This Week in ECAC Hockey: Oct. 15, 2009

Every year, in every league, folks say that “this year looks even more competitive and balanced than last year, or any other year for that matter.”

Every single year, without fail.

It’s what they — the coaches, administrators and players — are expected to say. It’s a way of showing a little “aw, shucks” humility and respect for the opposition, be they Michigan or Merrimack.

And yet, ECAC Hockey always seems to find a way to make truth of the cliché; at least, as long as I’ve been paying attention. Two years ago was tight. Last year was tighter, and this year’s parity looks unparalleled.

It’s a good time to be a part of the smartest league in the world.

EZ-AC? Not so fast …

The league made a nationally significant splash right out of the gate, going 7-4-1 in non-conference games in the first week of play. The notable victors included Quinnipiac, Union and Rensselaer, but Colgate and St. Lawrence also won out-of-conference games in the season’s opening weekend.

In case you missed it, the Bobcats bullied host Ohio State out of a poll spot (the Buckeyes had been 17th going in) with a weekend sweep, and Union not only beat Maine for the first time ever, but swept the Black Bears in Schenectady to improve to 2-7-0 all-time against the Hockey East power.

While RPI suffered a penalty-laden loss at Massachusetts to start the 2009-10 campaign, the Engineers rebounded superbly in a stunning 3-1 triumph over visiting New Hampshire. Feeding off Allen York’s stalwart play in the crease, RPI knocked previously 16th-ranked UNH out of the top 20 as well. York’s winning performance was especially encouraging after the sophomore waved home five goals on 28 shots against the Minutemen, but bounced right back with a one-goal, 37-save performance against New Hampshire.

A Touch More Dutch

Union had an outstanding weekend against one of coach Nate Leaman’s former teams.

Not only did the Dutchmen get off to their sixth-ever 2-0-0 start, but they did it in style. Junior goaltender Corey Milan stopped 53 of the 57 shots he faced, and drew even with Kris Mayotte (’06) for third on Union’s all-time win list with 27. The netminder currently leads the program in career goals-against average (2.54) and pulls in third once more in save percentage (.908).

The two-game takedown of UMO (UMaine-Orono, for the uninitiated) also marked the program’s first sweep of a Hockey East opponent.

Now for some less historical but more encouraging notes: 16 players earned points on the weekend (leaving only four participants who didn’t); six different players scored in Saturday’s 6-3 win; two Dutchmen currently hold plus-5 ratings (Mario Valery-Trabucco and Mike Schreiber); and frosh forward Jeremy Welsh played well enough to earn league rookie of the week honors (two goals, one helper).

Bobcat Crease Runneth Over

Quinnipiac netminding tandem Eric Hartzell and Dan Clarke proved stellar in Columbus. Six-four rookie Hartzell only gave up two goals on 32 shots in Friday’s 4-2 victory, while second-year Clarke returned his teammate’s opening serve with an astounding one-goal, 44-save exhibition on Saturday.

Clarke’s workout included a 25-shot first period in which he allowed the solitary goal — had he stopped that lone shot, he would’ve earned a tie with Jamie Holden (’04) for most saves in a period. (Holden accomplished that feat in the second period of a 6-2 win over Connecticut on March 1, 2002.)

It was also the 22nd 40-save game for a QU ‘keeper. Holden was responsible for 10 of those performances, but eight of those — including the top four — fell on Holden classmate Justin Eddy, who had 58-, 56-, 51- and 49-save outings among his 75 games played. (Last year’s starter, Bud Fisher, only appears on the list thrice.)

For the sake of Quinnipiac’s season, here’s hoping that Clarke won’t appear on that list again for a while.

No Relief for the Raiders

It’s true, it’s true, the program’s ridiculous run of overtime games ended at eight with Colgate’s 3-2 win at RIT on Saturday. But that’s not to say that the Hamilton club has had any time to breathe during recent competition.

The team, you see, is still firmly embedded in a 13-game streak of one-goal (or tie) games. The Raiders have fared well, going 6-4-3 over the stretch, which dates back to a 3-2 overtime loss against Princeton on Feb. 6 of last year.

Unfortunately, the perceived upside of participating in so many tight games — valuable experience and confidence for the tightly played postseason — didn’t pan out for the Raiders last year, as they fell in three games (all overtime affairs, of course) to Quinnipiac in the first round.

But then, maybe the first half-dozen games gave them the experience, and the latter handful merely killed their legs. I’ll have to leave that question to the philosophers.

Q & A with The Commish

Obviously, the biggest news to come out of the league office in some time is the relocation of the ECAC Hockey Championship from Albany to Atlantic City. Starting next season — and for at least three years thereafter — the league semis and finals will be contested at Boardwalk Hall.

