This Week in the ECACHL: Oct. 28, 2004

College hockey’s oldest rivalry is renewed on Friday when Harvard travels an hour down I-95 to face off against Brown for the 143rd time. The game also serves as the traditional kickoff to league play.

The Bears, despite not enjoying the same level of recent postseason success as their Ivy brethren, have held the upper hand over the Crimson in regular-season action. Brown has won three straight season-opening contests over Harvard by a combined score of 10-2, including shutouts in each of the last two openers.

Last season, the Bears swept the regular-season series, but lost two straight to the Crimson in the first round of the playoffs.

But much has changed on both campuses since these teams last met.

At Harvard, Mark Mazzoleni is gone, as are the eight seniors who were the core of recent title runs. In is Ted Donato, a coach for the first time at any level, and a new set of senior leaders, including Tom Cavanagh, Noah Welch and Ryan Lannon.

The spotlight, however, is undoubtedly on Donato.

“I definitely had jitters,” said the former NHLer after debuting to a 2-2 exhibition tie with Windsor last Saturday. “A little bit of the pressure was off knowing that not as many people would be here watching because the Red Sox opened the World Series.”

That will change in a hurry, especially now that the baseball season has ended, and with no pro hockey action expected until 2005.

“It was good to get this one out of the way,” said Donato. “Hopefully, the coach will improve along with the team.

“There’s certainly a learning curve on my end, handling the game-time situations. All that stuff will eventually become second nature.”

As, too, he hopes will the new style of play expected from Harvard. While Mazzoleni rode a stingy defense and timely scoring to two tournament titles and three NCAA appearances, Donato’s brand of hockey is a throwback to his playing days: a fast-skating, aggressive, creative offense.

The adjustment will take time, especially for those players who were under Mazzoleni’s system for years, but the new crackdown on obstruction should help the Crimson. Even so, Donato is ever the realist.

“There are a lot of things that we need to be better at.”

On the other side of the Massachusetts-Rhode Island divide are the new-look Bears. Roger Grillo is back for his eighth season looking to repeat last year’s regular-season success. But, he too, has a team that is undergoing a change in identity.

Gone are familiar names and key cogs, including all-world netminder Yann Danis, defensive anchors Scott Ford and Vince Macri, and leading scorer Brent Robinson. The offense will now fall squarely into the laps of seniors Les Haggett and Chris Swon, as well as sophomore Brian Ihnacak.

“It will definitely be a different year for us than the last few,” explained Grillo. “It’s a young team and not just with freshmen in the lineup, but with some older guys with not a ton of experience in key situations.

“The early part of the year will be a learning experience for us. Hopefully, we can come out of it unscathed.”

Grillo is also realistic with on what it will take to manage the growth process.

“We’ll need to be patient. We’re replacing guys who played for us for four years with guys who didn’t play at all. We’ll just have to work through it. There will be a lot more teaching and work with individuals on roles and responsibilities.”

And while the Bears will be facing a new-look Crimson squad, they have some new wrinkles of their own they’ll be throwing out onto the ice.

“We’re a different team from recent years,” Grillo said, “because we’ll be strong and deep up front and inexperienced out back.”

With a young crop of blueliners that includes three rookie candidates and a sophomore, Brown’s forwards will need to be extra aware of their positioning and help out more in their own zone.

The biggest key for Brown, however, will be solving the mystery of who will replace Danis between the pipes.

“The big question is in goal,” said Grillo. “That’s what everyone is focused on. Yann was a great goaltender and a great kid, but people are missing the boat if they hang their hat on that. He had a good team around him.”

Even so, there’s no denying that there are major skates to fill in goal and this is where three-year backup Scott Rowan comes in. The netminder owns a 1-0-1 record in his Brown career in three games, including a shutout over Iona in early 2003.

“He’s the odds-on favorite to start,” acknowledged Grillo. “He’s excellent, solid, composed and quick. He has a lot of positive attributes. He will surprise some people.”

McKenna Drives Saints’ Upsets

St. Lawrence plays arguably the toughest non-conference schedule of any ECACHL team. The Saints do it year in and year out, with no complaints. They may not succeed in those games as often as they would like, but the learning experience is worth the occasional blemish in the record.

“These are tough teams,” said coach Joe Marsh about his team’s early-season opponents, “but we get a lot out of the games regardless of whether we win or lose. Hopefully, we can draw on it later in the year.”

So far this season, the Saints have won a couple of games the experts didn’t think they would, including a 3-1 upset at then-No. 7 Michigan State and a 1-0 victory at then-No. 5 Maine. The win against the Black Bears was SLU’s first in 20 years and only its second at Alfond Arena.

Next up, No. 10 Miami — and no one doubts the Saints’ chances of at least one victory this weekend.

“I’m pretty pleased, obviously,” said Marsh, “with the way things have gone. The effort has been fabulous. The team has enjoyed the trips, I think. They’ve been some killer trips, but sometimes being on the road so much early on can really bring a team together.

“I’m happiest with the level of competitiveness we have. We’re working hard and playing disciplined. We’ve seen guys make adjustments (to the new officiating emphasis) that will help in the long run.”

Why does Marsh choose to set up these challenges — intense ones at that — so early in the season?

“We always just want to play against the best competition,” he explained. “The kids learn that they can push and challenge themselves. If we can go in and steal one in Maine or Michigan, like we did, then it’s a boost.

