This Week in Hockey East: Jan. 15, 2004

Come On Down!

Last week’s column didn’t address the addition of Vermont to Hockey East since the USCHO news department had already covered the topic in such definitive fashion. However, it gave this writer pause to read an emailer who said, in essence, “Vermont stinks! Why do we want them?”

So here goes.

Yes, the Catamounts are struggling this season, as they have since the hazing scandal of a few years ago. To think that such struggles will continue, however, is dubious reasoning at best. This is a very strong program that will rebound.

Care for a similar Hockey East example? How about Boston College in the years just before Jerry York took over the reins. The Eagles had just suffered a similarly embarrassing scandal under the shameful leadership — shameful is really too weak a word and leadership a term used with absurd looseness — of Steve Cedorchuk.

(An aside: I once was paired in a golf foursome with three of Cedorchuk’s buddies, unbeknownst to me, and when the topic arose I said exactly what I thought about what he’d done to his recruits — in short, overpromising scholarships and then not coming clean — and how despicably he had robbed some of them of their dreams. The phrase “rot in Hell” was used prominently. This rant occurred on the fifth hole at Olde Barnstable Fairgrounds. After they mumbled words of their friendship to Cedorchuk and how he was just a city kid caught trying to balance too many balls in the air at the same time, I fulminated some more. Dead silence ensued for holes six through 18.)

People evaluating BC at that low point in its program might have held some of the same opinions the emailer wrote of in denigrating Vermont. Both scandals were humiliating blows to once proud programs. Both teams subsequently plummeted to the lower regions of their league standings.

BC even fell to the point of losing the 1995 Hockey East tournament play-in game to Massachusetts, a program just resurrected at the time and in its first year in the league. Three years later, however, the Eagles came within a clanged post of winning the national championship.

Are the Vermont Catamounts three years away from a national title game? No. While their program has been a strong one, there are few to compare with BC pre-Cedorchuk. Even so, it wasn’t that long ago that UVM appeared in the Frozen Four and anyone who watched those teams with Martin St. Louis, Eric Perrin and Tim Thomas had to admit that they didn’t miss a national title by much. And anyone who saw all the UVM bumper stickers in parking lots outside the NCAA regionals or who has visited Gutterson Fieldhouse will acknowledge the strength of Vermont’s fan base.

This is a strong program, closer to the geographic center of Hockey East than Maine is, and one that shares many of the same characteristics as the league’s teams.

“They’re a natural fit with us,” New Hampshire coach Dick Umile says. “They’re a great program. They’re a state university. So there are a lot of reasons for them to join our league. They’re going to be a welcome addition.”

Or as Hockey East Commissioner Joe Bertagna told USCHO’s Adam Wodon, “Any time [interest is expressed by] a state university with a potentially huge following, you’re interested. 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.”

Some tricky questions remain, most notably involving the schedule and playoffs.

An ideal league schedule is the one the ECAC has used for the past few years. With 12 teams, each has a travel partner and plays all other opponents twice, once home and once on the road. Perhaps the worst schedule has been Hockey East’s, where an odd number of teams has resulted in one team each weekend scrambling for an opponent down the stretch. With most other leagues locked into internal play at that time, the candidates are few.

“I think most people who follow hockey know that 10 works better than nine, and, in some cases, 12 works better than 10,” Bertagna said upon joining the league in 1997. “If you can get to playing each other fewer times, I think it makes every single game more important. I like the ECAC schedule. If you missed Harvard this time, that’s it. They’re not coming back until next year.”

Since Hockey East has now gone from nine to 10, but not 12, the question is whether or not to simply add three more league games, continuing the current policy of playing each team three times. Here’s where the “haves” will differ from the “have-nots” in that the powerhouse programs can schedule lucrative and attractive nonconference games and tournaments while those not as strong don’t have as many options. The “haves” — especially those in the Beanpot — won’t want to lose three nonconference games, while the “have-nots” will readily substitute three more league contests for the weakest of their out-of-conference fare.

