A Great Atmosphere More Should Experience (Hint, Hint)

There are certain rinks in college hockey that are great atmospheres. For years my feeling has been that nothing compared to Yost (Michigan), Lynah (Cornell), Alfond (Maine) and the Kohl Center (Wisconsin).

There is no better event to see than Harvard-Cornell at Lynah. Michigan-Michigan State at Yost is a close second, especially this weekend when those two get together in Ann Arbor for the first time since the “incident” last season. New Hampshire-Maine is still a must-see in Orono.

Add a fifth venue to the list: Frank Ritter Arena at RIT.

Yes, RIT.

Sold out Friday night for a visit from Army, the place is exactly what college hockey is about. Full to the rafters and standing two to three deep behind the railing above the seating area, the atmosphere is electric. The orange-clad student section is alive from the drop of the puck, and while some of the chants are clichéd already (how rustic or unique is the “it’s all your fault” chant at this point?) the kids are into it and they are loud and it makes the game that much better.

Between the pep band, the small size of the arena (2,100), and perhaps the best public address announcer in college hockey, the RIT Tigers have created a buzz on campus that more people should see on a national broadcast.

RIT is smart and their administration is behind hockey. There is no big-time football program to compete with, so hockey is a major player in the athletic and social scene on campus. The school owns a high-definition TV truck and all games are televised on the local Time Warner stations. That shows some effort on the part of the brass, that they were willing to invest in the product to make it better.

RIT, because it is D-III in all other sports but hockey, cannot offer scholarships, much like Union College. That has not stopped coach Wayne Wilson from building a great program and a great atmosphere for hockey.

“Obviously being on TV helps recruiting, and this facility sells itself as a place to play and a great atmosphere to see a game,” Wilson said following RIT’s 6-1 win over Army Friday night. “One of our kids showed me a Youtube video the other day of a father and son here at the rink watching a game and the dad says to the kid on camera that he has no idea what he is watching but it’s a lot of fun to be a part of.”

Wilson has coached at RIT since taking over for the 1999-2000 season. A disciple of Jerry York from his days as a player at Bowling Green, Wilson has had great success as a player with a national championship in 1984 and as a coach in getting the Tigers into the NCAA tournament from 2000 to 2002.

“What tells me we have achieved success as a product is the homecoming game at Blue Cross Arena,” said Wilson, referring to the record crowd of 7,421 that attended the game against Colgate. “We want this sport to grow and this program to grow, and that is a great indication of how strong it is here.”

Ron Mason, in his days as coach at Michigan State, always said he didn’t want Munn Ice Arena too big because he always wanted a demand for his ticket. They sure have that at RIT, as droves of fans are turned away nightly due to the limited seating capacity. That is the downside of this success story but it does prove what was obvious last Friday night: RIT has a rabid following up here and people want to go to the games. It is not just students, it’s local youth hockey players, families, and grandfathers, fathers, and sons/grandsons sitting together at the games.

Is it time for more games downtown or is the downtown event a hit because it is a once-a-year situation? Is it worth it to play a couple more games there a season and see the turnout? Can you get 5,000 people for a game against Canisus, which is based in nearby Buffalo? Do you play a local ECAC opponent? Can you get a “big four” school here? Ohio State played a couple of games at the Igloo against Robert Morris and it was smart for them as Western Pennsylvania has been a great recruiting base for the Buckeyes. Would Ohio State benefit recruiting-wise from playing RIT in Western New York? I say yes, and because it’s Ohio State the attendance should be great.

It also underscores another point and that is the Atlantic Hockey teams, when playing “the big teams,” usually have to play them at their place. Think Michigan is looking for a weekend date at Ritter? How about Minnesota or Denver? BU or BC coming out here any time soon? Atlantic Hockey loses a lot of games against bigger name programs but usually those losses are on the road and college hockey might be among the hardest sports to win on the road.

I’d like to see BU play at RIT, see UNH play at Sacred Heart. Getting some of those teams to smaller venues eclipses the stigma college football has in terms of awful teams that travel to play Michigan or Alabama and get crushed there by padding the better team’s record with phantom wins. BU beating RIT at Agganis is a good win; RIT is a good team. BU winning at Ritter would be something; it’s a tough place to play with the fans literally on top of you all game and you out of the comfort zone of New England and familiar rinks.