“We hope it will give the kids confidence for the games that are nail-biters. And we’ll be in a lot of those. We’re not going to blow anyone out and we’re not going to get blown out either … at least I hope not.”

In the center of it all is senior goaltender Mike McKenna.

“He’s really matured,” said Marsh hours after taking his team on a golf outing to celebrate his beloved Red Sox’ World Series victory.

“McKenna is a good-sized kid (6-foot-3). A lot of pucks hit him because he is in good position. If he has to make a second or third save, he’s in the position to do so. He’s making all the saves he needs to and even stealing a couple for us. The guys have tremendous confidence in him.”

McKenna’s ride began in the second half of the 2003-04 season when he took over the starting job from classmate Kevin Ackley.

“It’s about consistency,” Marsh said. “He had a great second half last year and really anchored us. He just has experience now and he knows what it is like to lose a tough one. He’s pretty conscious of what he needs to do to get better and he has done it on and off the ice.

“He’s certainly one of the top goaltenders in the East.”

The Weller Watch

Considered by many to be the top prize in this year’s Clarkson (1-3-0, 0-0-0 ECACHL) recruiting class, left wing Shawn Weller has yet to hit the ice. He isn’t injured nor has he been a coach’s scratch. Instead, he’s caught in the middle of Clarkson’s ongoing struggle with the NCAA.

It seems Weller has yet to make it through the NCAA’s Clearinghouse — a process that usually occurs over the summer — making him ineligible to play for the Knights until the matter is resolved.

All players in Division I and II athletics need to go through the Clearinghouse before they can begin their collegiate careers.

But according to Clarkson officials, Weller’s status continues to be reviewed by the NCAA. No one involved in the process will comment on the specifics of the case, but if the NCAA denies Weller’s eligibility to play in Potsdam most expect he will be off to junior hockey instead of the college ranks.

“I don’t know,” said Knights’ coach George Roll when asked if he had a sense as to when the NCAA’s final decision will come down. “I thought a decision was pending, but there’s no decision yet. We are supposed to have a timeline soon.”

In the meantime, Weller has been allowed to practice with Clarkson.

“He’s willing to wait until there is a decision,” said Roll about his popular rookie. “But it is tough, not just on him, but on the team. They all know he makes us a better team.

“Every week we prepare like he is going to play; that eventually he will be in the lineup. In practice, he elevates our play. He’s a physical and offensive force, even as a freshman.”

Thus far, the 1-3-0 Knights have missed the boost the Ottawa Senators’ draft pick was to provide.

“He makes a big difference,” admitted Roll. “No excuses, though. We’re happy with our current lineup. We’ll be fine. We have a lot of sophomores and freshmen playing, but everyone has been in the lineup to see what they could do. Now we’ve seen that and we just need to pick up our work ethic.”

Having Weller riding shotgun on the second line would help too. Stay tuned …

Debut Weekend

All 12 teams hit the ice for games that count this weekend, with the Ivy League squads playing their first games of the season. Aside from the Brown-Harvard matchup, all other games are non-conference battles against opponents that will put the Ivies to the test in a hurry.

In New Jersey, it is more than just the Tigers who are making their debut. Indeed, this is opening night for ECACHL newcomer and first-year Princeton head coach Guy Gadowsky.

“We’ll get the opportunity as a staff to evaluate the team,” Gadowsky said, choosing to answer in the collective than to talk about himself. “We’ll get to see them play. The exhibition game was good (a 9-2 win over Windsor), but it’s probably not quite the caliber of NCAA play.”

That changes Friday night when St. Cloud State (2-3-1, 0-2-0 WCHA) rolls into Baker Rink, followed by the Alabama-Huntsville Chargers (1-1-0, 0-0-0 CHA).

“We won’t know what we have for a while,” explained Gadowsky, “but I do know that they are a very intelligent group of players. They understand concepts so well. It’s been fun.”

The Tigers also received an instructional boost from Philadelphia Flyers’ coach Ken Hitchcock, who worked with the team all last week.

“He’s been wonderful,” said Gadowsky. “He worked on everything. He didn’t just come to skate around, he came to work. He was here early and stayed late.

“It was a tremendous experience for the players and coaches.”

Elsewhere in Ivy land, No. 14 Cornell, with 20 players returning, hosts Army (0-2-1, 0-1-1 AH) and Sacred Heart (3-1-0, 3-0-0 AH). The Black Knights from West Point lead the all-time series, which began in the 1906-07 season. The Pioneers, led by Cornell alumnus Shaun Hannah, have faced off against the Big Red just once, winning 5-3 in the Lynah opener in 2000-01. Overall, Cornell is 49-30-6 in season openers at home, which includes a 16-year winning streak from 1963-78.

No. 12 Dartmouth, returning 21 players of its own, opens the season on Saturday against Quinnipiac (2-2-0, 0-0-0 AH) in a game broadcast on CSTV and the New England Sports Network (NESN). The Big Green return to the ice for a rare Sunday night affair against Connecticut (1-2-1, 0-0-0 AH). Get used to seeing the Bobcats facing off against the ECACHL; they’ll become a permanent resident next season when they replace the Hockey East-bound Vermont Catamounts.

Yale opens the season at the Whale with, like Princeton, games against the Chargers and the Huskies. The Bulldogs return 15 players including the deadly trio of Joe Zappala, Christian Jensen and Jeff Hristovski. The three juniors combined for almost half of Yale’s goals last season (41 of 89).