Since this is a development that pretty much everyone who reads this hopes to be affected by, I got commissioner Steve Hagwell on the line to ask him about the league’s surprising selection of venue.

Brian Sullivan: It’s a big change, so would you address the arguments for picking up and moving from Albany to Atlantic City?

Steve Hagwell: Well, let me tell you a little bit about the process. Last fall, from a good-business standpoint, we examined what we were doing as a league with our administrators and coaches and we looked at things, and thought, “OK, we know what our numbers are in Albany, we know what the interest is in Albany, is there a possibility of another site out the that we should explore just to know what’s out there?” So we sent out requests for proposals to gauge the interest in our championship, we received some bids, and at the February deadline we looked at them. We had some people visit the site, and we decided that it would be best for the league to go to Atlantic City, to take their bid, which was very attractive and aggressive.

BS: Did you get much blowback? Were there any major disagreements with the move, or did everyone pretty much get on board?

SH: Well, we had plenty of discussions … and we talked about all of those issues on the table: the location in terms of, it’s outside of our geographic footprint … we hashed out everything. People had the opportunity to speak up in favor of sites that bid that they were in favor of, and at the end of the day — just like we do with all league issues — we had a vote among our administrators and the result was that their votes were favorable to Atlantic City.

BS: Are you at liberty to tell me any of the other sites that made bids?

SH: I don’t think that’s pertinent. I’m at liberty to tell you, but I just don’t think it’s pertinent. I haven’t gone down that road; from my perspective, I don’t think that’s information that needs to be out there.

BS: There are a lot of venues that fit into the seven- to twelve-thousand-seat range in the Northeast, from New Jersey on up. What made you decide that Atlantic City — as a city, as a location, and as a package — was the most desirable of those you explored?

SH: Well I agree with you that there are plenty of venues that fit in that range, and like I said, we sent out [requests for bids] to basically every facility, including NHL-type facilities on down in the Northeast that we thought would be viable and may have an interest in our league championship. Everybody from a site standpoint got the information, and those that were interested submitted bids. Those that were not, some called and said they had conflicts; we didn’t hear from others, and I take that as a sign of disinterest. In terms of Atlantic City, when we got the bid, we looked at it. We had a chance to go down as a staff, and we had some staff members from Princeton go up and check out the facility and meet with the people down there. Later in the summer several members of our institutions on the administration side were in meetings in that area and had a chance to go over, so there were several people within our league who had a chance to visit the site, meet with people, check it out firsthand. We took all that feedback into consideration, let people speak their views, and that’s what we decided on.

BS: Is the arena itself substantially different from Albany’s Times-Union Center?

SH: I was pleasantly surprised. I didn’t have any preconceived notion, having never been to Atlantic City prior to going down for a site visit, so I really didn’t know what to expect. I wanted to go down with a clear mind and a blank slate, and the structure is beautiful. It seats about 10,000, maybe just a shade under; the locker room situation is good — there’s always that situation with the fourth locker room, that we’ve had in Albany, and it certainly occurs in other places — but aside from that, the venue’s very nice. I think the facility is very conducive to our championship, and I think it’ll work very well.

BS: Was the fact that there’s a large alumni population for pretty much every school in the country in the New York City area a major consideration?

SH: It was certainly a topic that was on the table, a variable. When we were discussing every site that bid, all that information came out: where it was located geographically, the New York City factor like you said. It was certainly a positive, because we do have institutions with large numbers of alumni in the area. Can that be a positive? Sure, but they still have to go to the games. The fact that there are alumni in New York City is great, but it doesn’t really do anything other than [signify] that they’re there. They still have to come down.

BS: The major concern for a lot of fans is obviously that they’re now more far-flung from the championship. How do you and the administrators feel that this venue compensates for that?

SH: We looked at the fact that Atlantic City is, from Clarkson and St. Lawrence for example, a seven- or eight-hour ride, and that topic was raised. That’s a long way to go for their season ticket-holders, for their people, whether it be Cornell or Clarkson, St. Lawrence, to get to Atlantic City. We talked about that. There was no site that was 100 percent on the positive side. There were issues on both sides, positive and negative. People chimed in with their thoughts, but again, at the end of the day, when we laid it out and we looked at the places that were on the table as potential venues for our championship, we got the sense that Atlantic City was the best option for 2011 and the three years that we signed that agreement. Could that change? We hope we don’t have to move again in four years, but we’re going into a little bit of an unknown and we’re going to do everything we can on a staff standpoint to make this successful.

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