This Week in Division III: Jan. 6, 2005

D-III Goes International

With the World Juniors tournament just concluded, college hockey has had a decidedly international focus for the past few weeks, with many top schools loaning players to various national teams. But another kind of international hockey is being played over the semester break involving Division III teams traveling out of the USA for competition.

NCAA rules allow a team to take a “foreign tour” once every three years. Any contests played are outside of the normal 25 game limit. Typically, teams go to Canada for a few extra games. For example, this weekend Fredonia is at St. Clair in Windsor, Ontario, for a pair of games, while Utica travels to the Great White North for games at York University in Toronto and at the University of Ottawa.

But some teams get loads of frequent flyer miles. Hobart is currently on a tour of Germany and the Czech Republic with games in Fussen, Klatovy, and Deggendorf.

Bethel wins the award for most miles logged this season. The Royals just returned from a 13 day trip to Russia, which included stops (and sometimes games) in St. Petersburg, Novgorod and Moscow.

But hockey wasn’t the main focus of the trip, according to Bethel coach Peter Aus. Bethel is an evangelical Christian school, and the trip was a spiritual and educational one.

“The main purpose was missionary work,” he said. “We ministered in orphanages and shared the Gospel.

“We met some wonderful people, and saw some amazing things. We spent New Year’s Eve in Red Square. It was a neat experience.”

Forty-seven people made the trip, including 35 hockey players. “We took all but four players from the varsity as well as some players from our JV team,” said Aus. “Not everybody played, but everybody participated in some way.”

The team fundraised the more than $100,000 needed for the tour, mostly though mail solicitations. “We asked each player to send out 60 letters describing what we wanted to accomplish,” said Aus. “Most sent out even more.”

Bethel played mostly junior teams made up of players 16-18 years old . “We were older and more physically mature,” said Aus. The Royals were 3-0 on their trip, but Aus had a hard time remembering the scores, illustrating how little they mattered compared to what else his team did.

‘It was something we’ll all remember for the rest of our lives,” said Aus. “It brought our team closer together. Everyone knew each other a whole lot better by the end of the trip.”

Their hosts were so thrilled that they asked the Royals to come back next year. Aus had to explain about the NCAA rules. “But that’s not to say we wouldn’t consider doing it without any hockey at all,” he said. “It really comes down to if we can get the resources.”

A more realistic plan is to do this once every three or four years, according to Aus. “But maybe not for me,” he said. “I’ll be 63 in May, and I’m not sure how long I’m going to be doing this. For me this might really have been a once in a lifetime thing.”

There’s still Hockey at Walter Brown

While the BU Terriers have left historic Walter Brown Arena for the shiny new Agganis Arena, there’s still hockey to be played at WB. BU’s women’s team (currently at the club level but moving to varsity next season) still plays there, as well as Division III Suffolk University.

The Rams have called Walter Brown home for several seasons, and will play 10 of their 12 home games there, as well as hold the majority of their practices in the historic arena.

“It’s a great place to play and practice,” said head coach Chris Glionna. “Jack Parker and his staff have been very accommodating to us.”

Suffolk is one of three Division III teams that play in Division I barns. Wentworth plays at Matthews Arena on the campus of Northeastern, while St. John’s plays at the National Hockey Center in St. Cloud, home of the St. Cloud State Huskies. Both Bethel and St. Thomas used to play at Minnesota’s Mariucci arena, but moved to different facilities due to a shortage of ice time (in part due to the addition of women’s teams) and greater flexibility.

That may be the case for Suffolk as well, which is playing a pair of home games this season at Steretti Rink in the North End of Boston. “It’s closer to the school and we can have more a permanent presence there,” said Glionna. ‘(The Rink) would like us to move there. It would be good for the Suffolk community.”

Both rinks have their advantages, and no decision has made yet, according to Glionna. “Either place is fine with us,” he said.

West is Best

Fans are forever arguing over which Division III conference is the strongest. For the past several seasons, followers of the NCHA and NESCAC have had plenty to crow about, pointing to their league’s record against other conferences.

The ECAC West used to be in that class, especially during the late 1990s when RIT and Elmira were at the top of the polls and Niagara, Mercyhurst and Canisius were in the league prior to moving to Division I conferences. But as the Division I teams moved on and new programs like Neumann and Utica came along, the conference has not fared as well nationally. RIT has dominated the league for several seasons, with the Tigers winning seven of the past nine regular season titles.

But with the Tigers poised to leave the ECAC West for Atlantic Hockey, the conference shouldn’t miss a beat. Some of the newer programs are beginning to dominate on a national level, and some of the original members are playing better than they have in quite some time.

Call me biased (since I see these teams more frequently than I do the rest), but I think the ECAC West is the top league right now. With apologies to Scott Bigger, who covers this league in depth, here’s my take on the ECAC West:

Manhattanville — What more can you say? An 11-0 record and a Number Two national ranking make this the most successful season in school history to date. The Valiants remained perfect by defeating Lake Forest and host Norwich to claim the Times-Argus tournament last weekend. It’s no surprise that at this point it looks like the only teams that have a shot at keeping Manhattanville from running the table will be from its own conference. The toughest games left for the Valiants are at RIT, Hobart, Elmira and Utica.

RIT — The Tigers are ranked seventh in the nation, with their only two losses coming at No. 4 St. Norbert (whom they also defeated) and by a goal at No. 2 Manhattanville.

Hobart — The 13th ranked Statesmen had their best season ever last year, claiming their first ever league title and making the NCAAs for the first time in school history. Their only losses this season have been to ranked teams: No. 7 RIT and No. 11 Oswego. How good is the ECAC West? If the playoffs started today, Hobart would not make the field.

Utica — The Pioneers get better and better each season, and have one of the top players in Division III in Jimmy Sokol. Utica is another team that has only lost to ranked opponents: RIT and Oswego. The Pioneers left no doubt as to their national contender status by winning the Cardinal Classic last weekend, defeating Wesleyan and host Plattsburgh.

Elmira — The Soaring Eagles got off to a rough start this season, but are 7-3 in their last 10 games. Once again, their losses have been to quality opponents: Utica, Plattsburgh, Geneseo and Norwich, whom they took to overtime in the Time Argus semifinals last week. This team is hot right now.

Lebanon Valley — The Flying Dutchmen are in their first season in the ECAC West, but come in having won a title in the ECAC Northeast and making the NCAAs in 2001. In all, four of the seven ECAC West teams have made the NCAAs, with Manhattanville knocking on the door this season.

Neumann — Sure the Knights are winless this season, but their improvement is measurable. Here’s a look at their past four seasons:

Season      Record  Goal Differential   League Goal Differential
2001-2002   2-23        -178 (37-215)       -102 (13-115)
2002-2003   1-22-1      -125 (48-173)       -70 (13-83)
2003-2004   3-21-1      -69 (74-143)        -55 (24-79)
Current     0-12-1      -28 (52-74)         -14 (7-21)

This season, the Knights have lost five one-goal games (including a 2-1 loss to Manhattanville) and four games by only two goals. Like every team in the ECAC West, Neumann is moving in the right direction. No other league can claim that.