This Week in Atlantic Hockey: Feb. 10, 2005

What’s Left To Say?

The situation at Canisius — which came to a head this week, resulting in the resignation of Athletic Director Tim Dillon as well as Associate Athletic Director Marshall Foley — has, at this point been played out to the max.

In essence, there’s not a lot left to be said.

There were problems within the Canisius hockey program — and as I’ve learned, within the athletic department in general — that spun out of control. As easy as it can be to lay blame in these situations (and I’m the first to say that I’ve done a lot of finger pointing in the past weeks), there comes a point when you have to stop looking for a target and instead wear the bullseye on your chest.

That’s the point Canisius is at right now. The college understands that there was plenty of wrongdoing. For the most part the punishments have been handed out and, in the case of Dillon, Foley and Cavanaugh (let’s not forget that he lost his job as well), they were the most severe possible.

With that behind the Griffs, the administration needs to worry about one thing only: righting the ship.

What I’ve learned about Dillon in the last day or so is that, as unpopular as many of his decisions were, he was able to bring some balance to an athletic department budget that for years seemed to be insolvent. Many of his decisions, particularly those to cut the number of sports from 23 to 16 a few years back, are ones that make enemies.

The most important thing that he did do, though, was begin to right the ship.

Somewhere in there, mistakes were made. The more I examine this situation the more these mistakes appear to be oversights. In particular, the conduct of student-athletes may have, until now, slipped under the radar.

So as much as Dillon has brought organization to the athletic department, which as I’ve learned was no small task, his successor — and that begins with John Maddock, who will oversee operations until Dillon’s position is filled — will need to focus on the athletes themselves.

It’s difficult to recruit a crop of perfect student-athletes. How one appears on the surface is generally not the final product. But when an athletic program’s image is tarnished, careful attention must be paid to the character of upcoming recruits.

At this point, too, there’s an immediate concern for the future of the hockey program. Though Dillon himself eliminated a series of teams during his tenure, the ultimate responsibility of contraction of athletic teams generally lies in the hands of the president and the trustees.

When a sports team gives the school a black eye, don’t believe it goes unnoticed by the trustees. When there are multiple black eyes, it becomes impossible to ignore.

Often, the trustees of a school are not big sports fans. When it comes to the well-being of the school they represent, their number-one concern is perception. When that perception is negative, swift moves are sometimes taken to correct it.

For Canisius, there is nothing stopping this. The school does not have a vested interest in an on-campus hockey facility; instead, there’s a related expense to the cost of ice time. At the same time, it doesn’t take a genius to realize that eliminating a program such as Canisius’ hockey team would be a budget savings.

Now, sources tell us the school halted its search Wednesday for a permanent men’s ice hockey coach to replace Cavanaugh. This could simply be a short-term move so that Dillon’s replacement will make the ultimate decision.

At the same time, it could be a signal of what’s ahead.

Dropping hockey would be tumultuous — reaching far beyond Canisius’ campus. It would immediately affect the league, as next year Atlantic Hockey is already losing Quinnipiac to the ECAC. Quinnipiac’s replacement, RIT, doesn’t begin play until 2006-07, so losing Canisius would be detrimental.

It also stands to have a negative affect on NCAA hockey in general. It’s no secret that some programs — mostly within Atlantic Hockey or the CHA — have limited resources to support the sport. Seeing one school cancel the sport could begin a domino effect, and the expansion of the sport that has been lauded for its contributions — namely expanding the tournament to 16 teams — could revert back to old ways and put into jeopardy everything that has been accomplished.

As a writer, there’s little I can do to sway things. The ultimate decision on Canisius’ future in hockey, one that carries with it a strong 24-year history, will rest in the hands of higher powers.

If there’s anyone who can positively impact this program, then, it’s the coaches and the players. Their conduct, on and off the ice, will be under the closest scrutiny. Let’s hope going forward it will be a source of pride for the college, and that the future of Canisius hockey stays a reality, not a source of speculation.

Weekly Awards

Player of the Week

Ben Nelson, Quinnipiac: As Quinnipiac looked for a scorer to step forward, Nelson answered the call. Nelson scored five goals while adding two assists on Quinnipiac’s impressive sweep of Mercyhurst. The highlight was a five-point night in Saturday’s 7-2 victory that netted Nelson his first career hat trick.

Rookie of the Week

Mike Neilon, Connecticut: With the Huskies needing a big game on Saturday against Sacred Heart to avenge Friday’s 4-3 loss, Neilon potted two assists. In all, Neilon had three assists on the weekend.

