series, 59-50-7, including four straight victories. Harvard owns a 38-14-4 mark overall versus Colgate, including four wins in a row.

Princeton (5-13-0, 5-6-0) and Yale (6-10-0, 5-5-0) play host to St. Lawrence (6-12-3, 2-5-0) and Clarkson (8-7-4, 3-3-1). The Saints lead the Tigers in the all-times series, 46-13-5, after sweeping both games last season. SLU also holds a 46-19-7 advantage against the Bulldogs, with a 3-2-3 mark in New Haven since 1998. The Knights lead the series against Yale, 60-25-4, but were swept by the Elis last year. Clarkson owns a 12-game unbeaten streak versus Princeton and leads the all-time series 60-20-5.

Rensselaer (9-8-2, 4-3-1) and Union (7-9-3, 2-5-1) square off at their annual home-and-home series. The Engineers lead the series 39-10-6, including a 3-0-1 last season in regular season and playoff contests. RPI is 2-0-2 in its last four against the Dutchmen and coach Dan Fridgen is 15- 6-5 in his career versus Union since his days as an assistant coach in Schenectady.

Vermont (2-13-3, 0-7-0) hosts No. 12 Dartmouth (6-2-5, 4-0-3) on Saturday as the clubs complete the home-and-home series they started last weekend. The Cats hold a 37-18-5 all-time advantage in this series. The Big Green then move on to square off against No. 10 New Hampshire in Manchester — site of one of this year’s NCAA Regionals — in what will be Dartmouth’s fifth game versus a Hockey East opponent. The Big Green are 0-2-2 thus far.