A pallor has descended over conference play in the wake of Findlay’s announcement that its hockey program will terminate at the season’s end. Teams are jockeying for position in the conference, Bemidji and Niagara just completed a battle for first place, and Alabama-Huntsville may be ready to try and knock on the door.
But Findlay, or simply “The Oilers” as the team has asked to be called, naturally rises to the center of the discussion. A conference autobid is at stake in the long term, and in the meanwhile, other teams have to adjust to playing a squad that will no longer exist in a few months.
How do you play a ghost? Niagara coach Dave Burkholder sure is not looking forward to finding out when his team becomes the first to play in Clauss Ice Arena since the announcement.
“I sure wish we didn’t have to be first,” Burkholder said. “I’m very nervous. They are playing for each other now and with the name change they are playing as a total team. That is very difficult to beat.”
The Oilers struggled in the immediate aftermath of the decision, dropping a pair of games to the Charges. In retrospect, that may not have been too surprising. Few could’ve handled the emotional rollercoaster. The Purple Eagles will have a much greater task this week.
“They will have a lot of intensity this weekend and we will have to match it,” Burkholder said. “Findlay almost beat [No. 1] North Dakota and they should’ve beaten Notre Dame. We watched the tapes. We have a lot of respect for them and will have to match their energy.”
Alabama-Huntsville found the Oilers to be a spirited opponent, even if the scores were pretty decisive, 3-1 and 4-1. UAH coach Doug Ross had a bit of a warning for the rest of the conference:
“There were two ways Findlay could’ve handled this,” Ross said. “Either they could have been fired up or thrown in the towel. They skated hard. You absolutely cannot understand the full psychology of the situation.”
Then with Ross — as it will be for the rest of the year from everyone — the tone shifts back from hockey to the simple fact that the program will not exist. In other words, the death throes.
“It was a disappointing decision that the school president made when she decided to drop the program,” Ross said. “They have a good, young program going there. They came to play every night.”
Time will tell just what will be showing up wearing orange and black every night now. Or is it just black?
Discussions are abounding throughout college hockey about what to do to resolve CHA’s need for a sixth team starting with next year. The athletic directors from the CHA schools held a conference call last Thursday to and there will be another meeting on Tuesday to come up with answers.
Commissioner R.H. “Bob” Peters appears to be pounding the earth looking for a way to guarantee his league does not spend a year out of the NCAA tournament.
“I’ve been talking with all of our athletic directors, plus all six commissioners in D-I hockey about this situation,” Peters said. “We’ve been talking about a lot of possible solutions for this matter.”
Peters declined to reveal any specific details, but emphasized the need for speed and that more information would be forthcoming after Tuesday.
One of the schools possibly looking to join the CHA is Robert Morris, which is upgrading to Division I hockey next year and is currently without a team. Athletic Director, Dr. Susan Hofacre has had discussions with Peters about joining the men’s league.
“I’ve been talking to a lot of people about our situation,” Hofacre said. “We’ve talked to athletic directors and commissioners and yes, we’ve talked to Peters about joining.”
Robert Morris as a brand-new program would seem to be a natural fit for the CHA. The conference offers the straightest path to the NCAA tournament and, at a minimum, probably the quickest path to play meaningful games. The CHA has also demonstrated that it can attract big-name opponents, adding gravity to its schedule
“We want to be in a conference with schools in which we can be competitive,” Hofacre said. “We want to get the best competition and get a good schedule, as well have access to the NCAA tournament.”
“Of course, it’s not entirely up to us,” she added. “We need to apply and then we have to be invited to join the conference.”
Hofacre stated that with the Colonials set to play next fall, she would have wanted to have the conference situation resolved last summer. Now, the national conference shuffle has clouded the picture.
“We need to decided what is best for our school,” Hofacre said. “A lot of that will depend on not only what the CHA is doing with Findlay leaving, but also what the ECAC is doing with Vermont leaving and so forth. We are prepared to play one season as an independent if it is absolutely necessary. We’ve started to fill out our schedule.”
This space has given quite a bit of attention recently to Niagara’s top gun — Barrett Ehgoetz — and former top gun underperforming this year, Joe Tallari (who was CHA Offensive Player of the Week and seems to finally be on track; more on that below). All the while, Alabama Huntsville’s Jared Ross has gone point-for-point with Ehgoetz.
