UML’s Hockey East Membership Under Review

Concerns over competitive balance, funding, Title IX requirements for gender equity, and an apparent turf war in the University of Massachusetts Board of Trustees are combining to put Massachusetts-Lowell’s membership in Hockey East — and perhaps the very future of its men’s hockey program — in question.

According to an article in the Lowell Sun Friday, the Board of Trustees’ athletics committee is examining a proposal to remove UML from Hockey East, leaving the university’s Amherst campus as the only UMass representative in that conference.

Money is one element of the discussion. Both campuses operate men’s hockey at a substantial loss, according to the Sun. The newspaper cited Lowell’s 2005-06 deficit at $671,000, and Amherst’s at $1,130,343.

Additionally, Lowell’s funding for men’s hockey creates a gender imbalance which is difficult for the university to resolve in accordance with Title IX.

“If they [Lowell] can get to a national championship in another league, we should look at another Division I conference where they can be a dominant team. That’s what’s going to bring people into the building, get people excited and bring a national championship,” board chairman Stephen Tocco said at a subcommittee meeting Thursday, according to the Sun.

In 2001, the Massachusetts state legislature and some board members looked into the possibility of ending the Lowell hockey program entirely, thanks to many of the same concerns that seem to be driving the current debate.

That effort — which would have “merged” the two campus programs under Amherst’s aegis — ended after the intervention of then-Gov. Paul Cellucci among others, and the Lowell program was retained alongside Amherst’s.

A resolution to the situation may not be forthcoming anytime soon. A recommendation to the full Board of Trustees, issued by a newly-established task force, is expected to be made at the board’s June meeting.

If Lowell were to leave Hockey East, plausible alternatives in Division I would be Atlantic Hockey or the ECACHL. Discussions with those conferences about potentially accepting Lowell are not believed to have occurred.

Previously called the University of Lowell, the school competed in Division II for a number of years, winning three national championships in four years from 1979 to 1982, before stepping up to Division I and joining Hockey East in 1984-85. (It became the University of Massachusetts-Lowell in 1991.)

Recent success for UML hockey has been limited. After appearing in three NCAA tournaments from 1988 to 1996, the River Hawks have not been back to the national tourney, despite two 20-win seasons under current head coach Blaise MacDonald, who is in his sixth year leading the team.

UML is currently 8-21-6 overall and 7-16-3 in Hockey East. Despite upsetting Vermont Friday night, the River Hawks were eliminated from HEA playoff contention by Providence’s win over Merrimack.

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