This Week in the CCHA: Oct. 23, 2008

An Ugly Coincidence

This is unreal.

After beginning the season on a sobering note last week with news of the assault that Michigan junior defenseman Steve Kampfer suffered and the suspension by the Wolverine football team of player Mike Milano while the incident is being investigated, I thought we could return to the lighter side of hockey to start this column.

But a week after Kampfer was injured off-campus, an altercation reportedly involving multiple student-athletes resulted in an injury to Michigan State sophomore defenseman A.J. Sturges, who was hospitalized in the early hours of Sunday morning and released Monday. No information about his injuries or involvement in the incident has been released.

Spartan football head coach Mark Dantonio told the Detroit News that his program part of the investigation and is “cooperating with authorities.”

At his weekly press conference, Rick Comley told reporters that there is no problem “between the football program and the hockey program.” Comley said, “There was an incident involving a party, multiple students, not just athletes. It’s unfortunate but I think it’ll be sorted out, and the police are dealing with it and everybody’s cooperating.”

According to The State News, there were 50 to 60 people involved in this public display of affection, which included yelling and apparently brawling.

Lt. Kevin Daley of the East Lansing police told The State News, “We’re still trying to determine who got assaulted and who did the assaulting.”

Good grief. Multiple students? Multiple student-athletes? From both the football and hockey programs? And according to all reports, bones were broken.

It’s more than an incident when so many student-athletes are involved, and it’s hard not to see it as symptomatic of something bigger when there are assaults with broken bones involving student-athletes in two consecutive weeks.

At least we know there’s a reasonable chance that we won’t be reading about a similar “incident” from the third Big Ten school in the conference next week. This weekend, the Buckeyes are in Denver.

It’s Like Rain on Your Wedding Day

The Ohio State Buckeyes have played two more CCHA games than anyone else in the league. They also have two league losses to the one that Lake Superior State, Michigan and Northern Michigan have, and Miami is undefeated in conference play, and yet the Buckeyes — by virtue of the one point gained in their shootout win over the RedHawks — are alone in first place by a point.

OSU has 13 goals for and 19 against. And they’re No. 1. For now.

Shutout Significance

For a goalie, there’s no better debut than a shutout. In this regard, Alaska rookie goaltender Scott Greenham is an overachiever. In his first two games as a Nanook, the 21-year-old native of Addison, Ont., posted back-to-back 5-0 shutouts, a first for the UA program.

Greenham stopped 13 shots to blank Connecticut in the title game of the Kendall Hockey Classic in Anchorage on Saturday, Oct. 11, and then shut out Mercyhurst in the opening game of the Alaska Goal Rush in Fairbanks on Friday, Oct. 17, turning aside all 25 shots in that contest.

Greenham isn’t the only CCHA netminder to start with a shutout this season. Notre Dame junior Tim O’Brien made 17 saves in his first collegiate game as the Irish stymied visiting Sacred Heart, 7-0. last Saturday night.

His counterpart, senior Jordan Pearce, earned the shutout win the night before as Notre Dame outscored Sacred Heart 10-0 on the weekend.

In Marquette, a shutout win carried a different significance for junior goaltender Brian Stewart and the Northern Michigan Wildcats. Stewart posted his fourth career shutout Friday when NMU beat the Michigan Wolverines, 2-0, breaking a seven-game winless streak for NMU against UM, dating back to Jan. 13, 2007.

Typical of many successful goaltenders and certainly the affable Stewart, the Wildcat goalie gave credit to the team in front of him for the win. “The defense was shutting their top guns down and they established a pretty good forecheck in the zone and didn’t give them much to start with,” said Stewart, “but they played pretty solid and it made it a lot easier for me.”

In East Lansing, it was the home team at the losing end of a goose-egging that lasted for 103:53. The Spartans lost 3-0 to Massachusetts-Lowell Thursday, Oct.16 before beating the River Hawks 2-1 the following night.

Perspective Is Everything

Time for some good news about the Michigan State Spartans. They may have split at home with the River Hawks last weekend, and it may have taken them over 100 minutes to solve Mass.-Lowell goaltender Carter Hutton, but they did win last Friday night.

And that is good news.

“Kids will feel good about it,” said MSU head coach Rick Comley of Friday’s win. “We’ve had a lot of big wins here over the last three years, but this one — for this team — is really important confidence-wise.”

Sure. This is a program that won the national championship at the end of the 2006-07 season — certainly within living memory of several Spartan players — but as Comley made clear after the contest, it’s this MSU team that benefited from this specific victory.

In their first three contests, the Spartans registered just 45 total shots on goal: 16 in a 3-1 win over Massachusetts, 13 in a 2-1 loss to Boston University, and 16 in that 3-0 loss to Lowell. In the 2-1 win over the River Hawks, the Spartans nearly doubled their total from their first three games with 36 shots.

“Offense has been so difficult for us, and confidence,” said Comley. That’s because this is a very young MSU team, with 11 rookies on the roster. One of those rookies, 21-year-old Ben Warda, scored the goal that tied the game for the Spartans early in the third period.

“It was awesome,” said Warda. Indeed.

Another rookie, 20-year-old Drew Palmisano, earned his first win as a Spartan. It was just the third time since Jeff Lerg earned the starting job in January 2006 that he didn’t get the start.

Comley said that playing Palmisano was “a little bit of a gamble” but added that he’s committed to playing the newcomer “seven or eight times” during the season. “I’ve got to put him in the net. My fear a little bit was that these kids were relying so much on Jeff.”

