Vermont in Place, Hockey East Looks Ahead

The courtship was so swift, even Britney Spears was impressed.

Three weeks ago, with rumors swirling, Vermont let it be known it had indeed sent a “letter of inquiry” to Hockey East about the possibility of joining the league. Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna accepted it, planned a meeting of athletic directors, and was expecting a measured process, filled with presentations to be made and debate to be had.

Instead, the athletic directors met, and it was over. Unanimous. The presidents ratified it, the news conference was called, and now everyone is moving on.

“People started looking at each other and said, ‘They want it badly, we want it badly, why are we waiting?'” said Bertagna. “Plus, we’re aware there’s a ripple effect, and it’s difficult to keep things under wraps. … Nobody from the Hockey East side is saying, ‘We have reservations.’ Nothing like that was being articulated, why not let it happen? This way, we don’t have the ECAC on hold, the schedule on hold. Why wait?”

The only issue was whether Vermont would join for next season, or the season thereafter. Boston College, which has just been through its own tumultuous situation regarding the Big East, preferred Vermont join right away. But Vermont was adamant about being respectful to the ECAC, and the schedules already in place.

“BC was quite passionate about the lame duck type of capacity that follows,” Bertagna said. “It’s been tough on their teams. They raised the subject.”

For Bertagna, who has ties to the Vermont area during his time as a player and ECAC administrator, his personal feelings were clear right away. He pointed out during Thursday’s news conference that he probably knew more people in the room — media included — than at most of the buildings of the teams currently in Hockey East.

As for the best interests of Hockey East, he wasn’t as certain how administrators would react. But it didn’t take long to find out.

“Any time with a state university with a potentially huge following, you’re interested,” said Bertagna. “In this case, their track record of drawing people … there was always a special buzz when I was there, especially in the St. Louis-Perrin-Thomas years. There’s a real bond between the community and the team, and even in not so spectacular years they’ve been able to draw well.

“For logistical reasons, 10 is better than nine. We always said we would not expand for the sake of expansion. But I spent time with their athletic director and president, and I saw how important they want athletics to be in their vision for the university. It was more a matter of, ‘Why not?’ I don’t think we heard one objection raised.”

Bertagna and Vermont have repeatedly pointed out the benefits of the move in general, including the existing relationship between Vermont and other Hockey East schools in all sports, and the numerous nonleague games the Catamounts already play against Hockey East schools. And both sides remained steadfast that it had nothing to do with any negative feelings towards ECAC hockey.

“I don’t think this is just a hockey league issue. It’s an issue of a public land grant university having more in common with those schools in our league,” said Bertagna.

Of course, now everyone’s wondering, when will teams 11 and 12 be coming on board. Bertagna has stated in the past it’s probably most desirable for Hockey East to be at 12 teams, but as he continues to reiterate, the league is not actively seeking other members. Vermont initiated this process, and was a perfect fit. No one else is out there that fits so well, and there is no urgency to go past 10.

“The sources of that comment [wanting to expand to 12] was the one time Hockey East discussed expansion internally,” said Bertagna. “So many people had asked us for so long, we said, ‘Let’s have a discussion.’ We figured the only time we could have a true balanced schedule is with 12 teams. Every other combination is unbalanced somehow. The ideal schedule is 12.

“We did discuss it the other day, because we knew there were going to be questions. But we have enough on our plate right now going from nine to 10. We’re not anxiously looking.”

Bertagna also said, the next jump, if it ever comes, doesn’t necessarily have to be straight to 12 teams. It could go to 11 first.

“We wouldn’t rule out anything. We’d never let the number dictate things — it’s the quality of candidate. Things change in a hurry. If an attractive program is knocking, we’ll listen. But our basic position now is, let’s make this first transition. We’re not actively looking.”

Instead, the league’s attention will heavily focus on the effects this move will have on scheduling and the Hockey East tournament.

“What we did was set up a couple subcommittees to explore different scheduling options, and to explore tournament options,” said Bertagna.

Right now, Hockey East teams play each other three times each, for 24 league games. Two games are at one team’s building, and one is at the other. Then they flip-flop the next season. Maintaining the three-games-each scenario seems easiest at this point, but it reduces the amount of nonleague games available to seven. For some schools, especially the Beanpot schools, this cuts into the games they can set up, which has often included great matchups, such as BC going to North Dakota for two games, or BU going to Minnesota for a pair. But the weaker schools in the conference may like it, because it gives them more games against top-notch opponents.

“There’s plusses and minuses,” Bertagna said. “Looking at the ratings, it looks like the WCHA is helped by playing a high percentage of games amongst themselves. We think we have some pretty good teams.

“It [27 league games] will be received well by the lower teams, who will get more games against stronger teams in the conference. It will not be received well by BC and so on.”

The other option is keeping the schedule at 24 league games, and playing some teams a different amount of times per season than others.

“I think when this shakes down, people aren’t going to find that palatable,” Bertagna said.

As for the Hockey East tournament, the options are, allow all 10 teams in, or just eight, as is the case now.

“Usually in situations like this, it’s usual for coaches as a group to say all should get in,” Bertagna said. “Philosophically, I think the regular season should eliminate teams, but I don’t vote. That will be a discussion.

“If we wanted to do a Final Five we could. Philosophically, when I first saw the ECAC do it in Lake Placid, I thought the fourth-place team got a bad deal. To be in the top 4 used to be a golden accomplishment. … But more to the point, logistically, we’ve never had full run of our building as others have had with the Xcel Center or Lake Placid or Albany. There’s always a Bruins game going on. To ask the FleetCenter to open another night is hard.”

As usual, Bertagna is keeping an eye on how this affects all of college hockey. The six conference commissioners are set for their monthly conference call on Jan. 14. More important issues will be on the plate than ever before, in light of the Vermont situation, the Findlay situation, and the D-III scholarship vote.

Especially in the CHA, where losing Findlay means the league could lose its automatic NCAA bid, it’s a situation that the commissioners are keeping an eye on. Can they persuade a school like Robert Morris, which had been ready to add hockey next season as an independent, to go to the CHA? Can they agree that Atlantic Hockey, which was also courting Robert Morris, to back off for the betterment of the sport as a whole?

“I don’t know if any individual has that influence. Collectively maybe,” said Bertagna. “But schools have self determination and reasons why they think they fit in one league or another. … Commissioners as a group can talk in the global picture. But I think it is a time of need for a summit, to take a step back, because we are interconnected here.

“The 16-team tournament only happened because the sport grew. Ironically since we got it, we shrunk. There’s probably a short walk from where we are to getting back to 12 teams. So it’s not just that we want to be good people, we have a self interest. Some schools won’t want to play hockey if they can’t be in a conference with a chance to get in the NCAA tournament.”