This Week in Atlantic Hockey: Dec. 1, 2005

Winning the Recruiting Battle

Ask any college hockey coach. The biggest day-to-day worry generally isn’t how their team is playing on the ice.

Nope, the top concern of most teams is building for the future.

College hockey recruiting at the Division I level has become a business for most programs. Assistant coaches spend weeks, if not months, every year traveling the back roads of the U.S. and Canada scouring for potential players. For many programs, recruiting represents one of the largest annual expenditures.

To say that recruiting is a battle is an understatement. For Atlantic Hockey schools that don’t have the resources of some of the nation’s bigger programs, that battle is often an uphill one.

One school, though, that seems to be overachieving in the recruiting war is Sacred Heart. The Pioneers, year after year, have brought in some of the top offensive talent mixed with solid goaltenders and defensemen to build a program that is, at this point, as close as it ever has been to the upper echelon of the league.

According to head coach Shaun Hannah, recruiting is an aspect of the game that the Pioneers try to keep simple.

“We try to find kids who have the ingredients as a player and who can try to do what we want to do as a team,” said Hannah, whose team has captured six all-league awards, three rookie-team honors and a rookie of the year nod over the last three season. “We find out a lot about the character and who they are. From there we try to educate them [to] the experience that they’ll have at Sacred Heart and then try to leave the decision up to them.”

Hannah doesn’t even feel like recruiting is much of a battle. The program’s mentality is to simply approach the players it thinks will fit best within the organization and, as Hannah says, “these kids want to wear the Red and White.”

When you look at programs that have challenges in Atlantic Hockey, Sacred Heart would appear to be one of them. The Pioneers are one of four programs in the league that don’t have a facility on campus, instead playing in nearby Milford, Conn., at the Milford Ice Pavilion. If you were to rank the facilities in the league, Sacred Heart’s would likely fall in the bottom three.

That, though, hasn’t stopped the Pioneers from bringing in some of the league’s best talent.

“The kids we deal with are kids who want to continue playing hockey at the college level,” said Hannah. “We’ve got a building here with ice and boards, a locker room and two nets. The rink didn’t make the difference for them [in choosing where to go to school]. The things that we have to offer as a hockey program are what makes a difference at this point.”

Hannah says that identifying talented players has never been a challenge and he relies on assistant coach Lou Santini to do just that. What’s tough is finding the player who is not only talented, but also fits academically, character-wise and financially.

“We don’t have 18 scholarships, so you have to find some kids who have the ability to pay some and are willing to pay a little for their experience,” said Hannah. “That’s the challenge — pulling those pieces together and finding that balance.”

Though you can make a list of players who recently have walked into the Sacred Heart program and made an immediate impact (such as Pierre-Luc O’Brien, Alexandre Parent, and this year, Bear Trapp) the ability to bring players along who aren’t ready for the Division I level from day one is something that often separates the top from the bottom in college hockey.

Sacred Heart senior Andrew Billinghurst is a good example of that.

“He came in as a young freshman and came to work hard his freshman year,” said Hannah of Billinghurst, who, as a rookie, played just five games for the Pioneers. “We gave him some opportunities to play and put to work the things he needed to develop. Now as a senior he’s a real key guy for us up front.”

When comparing Sacred Heart to the rest of the league, it’s very easy to focus on the deficiencies. The Pioneers don’t have the tradition of success or the geographic access to Canada that Mercyhurst does. They don’t have the facility or the academics that Holy Cross does. Sacred Heart doesn’t have the name recognition in sports of Connecticut.

What the Pioneers do have, though, is a 100 percent position: make-apple-sauce-from-apples attitude that right now has them on the cusp of being the league’s top team.

Weekly Awards

Player of the Week

Bernie Chmiel, Sacred Heart: It’s not that often that a team can score five power-play goals in a game. But when one does, it’s even rarer that a player factors into four of the five. Chmiel did just that, scoring a goal and adding three assists, all on the power play, in an 8-5 victory over RIT.

Goaltender of the Week

Brad Roberts, Army: If you read below, you’ll see that Army hasn’t been the world’s best road team this year. So when Brad Roberts shut down UConn on enemy ice on Saturday, it was a noteworthy accomplishment. Roberts had 22 saves total, including two highlight-reel stops.

Rookie of the Week

Bear Trapp, Sacred Heart: I hope that Bear Trapp continues to win Rookie of the Week awards just because he has a fun name. Trapp was part of the Sacred Heart power-play unit mentioned above and nearly matched the output of Chmiel, adding a goal and two assists.

