Changing Landscape of New England D-III

Last Friday evening I had the opportunity to speak with ECAC Interim Commissioner Steve Bamford on the recent reports of a new league and future plans for the ECAC in concert with the leagues impacted by the formation of the new league based on the alignment of MASCAC and Little East schools. Here is a Q&A to shed additional light on a subject that continues to be rumored in athletic departments and hockey rinks alike. Surely there will be more information as we move towards the end of the 2006-2007 season — consider this installment one on the changing landscape of New England hockey.

USCHO: Steve, thanks so much for contacting me regarding the rumored move by several ECAC member schools to form a new league based on playing conference alignment. What can you tell me about where this is headed?

Steve Bamford: The new league that you reference is one that will include the MASCAC schools and their affiliates in the Little East – a total of eight programs from both the ECAC East and ECAC Northeast conferences today. The member schools are still working out some of the minor and final details for this new conference but it appears that it is going to happen for the 2008-2009 season.

When do you think it is likely that we would see an announcement of the new conference?

Again, I understand that there are some details to be worked out among the institutions involved but I would expect that there would be an announcement by the end of the current season announcing their plans for launching the new league in 2008-2009.

I have heard rumors from several sources from different institutions that the new league is looking to begin play next season – is that possible?

I think it is highly unlikely as the member institutions from the East and Northeast schools have already agreed to next year’s schedule and of course we have our scheduling alliance in place with the NESCAC conference as well.

I am glad you brought that alliance up as additional talking points around arenas have suggested that the NESCAC conference may take this opportunity to split and become their own playing conference in line with the new league – what have you heard on that front?

I have not had any recent discussions with Andrea Savage, at the NESCAC because we’re still in the speculation stage regarding the potential of this merger coming to fruition. That’s the reason why currently there are no plans to change the scheduling alliance and interlocking schedule with the ECAC East because we don’t know for sure how, if or when this merger issue will impact the alliance. We are in the second year of the current four-year agreement and I am sure if the merger was announced soon, we would immediately schedule meetings with our NESCAC colleagues about the impact on the alliance. However ,to this point in time, there have been no indications from the NESCAC of any desire to forego or alter the current agreement.

Does the configuration of the East league or specifically the number of teams in the league, have any impact on that contracted agreement with NESCAC?

I don’t have the contract in front of me but I suspect that if there were changes made as a result of re-alignments, as is the likely case here, we would be able to modify the terms and work in collaboration with the NESCAC to the satisfaction of the all of the member schools. Again, I believe that as soon as the current season is completed we would hope to be proactive and begin discussions with the NESCAC about the hypothetical scenarios that may develop and how to address the scheduling alliance issues. But as of this moment, I believe the NESCAC is looking to maintain what exists today.

How does this change impact NCAA qualifiers?

I suspect that the new league will petition for an automatic qualifier (AQ) based on the number of teams in the new conference. We don’t know yet what the impact or plans will be for our remaining conferences. Obviously we would like to protect the current AQs that each of the leagues has today.

With Becker coming into the Northeast, there are still seven D-III programs in the conference plus the four D-II schools. In the East there are only five D-III programs and two D-II schools remaining. What is the plan for addressing the institutions affected by this new league?

After the announcement is made confirming the details of the new league, we would most likely, hold a summit meeting at the end of the season at some central location to discuss potential re-alignment of the current conference configurations. People are happy with what we currently have in the scheduling format so we will try to work out a way to maintain the existing schedule while best supporting our member institution in building a non-league schedule as well. It’s hard to know what that will look like right now but we will use the summit meeting to address and resolve the issues that would ultimately impact the remaining hockey programs in the East and Northeast Leagues.

I guess this would be easier if the D-II schools were not isolated away from the D-III – how likely is there to be a petition to the NCAA to allow the D-II schools to compete at the D-III level without any qualifications?

We have always been very supportive of the D-II schools and have tried to make them fully part of the league in the East and Northeast. I think it is fairly likely that there will be some kind of legislative or hockey committee action may occur to allow for the games to count toward NCAA consideration. If we can assist our DII programs in moving the NCAA in that direction, we are ready to do so. I know Ed Cannon at St. Anselm brought up this issue on our last Women’s East scheduling conference call and I am happy to report that there was unanimous sentiment from the DIII athletic directors to lend support to any proposal that would enhance the DII hockey programs while also allowing the games with DII league members to count in the eyes of the DIII NCAA hockey selection committee.

Steve you reference St. Anselm in discussing the D-II programs but just last year the D-III schools in the East voted not to allow St. A’s and St. Mike’s to participate in the league playoffs – is this more a reflection of the impact on the NCAA selection process?

That’s true that the East did vote to keep those schools out primarily because the games against DII programs don’t count in evaluating their performance for the DIII NCAA championship selection – they lose two games, potentially a couple of quality wins, when being considered for one of the at-large bids to the national tournament so allowing play by D-II schools in the playoffs could actually compound the situation by adding an additional game that wouldn’t be reflected in their overall record.

It sounds like there could be a lot of changes. Will the ECAC West be impacted at all?

It is possible in terms of their overall scheduling with teams in New England but as part of their conference, I don’t see a whole lot of change. However, would an East team jump to the West or vice versa, that might happen if the right set of circumstances were to occur..

There is some conjecture that schools like Skidmore and Castleton may be better positioned geographically to play in the West?

I think the athletic administrators want to make sure they have some open dates to play those non-league teams that may be less than two hours away as is the case of say, Plattsburgh and Norwich or Skidmore and Utica. But to answer your question, I think if you looked at Castleton’s travel budget today, it would significantly increase if they had to travel to play all of the teams in the West as a member of that league. Given the alternative, I think Castleton is very happy in being in the ECAC Men’s and Women’s East League and I would suspect Skidmore feels the same way.

So overall are all of these changes going to be good for D-III hockey in New England?

This is all very positive. We have a very good thing going when you look at the overall level of parity and competition in all of the leagues. It’s great to see Skidmore and Castleton and Southern Maine and other rising schools competing every night – it’s great for the game. We will look to protect that and enhance what we have as we move towards a re-alignment based on the final announcement of the new league. All of the member institutions are talking unselfishly about how to move forward as a league and while there are specific issues that will be important to each institution, we are confident of coming up with a practical solution that works for everyone. No doubt there will be much more information coming out after the season but the primary focus will be on deciding what is in the best interests of all the programs and preparing for the 2008-2009 season.

So what rink are you headed to tonight?

Actually I am going to observe some officials in a couple of basketball games this weekend in Connecticut but I do like spending time in the rinks and have really become a big hockey fan. It’s a great game and we are fortunate here in the Northeast region to have an abundance of outstanding hockey programs and we are always committed to moving forward in a positive way, are happy to accept the challenges that lie ahead in our ongoing efforts to making the hockey experience the best it can be for the student athletes.