This Week in Atlantic Hockey: Oct. 14, 2004

Business, Not Hockey

No, this isn’t the NHL. We’re not talking about a collective bargaining agreement, a salary cap or players buying one-way tickets to Europe.

Still, as we open the Atlantic Hockey season, the second year of the league’s existence under that name, business is on the top of many minds as much as on-ice play.

The topic is expansion. All summer rumors floated about Atlantic Hockey making a bid to grow. When Quinnipiac confirmed that it would leave the league for the ECAC beginning next season, the murmurs grew louder.

At this point, the league has confirmed reports that it is making every attempt to expand. Next season, when Quinnipiac heads to the ECAC, Atlantic Hockey will drop to just eight schools. According to commissioner Bob DeGregorio, it is the hope of the membership that they can raise that number over time to ten or 12.

“There are some basic, fundamental things that we’ve discussed about how big that we want to be,” said DeGregorio. “If we expand, I don’t think you’ll see us go back to nine [teams], we’d go to ten. Based on those discussions, we’d probably never go to 11, we’d go to 12.

“That’s only if the right schools that fit the profile that we’re looking for come along. Based on discussions, I don’t think we’ll ever be bigger than 12.”

DeGregorio said that regardless of what happens in upcoming meetings, if expansion takes place it will not be for the 2005-06 season.

“The directors have approved the 2005-06 schedule next year, so as far as expansion goes for 2005-06, there will not be any,” DeGregorio said. “Anything that we do through all these discussions that we’re having, we’re being very deliberate because we want to make the right decisions and the right choices.”

The league has received official applications from two current College Hockey America teams, Air Force and Robert Morris, and a third club, current Division III member Rochester Institute of Technology.

Robert Morris has not hidden its desire to be a member of Atlantic Hockey from the day the program was announced two years ago. The school decided to go to the CHA for this season to replace Findlay, which folded its program last year.

Air Force, which has had difficultly competing with other CHA teams, would prefer Atlantic Hockey if for no other reason than to be aligned with fellow military school, Army.

For RIT, it’s a little more difficult. Should the Tigers elevate their program to Division I, they would need a two-year waiting period before they could be eligible for the NCAA tournament (schools like Bentley, American International and Mercyhurst all went through the same process). They also would not be eligible to give out scholarships unless they elevated their entire athletic program to the Division I level.

So DeGregorio and the current membership of the league are now facing difficult decisions on the best fit.

“We’re looking at a lot of things,” admitted DeGregorio. “We’re looking at the institutions themselves, their hockey program and the people involved in that program. We’re looking at the institutional commitment [to hockey], whether they have their own rinks or not and what their current facilities are like.

“There’s a whole broad spectrum of what we’d like the league to be with our current eight members and what it would be with anybody that we’d add.”

One thing on which DeGregorio stands firm is that any member who comes into the league must abide by the league’s current bylaws, and that includes its 11-scholarship rule.

“We are at 11 scholarships… and if you come into our league right now, you’re going to have to support that bylaw and the fact that we’re in that kind of cost-containment mold,” said DeGregorio. “It’s always discussed at every meeting that we have, whether we should move forward or stay where we’re at [in scholarships]. But any institution has to abide by that. Once they become a member, they have one vote just like anyone else.”

There are concerns across Division I ice hockey related to the Atlantic Hockey’s expansion. Should one or two schools move from the CHA to Atlantic Hockey, it would leave the CHA with additional holes.

“[The effect on the CHA] is always a concern,” said DeGregorio. “But they’ve indicated that there are more club teams out west that have indicated that in a year or two they’d be interested in becoming varsity programs. Our intent is not to hurt anybody else, it’s to do what’s best for our league.”

DeGregorio said that he and other commissioners met with club programs at April’s American Hockey Coaches Association meetings in Naples, Fla., and that many of them have viable budgets to become Division I varsity teams.

“Some club programs are spending more money right now traveling than some of the current Division I programs in many leagues,” said DeGregorio. “You have a lot of programs out there investigating what they want to do. That’s what’s going to foster the growth of ice hockey.”

Now as a writer, I guess it’s my responsibility to weigh in on what schools are most likely fits for Atlantic Hockey.

One of the better is Air Force. Most Atlantic teams already play Air Force non-league. The Falcons want to be matched with fellow military academy Army and would likely be a more competitive team in Atlantic Hockey.

At the same time, putting Army and Air Force together might get Navy, a long-rumored varsity candidate, off the dime to make the move to Division I and subsequently Atlantic Hockey. The question, though, would be whether placing three military schools — all of which would oppose raising scholarship limits — into the same conference is prudent.