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

The worst option that the league will, one would hope, reject would be an unbalanced schedule that maintains the 24-game total. The final standings should not be influenced by one team having faced an easier road to the top than another.

As for the playoffs, this writer hopes that Hockey East sticks with an eight-team structure and, no matter what, avoids the abomination of a Final Five. Having 80 percent of your league make the playoffs is plenty. It rewards regular season performance. And if keeping everyone happy dictates that all 10 must get invitations to the league dance, use a play-in structure that results in eight quarterfinalists and doesn’t penalize the fourth-best team, as does a Final Five. Keep in mind how many times Hockey East’s fourth best team has been a legitimate Frozen Four contender.

In Defense Of The NESCAC

Like virtually all college hockey fans, I applauded the NCAA’s vote on Proposition 65-1. Since Middlebury president John McCardell, head of the NCAA’s President’s Council, led the charge that would have crippled the Division III schools that have played up for decades in one D-I sport, it’s natural to rip Middlebury and its allies.

(Personally, I hope Middlebury goes 0-for-the-millenium and I’d feel the same way about Union if not for good-guy coach Nate Leaman.)

Some, however, have chosen to attack the entire NESCAC conference, of which Middlebury is a member. USCHO’s D-III Correspondent Chris Lerch wrote:

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.

Well, to begin with, the Ivies and NESCAC schools (some of which are referred to as “Little Ivies”) are by any objective standard better academically than most other colleges. In the same way in which Hockey East is a stronger hockey league than the ECAC by any measuring stick you choose, the Ivies and Little Ivies are stronger in the classroom than almost all counterparts by any measuring stick you choose.

NESCAC schools don’t just consider themselves better; they are better. There’s a reason why my son attends Wesleyan, a NESCAC school. He can not only play hockey there, but get an education that rivals that of any school.

So let’s not rip NESCAC for its elitism. Being elite is a good thing and NESCAC schools are most definitely that.

Where McCardell and his allies went wrong was in trying to dictate to everyone else what to do. It’s fine for NESCAC to have put in more stringent guidelines for recruiting to make sure that its athletes are reasonably representative of the student body. If you’re a school where the average SATs are 1410 (Wesleyan’s number), then making sure your hockey team isn’t comprised of 25 guys who barely cracked 1000 is a reasonable stance. (Note: This is most certainly not the case at Wesleyan.) And NESCAC’s shorter season that allows a student-athlete to play two sports can also be seen as a positive.

But to assume that what’s right for Middlebury must also be right for everyone else in Division III is where McCardell and his allies grossly overstepped their bounds.

Note, however, that I say “McCardell and his allies” and not “NESCAC.” Because a look at the role call for Prop 65-1 shows that even within his own conference McCardell barely managed a majority. Other than Middlebury, the vote within NESCAC was only 5-4 against the amendment. Personally, I’d have liked it to be 0-9, but the near-even split speaks volumes about the weakness of McCardell’s case and the fact that he couldn’t sway his own fellow conference presidents to a greater degree. Kudos to those at Bowdoin, Connecticut College, Tufts and Williams who looked past McCardell’s blather and saw common sense and fairness.

And enough already with guilt by association for all NESCAC schools.

A Perfect Mirror

It took him a few games to get accustomed to D-I hockey, but since breaking the ice with the game-winning goal over Vermont, Northeastern’s Ray Ortiz has made quite an impression. A Hockey East Player of the Week following that performance, Ortiz made it back-to-back honors with two goals and an assist against Colgate and eventually added the league’s Rookie of the Month award for December. Last weekend, he continued his scoring in the Huskies’ sixth win in their last seven games.

“It’s crazy,” Ortiz says. “It’s turned out better than I ever could have expected. It’s awesome. Everything is going great. [Now that we’re winning], I just hope we can keep the ball rolling.”

It’s almost spooky how Ortiz’s season has reflected his team’s. In the early going, the ball wasn’t rolling very well for either. Northeastern opened with an 0-9-2 record, during which Ortiz was still waiting for his first goal.