Wilson is another of the many bright and progressive coaches in Atlantic Hockey who see the growth potential of the game. Like Rick Gotkin at Mercyhurst, Frank Serratore at Air Force, Brian Riley at Army and C.J. Marottolo at Sacred Heart to name a few. The success Bruce Marshall has had at Connecticut cannot be overlooked. These coaches have ideas and because they are not as quoted as the big boys at the big schools they tend to get overlooked. More importantly, their ideas get overlooked, and that has made some of these programs some of the best-kept secrets in the NCAA.

The fact that Air Force took out Michigan last year in the NCAA regionals and almost beat Vermont to win the regional was huge for the conference. Remember the big win Holy Cross had against Minnesota in Grand Forks a few years back. We were very close to an NCAA Frozen Four last season that would have had the CCHA, Hockey East, CHA and Atlantic Hockey members in it. The reality is that the gap has closed between Atlantic Hockey and the rest of college hockey.

Why?

One reason is that kids are smart. While getting fed a line from coaches that they fit into the future of a big-time program, the kids who are not Grade-A, bona fide NHL prospects are realizing they can get a scholarship or financial assistance from a school that is not perennially in the top 15 in the USCHO.com/CBS College Sports poll. Instead of sitting behind draft choices and top-notch players for two years, they can play immediately at the NCAA level and still be well coached.

When watching a school like RIT you can see three or four players and say, “How come that kid went to RIT and not BC? He can probably play the third line at BC.” The answer is that the kid is probably in the top six forwards where he is as a freshman or sophomore, playing PP and/or PK, and getting 22 minutes a night.

These are the kids who are making Atlantic Hockey a better league. Wayne Wilson and his colleagues are making it a better league.

Now the question is how do they get more people to see it? That answer falls into the hands of the league and the administrations of its member schools. Better buildings, nicer facilities, and on-campus arenas are vital. Sacred Heart has a good team but plays about 20 miles away from campus in a rink that would be good for pee-wee hockey. Junior B teams shouldn’t play there, nor should an NCAA Division I team.

This could be a situation worth watching. What is definitely worth watching is home games at RIT. Now let’s see some of the big boys help the little guys and get out there and play them.

• Switching gears for a second, nice job by Paula Weston and everyone else who took the CCHA to task for the shootout fallout in Omaha.

I’d say that this type of mistake is one that should have never happened but probably did because there was no protocol to eliminate an illegal shooter. That does lead to another point and that is the CCHA has a great track record of learning from its mistakes and making itself better because of it.

I’m going to give Bowling Green a pass here in that it didn’t intentionally use an illegal player. There is a chance it didn’t even know there was a rule in place or just plain forgot.

That leads me to propose this rule, which is one I proposed to the Central Hockey League in 1998 while an associate head coach in Macon. If a player is in the penalty box when the game ends and there is a shootout coming, that player needs to stay in the box during the shootout or if he chooses to, leave the playing area. We had no OT in the CHL in regular season, so it was: game ends, water break, shootout. If that player is nowhere near the bench, you can’t pencil him in to shoot. End of story.

The CHL, which at times could not get out of its own way, never adopted the policy. Then again, we never had this situation occur where a player was used illegally and it was pro hockey. I do recall one instance in Huntsville where I was talking to one of our top scorers (Jocelyn Langlois) after regulation ended in a tie game and mentioned to him that Huntsville goalie Derek Puppa tends to go down early on breakaways and he told me (in a combination of English and French) “Coach, tell someone else, I can’t shoot because I’m in the penalty box.”

I guess the point is that maybe we give the incident a pass because it was the first time it happened. What is harder to stomach is the CCHA saying there is nothing it can do about it. Yes, rules are rules and they are clear here. What could have come out is something to the effect of (minus the flowery press release language) “OK, this was embarrassing. We looked up the rules and we’re hamstrung here but starting tomorrow we will send out a proposal to the coaches and administrators of the league to change this immediately.”

Change what?

Change the way this could be handled. There is no one (except maybe BG) who would argue that they should have replayed the shootout again starting with the shot taken by the illegal player. That could have happened after warm-ups the next night.

To have a policy that protests will not be entertained is almost fascist. You as the league screwed up. Hear the protest. You might not overturn the situation but at least give the teams that have worked their butts off for 60-plus minutes the impression that if they are the victims of what we’ll call a paperwork error that they have some recourse. This wasn’t whether a penalty should have been called or a penalty shot awarded. This wasn’t an on-ice judgment call; this was an illegal player for goodness sake.

As mentioned, the CCHA has a great track record here to fix this and it will. It is why it is a well-run league. It lives up to its errors and usually makes sure they don’t happen again.

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