This Week in the CHA: Jan. 29, 2004

Breathe. Relax. Life goes on for the CHA.

Less than a month after Findlay announced the termination of its hockey program upon the completion of this season, the conference has saved itself from life without an automatic berth to the NCAA tournament.

Welcome, Robert Morris.

It had been reported in this column that the CHA was interested in Robert Morris and that the university was strongly considering the conference. Previously, the school’s athletic director, Dr. Susan Hofacre, had demurred as to the intensity of the negotiations, outwardly professing that the ECAC’s loss of Vermont had complicated matters.

Credit Commissioner R.H. “Bob” Peters in expediting the process. He brought his conference from the brink of disaster to NCAA stability in record time. The albatross of having only five teams could have hung around the CHA’s neck for at least the rest of the season.

While everyone acknowledged time was of the essence, it did not seem probable that the deal could be closed this quickly — or maybe that’s sour grapes for this reporter, who had planned on writing an extensive update of the search for a new team in next week’s column. Through the month, Peters and the rest of the CHA coaches expressed confidence in a prompt resolution.

In the same week that Findlay announced its fateful decision, Peters held a conference call with all of the athletic directors in the CHA. Peters let his strategy unfold, working with all of the teams in the conference to get another program on board.

Speculation surrounded all sorts of scenarios, including a swap of teams with Atlantic Hockey. Air Force coach Frank Serratore was quoted in published reports as suggesting an outcome in which teams would switch into the CHA and his program would join the AHA to create a permanent rivalry with Army.

At the end, the most likely solution proved the actual one. Robert Morris was adding Division I hockey. Its coach, Derek Schooley, had CHA ties as a former Falcon assistant. The school had stated a desire to compete for championships as early as possible, and the CHA, with only six teams, offered that. As Hofacre intimated in the press release, the conference was a natural home.

The speed of the conference switch was critical. It allows the current CHA teams to finish recruiting without fear of losing players because the league does not have an automatic bid to the tournament.

Instead, the CHA will have to deal with a brand-new program among its ranks. It will take a few years before the Colonials can truly assemble a skilled Division-I team. But the young program will grow in lockstep with a young league.

This is a great day for the CHA. Well done, Peters. Welcome Robert Morris.


Down Home in Huntsville

The CHA took a tremendous step forward to raise its national profile with the addition of Robert Morris. The conference was already set to take a small step towards that goal with Northern Michigan coming down to play Alabama-Huntsville.

That’s right, a CHA team is playing a CCHA team — at home.

“It’s good for the league and it’s good for all of college hockey,” said UAH coach Doug Ross. “The so-called big programs only want to play us at home. They should come down and play us more often, it would do wonders for the entire game.”

Ross raised a fair point. How can young programs be expected to build a fan base, when they are denied the ability to see the best stars of the college game? This goes double for UAH, which is not in the most hockey-centric region of the nation.

“Schools like Michigan and Minnesota have huge national followings that would go on the road to see teams play. It raises the status of the programs,” Ross said. “You have to wonder if Findlay would have made the announcement it did if Ohio State and Notre Dame came there to play once in a while.”

Only against Atlantic Hockey has the CHA had a modicum of success. It has losing records against each of the other conferences — naturally, since it is very hard to beat members of the Big Four conferences on their ice.

Of course, if Ross wants the CCHA to keep arriving at his door, his team will have to do more than provide good hotel rooms. It will have to field a competitive product on the ice, and that means solving goaltender Craig Kowalski.

The Wildcat netminder is tied for the most shutouts in the nation with four this year, and has anchored a decidedly mediocre CCHA squad. It will be Jared Ross’ job to solve him and carry his usual offensive burden.

“We will have to be extra sharp on our power play this week, from Jared on down in our lineup,” Ross said. “It will be a good test before going out to play [No. 4] Maine.”

New Rink for UAH

Alabama-Huntsville may in the near future be able to extend additional Southern hospitality to schools that come its way. Ross confirmed the rumors that have been circulating over the past couple of weeks: plans are well under way for a new arena to replace the Von Braun Center.

“There are a group of investors getting together to put together a package for a new arena,” Ross said. “I can’t really reveal any more details than that, but it is very exciting for our program and the community.

The facility, according to Ross, would probably be about the same capacity (7,000) as the present arena. Its construction would help alleviate the competition that goes on right now for space in the VBC, which is also home to the Huntsville Channel Cats [SEHL] and the basketball team Huntsville Flight [NBDL]. In the spring, the Tennessee Valley Vipers call the place home for arena football.

“We share the place with three other teams, so it’s tough,” Ross said. “However, we’ve been there for the past 23 years and they have been as good to us as they possibly could have been. It will be hard to think of this team without the civic center.”

Any formal announcement for the project such as construction dates or even definite investors is still months away. Nothing has been finalized so there still is the possibility that no arena would be built, but it looks extremely likely.

First Place for Bemidji

It should not be lost in all this excitement that there still is a race for first place, and Bemidji took a step towards securing it with a dynamite performance against Wayne State, posting a pair of six-goal performances.

The sweep gives the Beavers a four-point lead over Niagara, which has two games in hand.

“The only thing I care about is the loss column and there we are tied with Niagara,” said Bemidji coach Tom Serratore. “The challenge right now is to continue to play well and just to keep winning. If we can take care of business, the we’ll be all right.”

Junior Brendan Cook and freshman sensation Luke Erickson torched the Warrior defense. Cook had three goals and three assists, while Erickson posted one goal and four assists. They are a lethal combination for Bemidji.

“The two of them are playing on the same line and with Ryan Miller centering them,” Serratore said. “They work extremely hard, have good stick skills and are natural goal scorers.

Bemidji’s top line combines with its second line led by junior Riley Ridell to give the team enough offense to win games. Bemidji will add to that punch in the coming weeks with the return of assistant captain Andrew Murray. Murray, who last played for BSU on Dec. 5 against the same Warriors, appears to be a couple of weeks away from returning to the lineup.

“He’s skating right now in non-contact drills, doing a lot of shooting,” Serratore said. “He’ll be evaluated again next Tuesday and we’ll follow the doctor’s advice, but we definitely expect him to be back in the lineup before the end of the season.”

And Lastly…

In the week after I had to explain the intricacies of Player of the Week voting, Oiler goaltender Jon Horrell captured Defensive POTW honors for the second time this season. Horrell was awesome in a 0-0 tie against Ferris State (on the road, of course). He made a whopping nine saves in overtime. The Oilers goaltenders, Horrell and Will Hooper, should prove to be hot commodities when the season ends.

Moreover, Cook was a runner-up for Offensive Player of the Week. It would figure that right after claiming the CHA faced an almost-impossible task in getting recognition for its players’ accomplishments, the league would almost execute a sweep of the awards.