“The guys are bigger, faster, better; it’s not like that in high school,” Ortiz says. “In high school I was one of the bigger guys, but you come out here and it’s a whole new world. Everything is so much quicker. You’ve got to react 10 times faster than when you were in high school hockey.”

It’s a difficult transition that Northeastern coach Bruce Crowder has seem time after time.

“I don’t care what league you come from, very few freshmen are going to come in and light it up,” Crowder says. “They need time to develop and they need time to get comfortable. Ray is no different. We’ve got him playing center and I don’t know if he’s ever taken a faceoff before.”

However, Ortiz’s goal in the 1-0 win over Vermont, Northeastern’s first of the year, proved to be the catalyst for both the team and individual.

“It was like a monkey was off my back,” he says. “Not just me, everyone just relaxed once we got that first win.”

For anyone who watched Ortiz play as a youngster, his four goals in seven games is no surprise. He always brought great intensity to every game. Ortiz was probably 10 or 11 years old when he first played on a team this writer coached. Most kids his age needed to be almost roped and hogtied to come off the ice. They became stunningly hearing impaired, as least so far as the words, “Change up!” were concerned. One, who was a close friend of the goaltender, even told his buddy to never freeze the puck while he was on the ice so he wouldn’t have to change up on the whistle.

Ortiz, though, was different. He’d always be the first to change because while most skaters would pace themselves, he’d always go pedal-to-the-metal for 45 seconds and then change.

“If you go out there and give everything you have for those 45 seconds, then you should be dead,” he says. “You shouldn’t want to be out there anymore. You’re going to get the best results if you’re working hard. Every once in a while you’ll get lucky even if you’re floating around, but for the most part the good players are the ones who work hard all the time.”

Ortiz maintained that approach through his mid-teenage years, a one-year stay with the national team in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and then a return to Belmont Hill.

“That’s one of the things we liked in the recruiting process,” Crowder says. “The kid played hard. When a kid plays hard naturally, it makes it a lot easier for the coaching staff.

“It’s the old cliché: I’d rather tame the fight than fight the tame. Ray brings it to the table and so far, early in his career, he’s had some real positives.”

From Gold Medal To Breaking A Streak

UMass forward Stephen Werner had quite the sequence last week, helping Team USA to its first-ever gold medal in the World Junior Championships and then leading the Minutemen to their first-ever win at Walter Brown Arena. The latter win came less than 24 hours after Werner stepped off the plane from Finland.

“I was really surprised; I felt just as good as I did playing [in Finland],” Werner said after assisting on both UMass goals. “It’s a little bit less tiring playing on a smaller rink versus playing on a bigger sheet over there.”

UMass coach Don “Toot” Cahoon appreciated not only the return of a very talented player, but also the attitude that accompanied it.

“[It was] just a big uplift for the team to have a player of that measure come back and a person of that quality,” Cahoon said. “He’s very humble. He didn’t come back and start telling us about the World Championship; in fact it was quite the other way around, everyone was huddled around asking him about the various players and various teams. He’s a very humble kid, a very mature kid, and a very bright kid.

“He e-mailed us while he was away saying he was having a ball, but that he couldn’t wait to get back to the team, and that he’d be there for the BU game. It’s very significant because he never made it seem it would be a letdown to come back and play with us.”

When asked to compare the two wins — an almost no-win question in and of itself — Werner side-stepped it as easily as an immobile defenseman.

“It’s pretty hard to compare the two,” he said. “That was the biggest game I’ve ever played in out in Finland. But I followed the team while I was over there and we’ve been struggling a little bit the last nine or so games so it was really big to get our first win here at BU and to break our winless streak.”

In the past, many collegians have returned from the World Juniors and used that experience to elevate their game. Werner has much the same expectations, though not necessarily for the same reasons as his predecessors.

“It works both ways,” he said. “If you’re hot and you go to that tournament, it could maybe slow you down a bit. But I wasn’t playing that well down the stretch before the tournament and I had a couple big games out there. So I think it’s definitely going to kick-start the second half of the season for me.”

A New Holiday Tradition?