Road Warriors?

Some people believe there’s no place like it. Others believe it’s the place where you find “heart.” Still others like to go there for the holidays.

We’re talking about home.

For the Army hockey team, all of the above may be true, but, in truth it seems that the Black Knights wish they never, ever had to leave the place they call home.

For Army, home has been the place for success in the recent past. Playing at home in front of large crowds every night is somewhat of a tradition for the Black Knights.

The problem is, less than half of any team’s games in Atlantic Hockey are played at home. So the fact that the road hasn’t been very kind to Army can create a problem.

“The road is tough. History shows that we’ve always been a better home team,” said head coach Brian Riley, whose team picked up its first road win in league play on Saturday since February 27, 2004, with a 2-1 victory at Connecticut. “It’s really tough to string a lot of victories together on the road.”

To this point, the road — specifically, Army’s lack of success on it — has accounted for the team’s troubles.

“It’s a schedule that I’ve said all along that hopefully will make us better coming down the stretch when we do have all those home games,” said Riley, whose team has played 10 of its first 13 games away from West Point, compiling a 1-7-2 record. “But if you’re going to be a good team, you’re going to have to get wins on the road as well.”

You’d think that the balance, of course, would be found playing back at home. But West Point, which generally draws large crowds to Tate Rink, has become a favorite not only of the Cadets, but also of their opposition.

“I know our players like playing at home, but if you ask other players in the league a lot of them would tell you they like playing at West Point,” laughs Riley. “There’s a good atmosphere because there are a lot of fans.

“But it worries me when guys come in from other teams and start taking pictures. At that point you wonder. I’ve had players say to me, ‘Hey, coach, this is a great place to play.'”

Venue aside, this year’s Army team does seem like it’s ready to turn a corner. With their first league win in hand, the Black Knights are playing well, according to coaches for the opposition. Riley says that the number-one concern right now is the ability to score goals.

For now, though, the win at UConn will serve as a motivator as Army looks to claw its way from the bottom of the league.

“Obviously, it was a boost of confidence,” said Riley. “We’re able to say we were finally able to win one of the road. God knows, we’ve been close. But there’s an understanding that we’re going to have. There are some big away games in the second half of the year but at least we don’t have that monkey on our back.”

Give Me a Chance to Vent

It’s not often that I talk professional hockey in this column, so if you’re not interested in my opinions on the Boston Bruins, just stop reading here.

That preamble is fair indication that I’m going to rant right now about what I consider one of the worst moves in Bruins history. The decision to trade Joe Thornton for a trio of underachieving San Jose Sharks (I don’t even care to mention their names — they could be Moe, Larry and Curly for all I care) is an absolute disgrace to the intelligence of Bruins fans.

There is one rule that I believe every sports general manager knows or should know: Don’t trade away a franchise player unless you’re getting, in return, another franchise player.

Joe Thornton was a franchise player. When his career ends, I believe that he’ll be mentioned alongside some of the best players who ever played this game. If Bruins general manager Mike O’Connell was following the aforementioned rule, there’s no way in God’s green creation he would have let that deal happen.

It’s sad to say, but Joe Thornton became a scapegoat for the Bruins’ slow start this year. Within the Bruins organization he simply joins a long line of scapegoats used to cover up the inadequacies of Bruins management. Up until now, though, the team never chose a player — let alone the most talented forward to play for the team in a decade — to be that scapegoat.

I’m sure the spin doctors will go to work trying to say that this was a move made for the good of the team. I can see it now, Mike O’Connell will be drawing a comparison to Nomar Garciaparra’s trade from the Red Sox in 2004. The only problem to that was the fact that Garciaparra had lost the respect of too many inside the clubhouse. In Thornton’s case, that wasn’t a problem.

Thornton was producing on par with most of the other top players in the game. His 33 points are only eight behind the league leader and were tops on the Bruins.

And what did the Bruins get in return? Three “former” first-round draft choices. That’s their spin. I would add that they got three former first-round draft choices who have never produced to expectations in the NHL.

It’s a sad day in Boston, for once again Jeremy Jacobs and the rest of the Delaware North organization (the owners of the Boston Bruins) have chosen mediocrity over integrity. It’s once again become more about the almighty dollar than it is about winning a Stanley Cup.

The NHL opened this post-lockout season with a plan to bring fans back to the games. In the Bruins’ case, Wednesday’s trade of Thornton does exactly the opposite.