Goaltender of the Week

Bryan Worosz, Canisius: When you give up only one goal in two games in a weekend, you’re pretty much a lock for goalie of the week. For Worosz that was exactly the case, posting a 6-0 shutout on Friday against American International, before holding the Yellow Jackets to one goal in a 3-1 victory in Saturday’s rematch.

Things Not As Planned In Erie

Since joining the then-MAAC league in the 1999-2000 season, the Mercyhurst Lakers have found February to be a time to worry about whether or not they’d win the regular-season championship.

So hearing coach Rick Gotkin talking about his battle for home ice feels out of place.

Gotkin’s Lakers, after being swept by fast-moving Quinnipiac last weekend, find themselves a game above .500 at 7-6-3, and three points behind the Bobcats for the final home-ice playoff spot.

“I don’t know. It’s strange,” said Gotkin of his team’s performance. “There’s an old saying that there’s a fine line between and groove and a rut. Right now we feel like we’re on the rut side.”

What’s killed the Lakers is their inability to close out games. Mercyhurst is 1-9 in one-goal games, a disturbing fact but more so a stat that has major impact on position in the standings.

“We really have not played that bad. I can’t explain it,” said Gotkin. “I can think of four that we’ve lost in the last five minutes of the third period.”

Still, all is not lost.

“Obviously we’re very concerned, but feel that we can still get it going,” Gotkin said. “If we can we’ll be a very dangerous team.

“But every time you say that, it’s getting later and later.”

One area of difficulty for Mercyhurst continues to be discipline. It’s been difficult for the Lakers to stay out of the box. They lead the league in penalty minutes, averaging 26.4 minutes per game in league play.

“We’ve taken some bad penalties, but not all bad penalties,” said Gotkin. “Some of it has just been the way the game is called. … But when you’re going the way we are now, everything is magnified. The call against you is magnified and the non-call against you is magnified.

“It’s been hard to decipher between what’s a bad penalty and just stuff like obstruction penalties. We’re getting called for things we think are clean hits but the referee at that point doesn’t agree.

“It’s been a tough year of adjusting for our guys with the [emphasis on obstruction] penalties. We have to find a way, though, good call or bad call, to stay out of the box.”

Lakers fans, don’t you fret too much. Even though the ‘Hurst sits three points from the final home-ice spot, the Lakers remain only six points back of first-place Canisius. Should you count on another title for the Lakers? Likely not. But a few wins here and there and things will seem back to normal.

Friday’s The Day For Air Force

The days of waiting are about to end for the Air Force Falcons.

Friday, Atlantic Hockey athletic directors will vote on whether to admit the Falcons effective with the 2006-07 season. It’s a move that long has been rumored as appealing to Air Force, back to the days when the league was under the guidance of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.

According to sources, the likeliness of Air Force’s acceptance is strong, but for the past days and weeks that wasn’t necessarily true. Rumors were floated that Air Force and Atlantic Hockey’s membership had issues related to the amount of travel that this would bring for the schools — the westernmost of which is Mercyhurst in Erie, Penn.

It now appears in the final hours before Friday’s vote that the league and Air Force hammered out the final workings of the agreement and Friday’s vote should go in favor of the Falcons.

Should Air Force gain membership, the CHA will be reduced to five members. The league will most likely look at Lindenwood as a possible replacement. Lindenwood currently plays in the NAIA and would have to elevate its entire athletic department to NCAA status.

Let’s Play Two

This weekend will bring the long-awaited trip for Atlantic Hockey to the FleetCenter as Holy Cross battles Quinnipiac Saturday at 5 p.m. and Bentley faces Connecticut in the nightcap at 8 p.m.

The opener of the slate has proven to be a critical game at the top of the league standings. Quinnipiac sits in fourth, just two points behind second-place Holy Cross with a game in hand. Saturday’s matchup is a critical four-point game.

“We’ve had two great games with Quinnipiac,” said Holy Cross coach Paul Pearl. “These are two pretty evenly matched teams out there.”

According to Pearl, every game down the stretch, not just the Quinnipiac game, will prove crucial.

“All our games are big here,” said Pearl. “We’ve put ourselves in a really good position to [win the conference] so now we have to go play well.”

According to the league office, approximately 4,000 tickets have been sold to this point. The league’s hope is to break the 5,000 barrier, which could be easily accomplished with last-minute and walk-up sales.