It was nice to see Providence College host the inaugural Dunkin’ Donuts Coffee Pot Tournament over the holidays. With a dearth of such possibilities in this region, most Hockey East teams have to head West just after Christmas or not play a tournament at all.

“This could catch on because Providence is a nice city,” PC coach Paul Pooley says. “All the restaurants are downtown. There’s an outdoor skating rink. The hotels are downtown. Everybody can walk around. It’ll take time to build, but I’m really excited about it.”

Building the tourney is the biggest question. Crowds of 4305 and 4407 didn’t begin to fill the 14,000-plus seat Dunkin’ Donuts Center.

“It’s a process,” Pooley says. “We’re not here to make money. We were selling tickets for 10 dollars and if you went to Dunkin’ Donuts you got two dollars off. So we’re not here to make money. Dunkin Donuts has made that clear, that they want to be involved in the community. They want to be involved in college hockey. It fills another couple dates in the venue here; it gets them exposure and us exposure. Cox [Broadcasting] stepped up and it gets everybody’s name out there.”

Admittedly, there were a flew glitches on the second day of the tournament that arose from a basketball game played in the facility that afternoon. The ice was sub-par and with the consolation game going into overtime the title tilt started late. Those unavoidable problems notwithstanding, however, the inaugural Coffee Pot earned high marks for its organization.

“It’s been unbelievable,” Clarkson coach George Roll said after the opening round. “I’ve been around for a long time in college hockey and it’s one of the best-run tournaments I’ve been a part of. The guys have thoroughly enjoyed it. The hospitality has been great.

“[The West] has all the high profile tournaments, but this is a great venue with the downtown area the way it’s been built up. Hopefully, they can get a little bit better attendance and it’ll run. It’ll be a great tournament if they can keep it going.”

Clearly, the PC staff’s experience with running NCAA tournaments in the past stood them in good stead.

“They’ve run tournaments before,” Pooley says. “They asked for input and then did a great job. The way that we ran it was very professional. We tried to dot the i’s and cross the t’s for everybody because it was almost like the same format as running the NCAA tournament.

“The banquet was very professionally done, very classy. I hope the teams [left] here thinking they had a good experience, we paid for almost everything, it was good hockey, a great city, and they stayed at the Westin, the nicest hotel in town. So hopefully, it’s a real positive and people are calling us to say that they want to come to the tournament.”

In Clarkson, Pooley would seem to have a repeat candidate.

“We’d love to come back whenever they’re ready to take us,” Roll said. “We’ve really enjoyed it. It’s been a first-class run organization.”

Plenty of Time

Last week’s column noted the volatility of the PairWise Rankings this early in the season while noting that New Hampshire had slid to a shocking 22nd position.

Refusing to panic, Dick Umile said, “Honestly, the ratings will all be played out when it’s all said and done. It can change pretty quickly. If you look at the schedule and who you play and their winning percentages, we can come back if we win hockey games so we’re not going to worry about that yet.

“We’re just worried about playing well. We’re not going to worry about the PairWise.”

Well, the Wildcats worried about the correct thing. Now, after taking three of four points from Providence and dominating nationally-ranked Dartmouth, 5-0, UNH is in a three-way tie for 8th in the PairWise.

Talk about volatility!

And as they say, from the outhouse to the penthouse…

A Closed Practice

We’ve all heard of practices closed to the media. But after last Wednesday’s loss to UMass, Boston University coach Jack Parker closed the Thursday practice to his own team.

“I went after them pretty good again, just talking about how we aren’t playing hard, how we aren’t taking people seriously,” Parker said after the Terriers responded with a 4-3 overtime win over Northeastern. “I got what was bothering me off my mind about individuals and about teams, and then I told them, ‘Go home. I don’t want you to practice; I don’t want you to come to the rink tomorrow; don’t come to a pregame breakfast; don’t come to a pregame meal; don’t come for a pregame skate. I’ll see you at the game Friday night.’ So they did. And they came ready to play. We got their attention anyways.”

Let’s see USA Hockey write that one up in its coaching manuals.

