Call it democracy at work.
After too many years of struggling for respect as a conference, the Buttafuoco 12 voted for regime change. It was time for a different course. Time for a new vision for the hockey programs that make up this electorate.
Fans of the 12 ECAC programs couldn’t have been happier this summer. The ECACHL was born, new leadership was put in place — to be “re-elected” or moved aside after this year — and a centralized office was created in the off-white house that is Albany’s Pepsi Arena.
All of us — fans and media alike — heard that this was a new day. But we were skeptical since we had heard that song before. Fans were told that there were new ideas to promote the league, including a TV package (!) That, too, was a familiar refrain. We looked forward to the chance that the ECACHL would mercifully break free from its recently-created reputation of poor leadership and lack of focus.
Indeed, we all believed that hope was on the way. That the teams we followed and wrote about for so long would finally be united as a hockey-only conference, not divided into small pieces for other conferences to pluck like hanging chads dangling from the backs of contested ballots. That the Hagwell Dozen could take on the nation and do its members proud.
This, my friends, is more like it.
“The dividends (of the changes) will be paid down the road,” said Cornell (2-0-0, 0-0-0 ECACHL) coach Mike Schafer. “It is so early, but having a central league office in Albany and having more of a focus on hockey are very important.”
Dartmouth (1-1-0, 0-0-0) bench boss Bob Gaudet agrees.
“I think it is great,” he said. “Steve Hagwell is doing a good job communicating with everybody. [Men’s Supervisor of Officials] Butch Bellemore is doing a good job with the officiating. The whole staff is very good.
“The focus is on just hockey now. That is a benefit to all and it will help our game. Plus, we still get to have the umbrella of the larger ECAC.”
But this isn’t just about the new administration. This is about on-ice success as well.
“This is the strongest [the league] has been in five or six years,” said Schafer. “Last year, there were a lot of teams with good young players. They were on the verge of stepping up.
“RPI, St. Lawrence and Colgate all have young teams that matured and Kevin [Sneddon] and George [Roll] took over young teams as well.”
Now, a handful of clubs are starting to see the benefits of that talent, especially when combined with a crop of rookies that is considered among the best in years.
“As the league schedule starts,” added Gaudet, “people will see that this whole thing is incredibly competitive.”
It already is.
Four teams have overall winning percentages of .563 or better and undefeated No. 12 Cornell and No. 13 St. Lawrence (4-3-1, 0-0-0) are in the Top 15 nationally. Dartmouth and Colgate (5-2-0, 0-0-0) were ranked earlier in the year and Rensselaer (4-2-1, 0-0-0) received votes in the most recent edition of the poll.
With no slight meant to any other team, the Saints, thus far, are the poster children of the new energy, success and optimism surrounding the league. SLU has beaten so many ranked teams that the club predicted to finish eighth in the preseason coaches’ poll now finds itself among those elite 15. And they’ve done it all while playing the toughest non-conference slate of any ECACHL squad.
Can’t you just hear coach Joe Marsh?
“We won in Michigan … and Maine … and swept Miami. Now we’re going to New Yahk … and Vermont … and New Hampshah … and Massachusetts … and Ohio … yaaaaaaaaaargh!!!”
By the way, could this have qualified as a post-election column without mentioning Ohio?
But the Saints, even with their impressive wins, including the home sweep of No. 10 Miami, took a back seat to Vermont (2-4-1, 0-0-0) for at least one weekend.
A program seceding from the league at year’s end made more than just a few other teams, especially those in its future Hockey East home, take notice. All the Catamounts did after suffering a tough-to-swallow home sweep at the hands of a good Niagara (3-4-0, 0-0-0 CHA) team was to march into Duluth and snatch a win and a tie from the No. 1 team in the land.
“I am really proud of our effort,” said UVM coach Kevin Sneddon. “I was very emotional after the 6-1 loss (to the Purple Eagles). We had some suspensions and injuries. We were certainly humbled and disappointed that we let a team sweep us at home.”
Then came a critical series in enemy territory that few outside of Burlington thought UVM had a chance in.
“The best word to describe the weekend is ‘composure,'” said Sneddon, “starting with the travel. It was a 13-hour trip. We took a couple of flights and had a lot of delays. We finally ended up taking a bus for the last part of the trip there.
“We kept our composure in the first game, from when we were up 3-0 to when they made it 3-2. We killed a 5-on-3 late and a 6-on-4. The next night, we played from behind and stunned everyone with a great play to tie it.”
But how could a team that was outplayed and outscored 9-3 just two weeks ago come back with such a strong performance six days later?
“We showed that we learned our lesson from the previous weekend, explained Sneddon. “We were not as prepared then as we needed to be. How we played against Niagara and Minnesota-Duluth was like night and day.
“We did all the little things. Blocking shots, getting sticks in lanes, not taking unnecessary penalties, had good backchecking and good puck protection.
“Torrey Mitchell was 21 of 24 in faceoffs … talk about the little things. [And] the guys whose play goes unnoticed did an extremely good job. It was a team effort and the guys each contributed in a different way.”
It also helped that freshman Joe Fallon returned to his home state with a pair of stellar performances.
“He was spectacular,” said Sneddon. “He was a large reason for our success and was definitely the difference in the games, especially on the penalty kill. You don’t kill off 100 percent of the [power-play] chances against that team without the performance of our goaltender.”