Ross is tied with Ehgoetz for the conference’s scoring lead with 16 points in eight league games. Overall, he is 20th in the nation with 25 points on the year, but first in points per game at 1.79. Along with linemates Bruce Mulherin and Craig Bushey, he has carried the Chargers to third place in the conference with a 5-3 record.
“A lot of teams have to check him pretty closely,” coach Doug Ross said. “If he gets even a little space, he’ll use it. But if he doesn’t get space, he’ll create it.”
Ross scored three of UAH’s seven goals last weekend against Findlay and added an assist. It’s becoming routine for his name to be all over the scoresheet when the Chargers win.
It goes without saying that he is indispensable to his team. Like Ehgoetz only a junior, CHA fans will be treated to Ross’ brilliance for one more season.
“Jared has gotten a lot of ice time over the past two years and he has really developed,” Ross said. “He’s got good speed and works real well with Mulherin and Bushey. When he gets the puck, a lot of good things are going to happen.”
Alabama-Huntsville will need Ross at his absolute best over the next four weeks. After a relatively sparse schedule in which the Chargers were the last team in the conference to play and had an especially long Christmas break, the task at hand becomes brutal. The team is at Wayne State this week and then at Air Force the next. The team then hosts Northern Michigan before flying out to No. 3 Maine and catches Niagara and Bemidji on back-to-back weekends.
“It’s going to feel like an eight-game road trip,” Ross said. “We knew that when we hit the second half of the season, the schedule was going to get rough. If we want to get into the mix a little, we will have to do really well the next two weekends.”
The next two weekends are critical for the Chargers because it a pair of sweeps would cement their hold on third place and give them a launchpad to pressure Niagara and Bemidji at the top, if one of those teams should falter.
“We are a young team and we survived the first part of the season,” Ross said. “Now we’ll have to see. If we can get some wins, we’re going to make a move. My only real concern is that we stay healthy, but that is what every team wants.”
It starts this weekend against the tight, defensive style of the Warriors. The game plan is to have Ross slash right through it. The road becomes a lot harder after that.
Tallari, at Last
It was predictable, but last week’s showdown between Niagara and Bemidji did not resolve anything. The teams split, each taking a turn at dominating a game, and the Beavers still have a two-point lead on first place with the Purple Eagles having two games in hand.
One thing is for certain: Joe Tallari is back. The senior has eight points in his last six games, and his two goals and one assist keyed the Eagles’ 6-3 victory on Friday night. His reemergence came initially with getting re-paired with Ehgoetz coming out of the Christmas break, but Burkholder quickly moved Tallari down to the second line with Justin Cross and Hannu Karru.
The result: a fierce, two-line attack.
“Joe’s really starting to feel it again,” Burkholder said. “Other than the season ending injury to Jason Williamson, this is really the team I thought I would have before the season.”
Cross and Karru have been nice complements for Tallari. The sophomore Cross has really improved lately. In the first 11 games this year, Cross had just two points, but he has, like Tallari, has eight points in his last six. Karru picked up a goal and two assists against Bemidji on Friday for his first points of the year.
“In his last eight games, Justin has really produced and we’ve needed guys to step up their game,” Burkholder said. “We told Karru that he will be measured on production. He’s not a physical player, he’s not a penalty killer, his game is to produce points.”
Niagara has two productive lines — and two power-play units — for the first time all season. Fittingly, it can take over sole possession of first place with a sweep over Findlay. Bemidji is off this weekend, so the Purple Eagles are playing out their extra games.
Lest this columnist’s patriotism get questioned, Air Force heads down to West Point to play Army this weekend. The Falcons split a Thursday/Saturday series against Wayne State last weekend and will be trying to erase the bad taste of giving up a 2-0 third-period lead on Saturday to the team behind it in the CHA standings.
Friday’s game will be broadcast on CSTV as part of the network’s Friday night Game of the Week. It will also be beamed to 178 countries throughout the world on Wed., Jan. 21 on Armed Forces Network.
Especially for the sake of those who will watch overseas, here’s to a good game between the two struggling service academies.