Let’s give a warm welcome to Niagara and Robert Morris, the newest members of Atlantic Hockey.
At the time this column went to press, neither the league nor the two schools had publicly commented , but AHA officials have confirmed to me that Niagara and Robert Morris will be joining the AHA beginning with the 2010-2011 season.
An official release from the league is expected shortly.
Robert Morris has scheduled a press conference for Feb. 3 to announce the news; Niagara will hold its on Feb. 12.
League coaches I talked to this week would not go on the record yet, but in general have been positive about the possibility of two new members.
“I can’t comment specifically, because I don’t have all the details (yet),” said Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin. “But Mercyhurst has been in favor of this because it’s good for college hockey for these programs to have a place to play, and for Atlantic Hockey to step up and supply a home for them. Plus, geographically it makes sense for us.”
Kudos to Atlantic Hockey for taking in these two programs. Now it’s up to the WCHA and CCHA to step up and help Bemidji and Alabama-Huntsville. I think something will be worked out.
While this is good news for college hockey, it’s also bad news in a way. The five remaining leagues are going to be full to the brim. Where would a new Division I program go? Navy has pondered joining Atlantic Hockey, and there have been other programs looking into it. Adrian College has said its long-term goal is Division I. Rhode Island, Penn State and Syracuse (which has a women’s program) have been in the mix from time to time. But with all five conferences maxed out, there’s nowhere to play.
I think we are on the cusp of a major realignment. Penn State is the key to the formation of a Big Ten hockey conference, which would open room in the WCHA and CCHA. If the Ivies split off, the ECAC would have room to grow.
Something has to give. We don’t need fewer, bigger conferences. We need more, smaller conferences that can accommodate growth.
One last concern, and it’s a big one: one NCAA bid is not enough for a 12-team conference. The other four conferences will no doubt be happy to see the CHA’s autobid go back into the at-large pool. By admitting two more teams, Atlantic Hockey just decreased the odds for each one of its teams making the NCAA tournament from one in 10 to one in 12. That’s a sacrifice each school made when they voted to admit Niagara and Robert Morris.
Sure, a team could still run the table and possibly get an at-large bid. Air Force was flirting with that earlier in the season. But the Catch-22 is that the league is too good to have one team sweep through the field, but not good enough to have the kind of strength of schedule numbers that would allow a 24-10 team to make the nationals.
My modest proposal is to go back to the “Colorado College Rule” that was in effect from 1995-1997. At that time there were four college hockey conferences. In 1994, Colorado College won the WCHA regular-season title, but was upset in the first round of the playoffs. Those losses to a weaker opponent hurt CC’s credentials enough that it did not get an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament. So in 1995, the NCAA awarded each of the conferences a maximum of two automatic bids: one for the regular-season champion, and one for the playoff winner. If it happened to be the same team, the extra bid went back into the at-large pool.
This system worked quite well, but when the fledgling MAAC was formed in 1998, the NCAA rescinded the rule, not about to give a weaker conference two possible bids. The addition of the CHA in 1999 made that possibility even less likely.
Of course, the addition of these new leagues and teams allowed for the expansion of the NCAA tournament field from 12 teams to 16 teams. Now, I think it’s fair to reinstate the “CC” rule and give the AHA a fighting chance to get two teams in.
But I’m not holding my breath. Niagara and Robert Morris just went from a one-in-four chance of an NCAA bid to a one-in-12. Welcome to the party.
We Can Work it Out
How will the addition of Niagara and Robert Morris affect the Atlantic Hockey schedule, which is currently modeled after the WCHA? The way it works now is that each team has a designated “travel partner” that it will always play four times per year. They will also play four other teams four times, and the remaining five teams twice. All but the travel partner will rotate every two years. This gives each team 28 conference games.
This system will not support the addition of two more teams, so changes will have to be made. Sources indicate that the league will use location rather than rotation to determine which schools play each other more than twice. The solution that bests seems to fit is to divide the league into two groups of six based on geography.
