ECAC Mulls Applicants’ Pros and Cons

The ECAC will hear formal proposals today at Yale from five schools that have applied for admittance into the hockey conference for the 2005-06 season.

The ECAC opened up the process after it learned that Vermont intended to depart the ECAC for Hockey East after next season. The five schools that have applied are current CHA school Niagara, and Sacred Heart, Quinnipiac, Holy Cross and Mercyhurst, which all play in Atlantic Hockey on the men’s side. Quinnipiac and Mercyhurst will be part of the CHA women’s league next season.

ECAC officials are keeping an open mind, but there are always preconceived notions going into any process like this. And there appears to be as many notions as there are people involved.

“The coaches are talking about the proximity to Ontario for Niagara, the ADs are talking about the academics at Holy Cross and others talking about the facilities coming on board at Quinnipiac,” said Ken Ralph, athletic director at Rensselaer. “So every school has something that works best for everyone.”

Every school has something going for it, and some are even trying to sweeten the pot as much as possible. Monday, Niagara announced a $2 million rink renovation. And according to sources, Quinnipiac has offered to play all of its ECAC games on the road pending the completion of its new athletic facility, which includes a rink, and can offer additional ECAC games on television with its own NESN deal.

“We’re doing everything we can to get in,” said Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin. “Who knows what happens, but we’ve taken the steps that the ECAC has said we need to do to apply and see what happens from there. The school is very excited about the possibilities.”

(Also see: Complete Q&A with Gotkin and Holy Cross’ Paul Pearl)

There are any number of factors that will come into play when making the decision. Academics will be a factor, as will geography, and the quality of the program on the ice. There are tangential factors as well, such as the overall profile of the athletic program, facility, media market, and financial commitment to hockey.

“What we’re looking for is a school that makes a commitment that helps us further our mission,” said Ralph. “Further improve the league and brings the league back to the prominence that it has lost in the past years.

“We’re looking for a blend, a combination of academic integrity, commitment to the students and student-athletes, commitment to the hockey program and what that school can offer that no current school in the ECAC can provide. What is their uniqueness?”

One point of agreement, it seems, is the necessity for the ECAC to add at least one school. An 11-team league playing each opponent twice would leave 14 non-league games to fill for each non-Ivy school every season. The fear is that too many of those games would have to be filled with inferior opponents, dragging down the conference’s overall strength of schedule.

“If one school is the best, then it’s one,” Ralph said. “If it’s two schools then it’s two, and if it’s three, then I would be willing to think about three schools. We shouldn’t pin ourselves down to just one school.”

On the other hand, as is often the case, the ECAC is taking into consideration college hockey as a whole. Taking too many teams is something that could negatively disrupt the college hockey landscape.

“We have to be conscious of not disrupting the fiber of Division I hockey,” said Union athletic director Val Belmonte. “We can damage the other leagues if we take more than one team and that’s something that we talked about at the Frozen Four and in our meetings in Florida.

“We don’t want a cause and effect and have the effect become the Findlay effect where teams wind up dropping their programs. We’ve lost some teams over the last two years and we don’t want schools to drop their programs.”

Another factor that can’t be overlooked is the quality of the women’s program. It will be a package deal.

“The women’s side is extremely important to us,” Belmonte said. “It works both ways, we have to look at the teams from both sides and what both sides brings both athletically and their commitment to that side.”

Partially independent of the search is whether the ECAC will keep its travel partner setup, or switch to a scenario similar to the other leagues, where teams play the same team twice each weekend. The problem is, since each team only plays everyone else twice, that would mean you wouldn’t see half the teams in your own building each year.

“In my opinion having no travel partners is better for the student-athlete’s welfare,” said Belmonte. “When our players go on the road, something can always happen to them. They’re never able to settle down. When they’re on the road, they have to check out of hotels and they can’t settle down and get studying in. They don’t eat correctly on the road because they’re always eating on the go. And then there’s the coaching aspect — the coaches are better able to prepare for just one team on a weekend rather than two.

“There are people that argue that they won’t get to see certain teams, but there are ways that things can be better with a non-travel partner system where you are guaranteed certain rivalries and teams.”

Because of the wide variety of factors that will go into this decision, handicapping the selection is next to impossible. Quinnipiac has a nice new rink on the way, with a TV deal and decent academics. Holy Cross has great academics and won its league last year, but its women’s program is currently in Division III. Both have geography in their favor. Niagara and Mercyhurst don’t have the academics or geography on their side, but have strong programs that have proven the ability to compete. Niagara has even won an NCAA game.

“Four to six years ago there were rumblings about Niagara in the ECAC and it fell through at that time because they didn’t have a travel partner,” said Gotkin. “So we’re thinking that here is a natural travel partner. We’re only 100 miles apart and if you talk to any administrator, and coach, any player in college hockey, 100 miles really isn’t that far. Erie sounds far but we’re in Albany in five and a half hours.

“We’ve been fortunate to play a lot of ECAC teams over the years and we think that we can compete. We don’t know if we can jump in and just be ECAC champs, but we think we can compete. We’ve proven that we can recruit and cultivate our players.”

The league expects to make a decision by July 1.

“I don’t want to bring in a team just to fill the 12th spot,” Belmonte said. “There has to be someone that brings something, something that makes everyone say, ‘Hey, that’s a great selection.’ I want people to sit back and say what they did when Vermont went to Hockey East and how people said that they were a great addition to Hockey East. That’s what I want.”