Niagara is probably the most-wanted prospect by Atlantic Hockey but, unfortunately for the league, did not file an application. The Purple Eagles are a perfect geographic fit but likely not interested in dropping from 18 to 11 scholarships.

Some will remember when the league was under the governance of the MAAC that Niagara had approved membership to the league with the contingency that the scholarship limit would bump from 11 to 15. Once the CHA got an NCAA autobid, though, that conversation became moot.

RIT is a top Division III program. There is no doubt that the school wants to elevate its program, and Atlantic Hockey is the best place for it. If RIT commits to Division I hockey, as its application indicates, it’s a shoo-in. Again, the caveat: if RIT elevates only hockey and not the rest of its sports, there will be no scholarships.

Since Robert Morris became a Division I school last season, the Colonials have hoped to play in Atlantic Hockey. They decided to help the CHA keep its autobid with Findlay leaving last year, and now it seems that maybe the Atlantic Hockey presidents and ADs might turn their noses up because of Robert Morris’ academic standards. In this whole process, Robert Morris could be the X-factor.

Other rumored names are Rhode Island, St. Anselm and a host of high-priced club teams. Still, at this point, those schools are far from the decision to move to Division I.

One thing is clear: Atlantic Hockey will not act in haste. The fact that the announcement was expected this summer and now doesn’t seem like it will come any time soon proves that this is a process, not a dart toss.

That, without any doubt, is the best way to proceed.

Weekly Awards

There weren’t a lot of games played last week for Atlantic teams and because of that, ironically, no names were submitted to the league office for the Player of the Week award. Still, the two other awards — goaltender and rookie of the week — were selected, as follows:

Goaltender of the Week

Brad Smith, Connecticut: Smith, a rookie for the Huskies, relived an injured Scott Tomes in a game against ECAC member Rensselaer. Smith made 24 saves in relief with 18 coming in the third period and overtime as Connecticut clawed back to a 3-3 tie. UConn, playing in the consolation game at the Maverick Stampede in Nebraska, won a shootout to claim third place.

Rookie of the Week

Mike Neilon, Connecticut: Neilon scored the second UConn goal in the 3-3 tie against Rensselaer on Sunday, then capped things off with the winning goal in the seventh round of the shootout.

Ex-Bobcat Eddy Impresses

For any college player trying to make a go at professional hockey, this is the toughest year ever. With the NHL lockout, league rookies, as well as players who played less than 50 games a year ago, are allowed to play in the American Hockey League.

The result is that many of the talented collegians who exited for the pro ranks this season after four-year careers find themselves homeless as the AHL season begins.

Despite that fact, former Quinnipiac goaltender Justin Eddy, who last year split time with now-senior Jamie Holden, was signed to a contract and placed on the roster of the Portland Pirates to begin the season.

Eddy isn’t the first Atlantic Hockey/MAAC player to begin a high-level professional career. Last year, ex-Holy Cross Crusader Pat Rissmiller got a cup of coffee in the NHL for the San Jose Sharks before spending much of the season in the AHL. Similarly, ex-Mercyhurst standout goaltender Peter Aubry has logged significant time in the AHL.

Wisco Or Bust

It’s time to discuss the on-ice action — and what better way to kick things off than with the preseason favorite heading west to take on a Goliath of sorts in No. 9 Wisconsin.

The Badgers are coming off one the school’s better seasons in recent memory and are a contender for the WCHA title. It’s the second year in a row that Wisco will host an early-season matchup with an Atlantic team. Last year the Badgers needed overtime to beat Quinnipiac, 2-1, in Game 1 of a two-game set. The Badgers won by a more comfortable 4-1 margin a night later.

By the way, if anyone considers the Lakers adventurous for heading all the way to Madison, think again. Canisius will make the ultimate college hockey road trip this weekend, heading to Anchorage, Alaska, for the Nye Frontier Classic. The Griffs face the hosts in the semifinals and will play either Massachusetts or Minnesota on night two.

May Not Count, But We’re Still Perfect

Every college coach will tell you that playing Canadian schools in exhibition games can be difficult. The Canadians play a different, more physical style of hockey, and, though the American schools are nearly always favorites, winning is often another story.

That makes last weekend’s Atlantic Hockey accomplishment mentionable. All six exhibition games versus Canadian schools were won by Atlantic teams.

Army led the way, taking two from Ryerson, Bentley beat Wilfred Laurier, 3-1, and Quinnipiac doubled that up the following night with a 6-5 overtime win over the Lauries. Mercyhurst shut out Brock, 4-0, and Canisius beat Ottawa, 4-3.