Finally, Proof That BU Is Evil

Last week came confirmation of something long suspected in Orono, Durham and Chestnut Hill, namely that Boston University hockey is the embodiment of pure evil. You see, for what may be the first time in college hockey history a team’s record matches The Sign of the Beast. The Terriers are 6-6-6.

Trivia Contest

Last week’s contest asked what Hockey East team — either before or after the formation of the league — once opened the year with 12 wins only to collapse with a 1-13 record the rest of the way, including 11 losses to close out the season. The answer was the 1980-81 Northeastern Huskies.

The reason why that question should have been easy is that the Boston Herald‘s John “Jocko” Connolly discussed that season in the most recent of his excellent Monday columns. There are many Jocko-wannabes, but only one Jocko.

The first to answer correctly was Stephen Robie whose cheer is:


(If you need an explanation for that, see last week’s column and the segment titled “The Dog House Roars.”)

This week’s question asks when is the last time that a Hockey East team recorded Texas hat tricks on back-to-back weekends. (A Texas hat trick requires four or more goals.) Email my trivia account with the player or players and the dates. The winner will be notified by Tuesday; if you haven’t heard by then you either had the wrong answer or someone else beat you to it.

Everything below this has nothing to do with Hockey East. Consider yourself warned.

A Little Wesleyan Talk

Congratulations to the Cardinals for taking three of four points on the road trip from Heck. (Hamilton and Amherst are travel partners that are over three hours apart.) Wesleyan either stole a point from Hamilton or had a point stolen from it, depending on your perspective. Despite being territorially dominated, the Cardinals were in position to win if not for an extra-skater goal at the end of the third period and an, ahem, highly questionable goal at 19:59 of the second. (I’ll avoid comments on the officiating on that play…. With great difficulty, I’ll avoid comments on the officiating on that play…. Only through the phenomenal restraint for which I am so highly renowned will I avoid comments on the officiating on that play…. Those homers….)

Wesleyan left no doubt the next day, however, defeating 12th-ranked Amherst, 3-1. If you check out the box score, you’ll see that a kid I’m particularly partial to scored a big goal, but the real heroes here were defensemen David Taylor, Mike Lang, Mike Barbera, Craig Badger, Blake Williams and Bill Fletcher. That’s because one of the group’s top players, Rob Weller, was injured early in the Hamilton game and is out indefinitely. To be missing such a key player and still hold a nationally ranked team to a single goal is a tribute not only to the ongoing excellence of goaltender Jim Panczykowski, but also to a group of blueliners that really rose to the occasion. Goaltenders and goalscorers tend to get the most headlines, but defensemen are typically the unsung heroes of every team and this group really got the job done.

And Finally, Not That It Has Anything To Do With Anything, But…

  • Our condolences to the family of Jim Greenidge. Jim worked in various capacities ranging from New England Patriots Public Relations Director to Rensselaer Sports Information Director to writer for the Boston Globe. In the latter capacity, he often was covering college hockey. As is the case all too often, Jim was a nice guy whose time ran out all too soon.
  • I sure was rooting for Kansas City to knock off Indianapolis. The Colts are the one team that scared me the most heading into the playoffs and they’ve only gotten more scary. Yeah, their run defense stinks, but with the Damien Woody injury making the Patriots’ running attack even more questionable this is looking like a very, very tough game.
  • I’ve played a Nassau or two on the golf course and I enjoy the game of poker so I’m no black-and-white anti-gambling fanatic. But I can’t comprehend people who think that Pete Rose should ever be involved in baseball again. The man committed the most heinous crime in sports for which he knew there was the equivalent of the death penalty. I wouldn’t vote for him in the Hall of Fame and he should never, ever, ever put on a uniform again, especially to manage a team. And, no, I won’t buy the scumbag’s book.
  • If you’re a fan of Broadway-style musicals, go see Urinetown. It’s a brilliantly absurd satire of boilerplate musicals that is very, very funny.

    Thanks to Adam Wodon, Scott Weighart and Mike Machnik.