Fallon made 69 saves on the weekend and has emerged as the genuine item in Burlington.
“He’s mentally focused and mentally prepared,” explained Sneddon. “He stays focused for 60 or 65 minutes. If one goes by him, he doesn’t lose it. He’s a big goaltender who takes away shots and covers up his rebounds.”
Sound familiar? It is a lot like what Marsh says about his netminder, Mike McKenna. Not surprisingly, these two goalies have led their clubs to the kind of statement victories that ECACHL fans had missed for far too long.
“To have St. Lawrence going out there and getting it done,” said Gaudet, “and Vermont doing a good job … we have some excellent teams in our league.”
The numbers seemed so odd that we nearly demanded a recount.
When Cornell put up back-to-back seven-goal games in sweeping away Army (1-3-1, 0-1-1 AH) and Sacred Heart (3-3-0, 3-0-0 AH), we were left to wonder what happened to the close games we have come to expect from the Big Red.
“4-1, 5-2 or 4-3,” said Schafer, “so long as we win. It’s early in the year, so we made our share of mistakes. It was important for us to get back to being physical and having a strong work ethic.
“Those are the building blocks. You have to get back to square one and play well and be strong for 60 minutes.”
The stingy defense was there again for Cornell as they limited their non-conference opponents to just a goal each. It also limited the Black Knights to a mere nine shots on goal on Friday and just 25 by the Pioneers. That’s the Big Red team we know.
But 14 goals in two games and an 84-34 shot advantage? Is this a new Cornell team that will score seven each time out?
“I hope so,” said Schafer with a laugh, “but I doubt it. The ECACHL is a much stronger league. You’re not going to see those types of scores.”
After just two games, however, four Big Red players have four points each, three have three each and another three have two a piece. In all, only three skaters in the lineup did not register a point.
“Everyone knows about [Matt] Moulson,” Schafer said, “but five or six guys up front had strong summers. The freshmen have an impact and Shayne Hynes (1-3-4) and Daniel Pegoraro (0-1-1) have made a bigger impact.”
Just in time for Cornell to welcome back bitter foe Harvard (0-0-1, 0-0-1) and fellow Ivy Leaguers, Brown (0-0-1, 0-0-1).
“With Harvard, there’s the obvious rivalry,” said Sneddon. “The coaches and players keep changing, but the rivalry continues. I’m sure (Crimson coach) Ted Donato will have his players ready to play.
“It’s fun. Unfortunately, the players only get to do it for four years, but it is a fun event.”
Harvard is coming off a hard-fought, physical exhibition win over the U.S. Under-18 Team, which followed a 2-2 opening night tie on the Bears’ ice.
“I think we did a lot of things better,” said Donato, “than we did [against Brown]. We’re starting to ‘get it.’ We weren’t good in the first ten minutes and let them take the physical part.
“It was a good lesson. We will get challenged physically against Cornell and Colgate. It was good to see the guys respond.”
While Donato has experience battling the elements at Lynah Rink from his days playing for the Crimson, this will be his first shot at managing the bench in such an atmosphere. Immediate results will be expected, especially since Harvard has lost five straight games to the Big Red dating back to the 2002 ECAC championship game double-OT victory.
But it is early and, as Schafer points out, Donato, like any first-year coach, is a long way from making the Crimson “his” team.
“With a new coach,” explained Schafer, “everyone wants to put their stamp on a program. You work really hard and want to build the team. It does not happen in one or two years. It is a four, five, six year process to get things set the way you want them.”
As for the Bears, they come into the weekend having lost to the Under-18 Team, 1-0. Even so, Schafer is aware of the team’s strengths.
“Brown made large steps last year,” said Schafer. “It is a defensively solid team and is coached very well. People misunderstood the type of players they had in front of Yann Danis.”
They may still be a year away, but the ECACHL-elect Quinnipiac Bobcats (3-2-0, 0-0-0 AH) made a statement to the rest of the league that they will be a formidable opponent next season when they upset then-No. 11 Dartmouth.
They can thank their familiar savior, senior goaltender Jamie Holden. The British Columbia native stopped 42 shots, including 18 in the third period to lead the Bobcats to a 2-1 victory. Twenty-one of Holden’s saves came on the power play.
The win was also the first against a ranked team since a 3-2 victory at then-No. 11 Union in December 2000.
Offensively, meanwhile, Quinnipiac had only 11 shots on goal.
“For our first time out,” said Gaudet about his team’s opener, “we controlled the puck and the only thing disappointing about the game was the outcome. We were getting to the puck, beating them out for the puck, skating well and didn’t let Quinnipiac get control of the puck.”
The high-flying and physical Big Green made a statement of their own the next night when they took 22 shots and scored three goals in the opening 20 minutes of their victory over Connecticut (1-3-1, 0-0-0 AH).
“We played another solid game,” said Gaudet. “They came out aggressively and I thought our kids handled it well. It was good for us. I was pleased overall. We started where we left off the night before.
“We want to play a game that is fun for our guys to play, for the fans to watch and for us to coach.”
As for next year’s new member of the ECACHL, Gaudet was impressed with them as well.
“They have a wonderful goaltender,” he explained. “As time goes along, they will start recruiting players with size and skill. They will need a physical presence, but that will come along as they continue to develop.
“They have good leadership in Jack McDonald, their athletic director. They are building what will be a really great building and are well coached.”