This Week in Atlantic Hockey: Dec. 16, 2004

As I write my final column before the Christmas break, I traditionally would take more of a tongue-in-cheek approach using the Christmas theme. Instead, pertinent news, namely the firing of Canisius coaching legend Brian Cavanaugh and the acceptance of RIT to Atlantic Hockey, have presented the need for a more serious column.

Losing a Coaching Legend

I’ve now sat around for nearly a week trying to figure out exactly what I can write about last week’s shocking dismissal of Canisius head coach Brian Cavanaugh. As Thursday approached, I didn’t have much in the way of thoughts in line.

Truly, this is a hard situation for everyone involved.

For Cavanaugh, it means the end of a livelihood that he loved. For those of you who don’t know, Cavanaugh was at the helm in Buffalo for 24 seasons. He saw the Canisius program through ups and downs and ultimately through its promotion from the ranks of the ECAC West to Division I.

Looking on the other side, athletic director Tim Dillon was obviously faced with a difficult decision. Any time you have an employee, regardless of business, who has been faithful for so many years, letting that person go for whatever reason is difficult.

For the players, it’s hard to tell how they feel. Most stories have pointed to the players as the catalyst behind Cavanaugh’s dismissal. According to those sources, it was the players who told Dillon that they didn’t want to play last weekend if Cavanaugh was behind the bench. But at the same time, these players had to have some feelings for the man who mentored them, some of them for three-plus years.

For those in the Canisius program, I’m sure there’s a lot of head-shaking going on. Everyone wants to know what the true story is, but few are speaking. It’s hard to understand the difference between fact and fiction.

Here is what we do know about Cavanaugh. He is a passionate coach who anyone will tell you wears his heart on his sleeve. He’s outspoken and that’s part of his personality.

But he’s not free of past problems. Four seasons ago he was accused of striking a player in the head with a stick during practice. The father of defenseman Matt Coulter alleged that his son had received a second-degree concussion because of the blow to the head by Cavanaugh. Cavanaugh contested the he simply tapped Coulter on the head to get his attention.

The school at the time allowed Cavanaugh back after a five-day investigation. Coulter never played another minute for the Griffs. But Cavanaugh at that time received a warning from Dillon that “any further actions of this type will subject [Cavanaugh] to immediate dismissal.”

I’m sure that I’m not the only one who conjures up images of Bobby Knight when I read and re-read that statement from Dillon. Most will remember that the hot-tempered Knight was given many warnings by the Indiana athletic department before finally told that there would be zero tolerance for any further misbehavior.

After Knight allegedly assaulted a student on campus, he was immediately fired by Indiana.

Cavanaugh’s situation seems a bit different. He told me last week that he couldn’t talk about things, but that this was not about one incident.

How one translates that is up to the individual. You could read that there have been a number of smaller issues — possibly over the course of a long period of time — that led to the cup finally overflowing.

Many fans in chat rooms have tried to point to one specific instance.

When Canisius played Sacred Heart on December 4, Cavanaugh allegedly chased after the officiating crew after the game. Cavanaugh’s Griffs were whistled for 11 penalties that night, including a five-minute major and game misconduct to Greg Brown for hitting from behind, and three consecutive minors late in the game when the Griffs were trailing.

Obviously, that incident, depending on how severe, in fact, the altercation was, could be grounds for discipline by either the league or the school.

But it alone isn’t a reason for dismissal.

So it brings us back to the question, “Why?”

Neither side can talk right now. Cavanaugh said that lawyers are still working out the details of the termination. Dillon, through his sports information department, said that it’s school policy not to comment on personnel issues.

What’s left, then, is speculation.

Personally, I suspect that there were likely other issues involved than I’m able to outline here. But at the same time, I can’t say for sure that Dillon acted responsibly in terminating Cavanaugh.

Something has to be said for Cavanaugh’s 24-year tenure. That alone should be enough to earn a couple of extra slaps on the wrist. Maybe a suspension without pay. Maybe a public reprimand.

But if all stories are true and Dillon ultimately gave in to the wishes of a group of teenage and early-20s hockey players, one has to question who, then, is running the show?

As one coach put it, “It’s scary for me, even, that something like that could happen.”

This makes job security in college hockey look more like Major League Baseball or the NFL. The only way you have security is if you’re the owner.

At the same time, questions are being raised about the type of players in Cavanaugh’s program. Three days after Cavanaugh was fired, forward Dan Bognar was suspended indefinitely. Bognar was arrested for, according to police reports, allegedly exposing himself in a Buffalo bar.

So that raises more questions whether Cavanaugh was simply trying to reel in a group of rowdy players by instilling discipline? Or are all of the incidents unrelated?