Air Force, Canisius, Mercyhurst Niagara, Robert Morris and RIT will most likely play each other three times, as will AIC, Army, Bentley, Connecticut, Holy Cross and Sacred Heart. Teams would play two games against those in the other region, for a total of 27 league games. I have been told that this will not mean two divisions, but one single division using unbalanced scheduling.
Home Sweet Home
After spending most of the 2008 portion of their schedule on the road, the Mercyhurst Lakers are glad to be home. Mercyhurst played just four games on home ice in the first half of the season, going 2-1-1. The Lakers were 5-11-1 away from home, including 3-5-1 in league play.
But four games into a nine-game homestand, Mercyhurst is 4-0 and all alone in third place, a point ahead of Bentley with a game in hand. The Lakers hammered Connecticut last weekend, sweeping the Huskies 7-2 and 6-0.
“Being home certainly helps,” said Laker coach Rick Gotkin. “We went through quite a stretch there. In this league, there are no easy buildings to play in. Air Force is a tough place to play. Army, RIT, Sacred Heart. And we hope Mercyhurst is a tough place to come into, too.”
It has been so far this season. Mercyhurst has outscored its opposition 26-14 on home ice. Last weekend Brett Robinson had two goals and four assists, while fellow senior Matt Pierce had three goals and a helper to lead the way. Sophomore Ryan Zapolski had another stellar weekend, stopping 56 of 58 shots.
“He’s been great,” said Gotkin of the Erie, Penn., native. “He kind of came out of nowhere. He wanted come home to play and we talked about him being a third-string goaltender. He kind of recruited us. I’m really glad he did.”
The Lakers will put their home-ice advantage to the test this weekend when they host Air Force for a pair of games. For both teams, it’s a chance to make up ground on RIT, which has no conference games this weekend.
“We’re going to have to play near-perfect hockey,” said Gotkin. “Air Force is the cream of the crop and it will be a good chance to see how we stack up.”
Home is Sweet for Most
Mercyhurst isn’t the only team that likes home cookin’. While just two AHA teams are over .500 on the road this year (Air Force is 7-3-1; RIT is 7-6-1), seven of 10 Atlantic Hockey teams are at or above .500 on home ice.
“You can be successful in this league if you win at home and split on the road,” said RIT coach Wayne Wilson, after a weekend road sweep of Canisius. “Getting a sweep on the road is a bonus.”
Players of the Week for January 26, 2009
Anthony Canzoneri — Bentley
The senior forward had an eight-point week over a three-game span. He had three assists in a 6-4 win over AIC last Tuesday, and then two goals and three more assists in a split with Sacred Heart last weekend.
Goaltender of the Week for January 26, 2009:
Ryan Zapolski — Mercyhurst
Zapolski wins the award for the second week in a row. He stopped 56 of 58 shots in a pair of wins over Connecticut. The sophomore is now 9-2-2 on the season with a .939 save percentage and a 2.03 GAA.
Rookie of the Week for January 26, 2009:
Matt Gingera — Sacred Heart
Gingera had two goals on Friday and a pair of assists on Saturday. He leads all Sacred Heart rookies with 14 points.
Back on Track
Air Force ended a three-game losing streak in style, with a home sweep of archrival Army. It was a bit of revenge for last season, when the Black Knights swept the Falcons at West Point. Matt Fairchild led the way with two goals and two assists. Both games sold out, giving the Falcons four straight sellouts and seven so far this year. Air Force is averaging 2,520 fans per game, the most in school history.
Winning the battle. Losing the War
Army held Air Force, which has the nation’s top power play, to 0-13 last weekend and scored three power-play goals of its own, but still lost both games at Air Force.
Canisius’ game against RIT on Sunday afternoon drew 1,698 fans, the second-largest home crowd in school history. The record is 1,711, set last year against Niagara. The big crowd didn’t help as Canisius lost, 4-3. The Griffins are winless at home in their last six games after starting the season 3-0-1 on home ice.