Two ECACHL teams were selected for the NCAA tournament this year.
The first, Clarkson, lost a 1-0 decision in overtime Friday to Massachusetts, despite being the top seed in the East Region. The second, St. Lawrence, lost Saturday by a 4-1 final score to Boston College.
“That’s a tough loss for us,” said SLU coach Joe Marsh. “It was 2-1 in the third period, and we were still in it. Boston College is a big-market team, like UNH, like Michigan, like Minnesota.”
This year’s losses continue a string of similar defeats for ECACHL teams in NCAA tournament appearances that goes back a number of years. Certainly, the general impression in the college hockey world is that the ECACHL has recently been a weaker conference than the other Division I leagues.
Marsh said that he feels that impression is not quite accurate, but that he can use it when motivating his team.
“It’s used against us, this negative press,” he said. “But I told my team after the loss, ‘Let them question our skill, but let no one question our will.’
“I think we have a great league,” Marsh continued. “You have to show up to play teams every night, and you have to play hard in every game. We’ve got a lot of parity. Not that you don’t get that in other leagues. But I think as a league, we are underrated.”
That impression even prompted Clarkson coach George Roll to say to USCHO’s ECACHL correspondent Brian Sullivan, prior to the Golden Knights’ 1-0 loss, “[Clarkson and the ECACHL] need to come out and win one of these things,” meaning the NCAA tournament.
But the fact of the matter is that if you aren’t a team from Hockey East or the WCHA, you haven’t had much success in the NCAAs recently.
“The WCHA has dominated this thing for the last five years,” said Marsh. “When is the last CCHA team that won? Probably Michigan [in 1998].”
A quick look through the record books show that back through 2003, the year the NCAA tournament expanded to 16 teams and went to the four-regional format, the WCHA has had nine Frozen Four participants. Hockey East five, and the CCHA and the ECACHL one apiece.
2003 was the last year that featured a both a non-Hockey East and a non-WCHA team, as Cornell and Michigan both advanced to the Frozen Four.
The WCHA, in addition to having all four Frozen Four teams in 2005, has produced the Hobey Baker Award winner in each of the last four years.
“Our cycle’s a bit different from the big-market schools like BC, BU, Michigan and Minnesota,” said Marsh. “There’s not a lot the league can do; it’s more of an individual school issue. The ECAC has brought in Quinnipiac, and I know Cornell is very committed to the sport.”
In fact, for the four years between 2003 and 2006, the ECACHL has a better winning percentage in the NCAA tournament (4-8, .333) than the CCHA (6-14, .300). And that’s not taking into account the fact that Cornell took eventual national champion Wisconsin to triple overtime in the Midwest Regional final last year, or that the Big Red were an overtime goal away from advancing to the Frozen Four the year before that.
The only embarrassing year for the league came in 2004, when the ECACHL had just one team in the tournament, conference tournament winner Harvard, which received a No. 4 seed and was promptly sent packing in the first round by eventual national finalist Maine.
So why is there the perception that the ECACHL is trailing the other three long-lasting conferences? And what is it going to take to return the ECACHL to the national prominence?
“It’s tough to get here,” Marsh said. “I don’t see it changing any time soon. Our mission transcends national titles — you have to look at the big picture. It’s tough to get into some of these schools. The recruiting is harder, and the talent pool is smaller.”
Part of the feeling regarding the lack of league strength comes, no doubt, from the fact that the ECACHL has not had a team in the finals since Colgate in 1990, and hasn’t had a national-title winner since Harvard in 1989, while the other leagues have each had multiple national champions since then. The last Hobey Baker winner from the ECACHL also came in 1989, when Harvard’s Lane MacDonald took home the trophy.
“Some of that is PR,” said Marsh. “You’re trying to tell me that Martin St. Louis was not good enough to win the Hobey Baker? But maybe some of our schools have to learn how to market our players a bit better.”
Jerry York, coach at Boston College, offered up his take on how a league’s teams can help each other out.
“We’ve got a lot of pride in our league [Hockey East],” he said. “We’ve got five teams in the tournament; let’s see how far they can advance. Maybe we can win a national title. I hope it’s BC that does it, but if it isn’t BC, I’m hoping it’s another Hockey East school.
“I’m sure other leagues are the same way,” he continued, “But [Hockey East commissioner] Joe Bertagna has really fostered that attitude within us.”
While this year’s results aren’t particularly promising for the ECACHL, Marsh doesn’t get too worried about the league’s standing in the national picture.
“We’re competing. We’re in it,” said Marsh. “It has a lot to do with experience: the more you win, the better you get. It’s like that old adage, ‘Success breeds success.’ I’ve got some kids now who have played here [in the regional] and now maybe that will help us get back here in the future.”