Atlantic Hockey will expand to 10 members beginning in the 2006-07 season when it will add Air Force, commissioner Bob DeGregorio announced at a news conference on the Air Force campus today.
The league formerly had announced it will add RIT in the same season, which takes the total from the current eight members to 10. The league dropped to eight members at the end of this season with founding member Quinnipiac defecting to the ECACHL.
“Air Force is a highly visible and respected name,” said DeGregorio. “Along with Army, Atlantic Hockey now has two service academies that play collegiate hockey, both of which have rich traditions and history.”
DeGregorio also noted that Air Force has a strong academic tradition and, on the ice, has been a competitive non-league member for Atlantic Hockey teams.
For Air Force, the move is a major positive; the program has struggled at times as a member of College Hockey America.
“We have a lot of respect for the institutions in Atlantic Hockey and are thrilled to be a part of the conference,” said Air Force athletic director Hans Meuch. “We have played many teams from Atlantic Hockey over the past five years and have always had great competitions.
“We look forward to establishing new rivalries and continuing the traditional battle with Army. This is a great fit for our cadet-athletes.”
A major stumbling block in adding Air Force was travel. The furthest western member of Atlantic Hockey was Mercyhurst in Erie, Pa., still some 1,500 miles from Colorado Springs. Concessions in the number of home games that Air Force would play were discussed, but ultimately it was agreed that all teams will play an identical league schedule of 28 games, 14 games at home and 14 on the road.
“The concerns that have been raised regarding travel have been addressed and answered,” said DeGregorio. “Most of our members already play Air Force on a home and away basis every other year. Regardless of this, every member of Atlantic Hockey makes one or two major trips a year.”
RIT coach Wayne Wilson said the travel wouldn’t be a problem.
“We’re the new kid on the block, so we’re excited about everything,” Wilson said. “It’s nice to know who who you’re playing two years, three years down the road.”
The league schedule will see each club play four games per year against five opponents and two games per year against the remaining four. Whatever games are played at home one year, will be played on the road the following year.
One team will be designated as a team’s “pair partner” and play four games every year against that opponent. The remaining teams would flip-flop every two seasons between playing four games and two against that opponent.
Air Force will be paired with RIT. The remaining pairs include Army with Connecticut, American International with Bentley, Holy Cross with Sacred Heart and Mercyhurst with Canisius.
Geographic location aside, Air Force has long been thought of as a solid fit for Atlantic Hockey. Fellow military academy Army, the only other of the four major military schools playing hockey, is a member of that league. In addition, Air Force is a non-scholarship school per se, as students are required to serve a military requirement upon graduation in lieu of paying tuition. All of this is more aligned with Atlantic Hockey than the CHA.
“Their name recognition gives our league that much more credibility,” said Wilson.
That said, Air Force’s departure could be a major problem for the CHA. The league now drops to five members, one below the NCAA minimum to receive an automatic qualifier for the NCAA tournament.
Should the CHA not be able to replace Air Force before the 2006-07 season, it would be placed on a two-year probation by the NCAA during which it could still receive the tournament berth. At the end of that two-year period, the league would have to furnish a sixth member or lose its automatic qualifier. Even if that replacement member is found, the league would still have to give up the automatic qualifier in the seasons following equal to the number of years it played below quota.
The five remaining members of the CHA include Niagara, Alabama Huntsville, Wayne State, Bemidji State and Robert Morris.