The one thing I do know is that the timing of all this is tragic. Canisius is in the midst of one of its most successful seasons. Knowing Cavanaugh as I do, it kills him not to be behind the bench when his players are performing above expectations. No matter what happens this season, ultimately the results are still the legacy of Cavanaugh, the man who built that team.

There are plenty of questions to ask and answer here. Hopefully this won’t be the last we hear of this or of Cavanaugh. For now, though, I personally wish him the best of luck. He’s a great man.

Adding a Hockey Legacy

The league’s announcement that it will add RIT as its ninth member brought to a conclusion plenty of rumors. The announcement became almost anticlimactic last Saturday when a local news station in Rochester reported the move and every news outlet, led by, went forward with the news.

Though RIT and the league office probably didn’t care much for the leak, what this proved is the amount of excitement that surrounded this announcement.

For that, there is good reason. RIT, in its own right, is a college hockey legacy. Besides just producing a large number of great players (and more so, coaches, as Lowell’s Blaise MacDonald and Niagara’s Dave Burkholder both went to school there), there is a fan base that doesn’t often accompany a Division II/III club.

This is a move for which the league and RIT need to be commended. Commissioner Bob DeGregorio, specifically, gets high praise for not making rushed decisions last summer when it was determined that Quinnipiac was jumping ship for the ECAC.

At the time, many worried (myself included) that the league would move too fast and not make a calculated effort to find teams for expansion. If the league made any fast decisions last summer, there’s a chance that RIT might not have been part.

When you look at RIT as a program, the Tigers are a perfect fit for Atlantic Hockey. They have been successful in the ECAC West for a number of years. That’s the same league that produced two of Atlantic Hockey’s more successful teams: Mercyhurst and Canisius.

At the same time, the school is one that is ready to make a full-fledged commitment to college hockey. This will be RIT’s only Division I sport, at least for now, which will preclude the school from awarding scholarships. But through the university’s anticipated financial commitment, it’s likely that they will be able to balance that lack with solid financial or grant-in-aid packages similar to how many current Atlantic Hockey members operate.

Now, the challenge for RIT, will be building. Building a program. Building a strong schedule. Building a Division I tradition. I firmly believe that all of this is on the forefront. To RIT, welcome to the league.

Weekly Awards

Player of the Week

Billy Irish-Baker, Canisius: As part of a big-time weekend for Canisius that saw them take three of four points from Mercyhurst, Irish-Baker scored two goals including a shorthanded tally in Friday night’s 4-3 victory.

Rookie of the Week

Jereme Tendler, American International: Though the Yellow Jackets couldn’t pull off a win against Air Force this weekend, dropping 5-4 and 2-0 decisions, Tendler, who hadn’t scored a single goal this year, scored twice.

Goaltender of the Week

Bryan Worosz, Canisius: Continuing on what has become a career year, Worosz made 64 saves in the weekend series against Mercyhurst and held the Lakers to just one goal in 30 (yes, 30) power-play chances.

Gotkin: Why Me?

If Rick Gotkin feels like a little bit of a victim after last week’s firing of Canisius coach Brian Cavanaugh, it’s somewhat understandable. Gotkin’s Lakers, which were undefeated in league play entering the weekend, had to face a more-than-fired-up Canisius squad, dropping Friday’s game, 4-3 and salvaging a 2-2 tie on Saturday.

This isn’t the first time, either, that Gotkin has faced opponents with adversity. Two years ago, when both Fairfield and Iona folded up shop, immediately after the announcement, Gotkin’s team was on the docket for each.

Though back then Mercyhurst won both games, the toughest of all was facing Iona. Just days after Iona learned that the school was canceling hockey at the end of the season, the Gaels traveled to Mercyhurst for a first-round, single-elimination playoff game. The Lakers survived that night, winning, 5-4, en route to winning the final MAAC championship.

Potential Scoop?

Though the Cavanaugh era at Canisius is barely over, it’s not too early to start talking about a successor. Right now, one name sits in my mind as a likely top choice.

Frank Bretti, who led Iona in the MAAC until the school folded its program two years ago, is an ideal candidate to return to the league. Bretti was an assistant coach at Alaska-Anchorage before taking the Iona job, at the same time that Dillon served as the school’s athletic director.

A year ago when Bretti was out of work, this would’ve been a slam-dunk, and Bretti probably would be behind the bench after Christmas. This year, though, things are a bit different as Bretti is currently an assistant to Dan Fridgen at Rensselaer, which, if Dillon wants Bretti, may force Canisius to use interim coaches Clancy Seymour and Stephen Fabiilli for the remainder of the year.

Holiday Cheer

To all of my faithful readers, thanks as always, and a happy and healthy holiday and New Year to all! When we return in the New Year, I’ll be reviewing the first-half performances of each of the nine Atlantic Hockey schools. In the meantime, you can enjoy USCHO’s extensive coverage of all of the college hockey tournament action!