As for Lerg, Comley has a prediction. “That will challenge Jeff,” he said. “You watch.”

Something about that Four-Man System

Mike Lockert, the voice of Notre Dame hockey, sent me some of an interview he did with Steve Piotrowski, the head of officiating for the CCHA. In his interview with Mike, Piotrowski said something interesting about adjusting to the four-man system that caught my attention.

Piotrowski was talking about how the referees themselves have to adjust to “the mechanics of the system, and that includes positioning.” Piotrowski said that he and the league want a “free-flowing, no-boundaries” system. “I want our referees to put themselves in the best possible sightlines, in the best possible positioning, to see calls that they need to make.”

What’s interesting about this is the idea of an official’s territory on ice — or lack thereof. With the freedom to move about without political consequence (for lack of a better term), referees and ARs can absolutely put themselves where they have to be to call a better game.

I’ve only seen two games so far this season, one in Kalamazoo and one in East Lansing, and in each game I can say that the contests were called consistently and much of the ticky-tack stuff was eliminated, which is partly the point of this.

“A hook was always a hook, and a hold was always a hold,” said Piotrowski, “but we don’t have a zero-tolerance standard as the National Hockey League does.” One of the “points of emphasis” for this season is to protect the guy with the puck, and while everyone agrees that the NCAA has improved its enforcement of infractions away from the puck in recent years, the dreaded clutch-and-grab has made more than one casual appearance as of late.

“We want the skilled players to be able to play skilled without having to fight through illegal actions of being tugged or impeded,” said Piotrowski.

So now you know.

Tie Four On

There were four overtime games played by CCHA teams last week. Miami skated to a 3-3 tie against Vermont on the road, Ferris State tied Robert Morris 4-4 on the road, Western Michigan lost to Minnesota-Duluth, 6-5, in Duluth, and the Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks successfully defended their Maverick Stampede title with a 2-1 OT win over visiting Union.

And we know that OSU is in first place by virtue of one shootout win. For now.

I commend the CCHA for trying the NHL-style overtime shootout to determine a winner of league games. Both the Hockey East and WCHA women are also giving the shootout a try this season.

CCHA commissioner Tom Anastos is innovative and open-minded, two qualities that serve the league well. Fans like shootouts, fans like the black-and-white of a win or a loss, fan attendance drives our game. I get that.

But as much as I admire the CCHA’s desire to help the sport expand and keep it current and relevant, and as much as I admire the CCHA itself for its fearless approach to innovation, I have to admit that I loathe the shootout.

Yes, it’s exciting. Yes, it keeps fans in the building longer, and may help to build interest in the sport. But I really don’t like a contest being decided on something so wholly disconnected from the previous 65 minutes of play.

The NHL plays a long season. College, not so much. And in the NHL, the talent differential from top to bottom isn’t nearly as great as it is collegiate sports — which is why so many of us like collegiate sports. The best guy on a college team can be exponentially better than the last guy in the depth chart; the perennial top teams in a give league are not there by accident.

When the last-place team of a league ties the front-runner through 65 minutes of real action, that means something. I’m not so sure that a shootout win by a team with better snipers means anything more than that the top team has better snipers … and it almost always does.

Yes, I know that Ohio State defied those odds in the first game of the season against Miami, and that must have been thrilling for the long-suffering Buckeye faithful.

I’d still rather have the ties, outright.

No Sampson Side Effects

Although one of my favorite former CCHA players lost his locks, he didn’t lose his scoring touch. Former Miami captain Ryan Jones netted his first NHL goal Wednesday, October 15, for Nashville.

How fitting is it that Jones plays for the Predators?

News about the News, Part 2

Last week, I reported that the Ann Arbor News was dropping Michigan hockey as a beat. I was wrong in this, as News sports editor Peter Bigelow pointed out. Bigelow wrote that the News plans to have its own staff reporters at home and away games, just like — and I’m nearly directly quoting here — it always has.

But that’s not the case. Antoine Pitts wasn’t just a staff reporter; Wolverine hockey was his beat, something he covered in-depth for a decade. This season, I’ve counted no fewer than four bylines associated with Wolverine hockey, which indicates to me — as a reader — that no one person is covering this beat in any kind of depth, that no one person is assigned to it. Various staffers will be in rotation.

Last season, when the News previewed the Michigan hockey season, there were seven stories and audio; this year, two stories — both short — and no audio. This is where Mr. Bigelow and I will respectfully have to agree to disagree. It’s not the same.

Perhaps I should just be grateful that there are actual reporters covering Michigan hockey. The Wolverine icers could be like other sports, relegated to compiled-by-staff stories.

Moving veteran reporters into less important beats — or demoting them completely, such as assigning them to desk work — is a common practice among newspapers these days. Often, such moves force the veterans to quit, saving the newspapers a few small dollars in salary here and there. Newer reporters don’t earn as much as the veterans.

It’s happening at newspapers all over the country, in every department. During my last few years in Columbus, there was little point to purchasing The Dispatch, as even statehouse news was thin. I buy the Flint Journal on Sundays for something to read over ‘cakes and eggs, but I’m often done with the paper itself before the waitress brings the food with barely half a cup of coffee gone.

I am glad to see former arena reporter Seth Gordon’s byline on Wolverine hockey stories in the News. I wonder how many seasons Seth has to remain before he’s reassigned to something less palatable.

So Much for Early Next Week

My apologies to Western Michigan fans. That Bronco feature will arrive soon. So will the blogging.

As the season progresses and statistics become more meaningful, we’ll look at head-to-head matches. Not just yet.