Flying Dutchmen Grounded

Lebanon Valley College President Stephen MacDonald announced Tuesday that the Flying Dutchmen men’s hockey team will compete at the American College Hockey Association (ACHA) level for the 2010-2011 season, leaving the NCAA, Division III, and the ECAC West.

“We’re really sorry to lose a quality program like Lebanon Valley,” said Michael Letzeisen, ECAC Director of Sport Administration. “It is always difficult to lose a sport. It is hard on the athletes, hard on the institution, and obviously it is hard on the league itself. At the end of the day, it is an institutional decision and we can only provide support for the other members in making sure that programs stay afloat.”

Following the resignation of head coach Ted Russell in January, a review of the program was conducted by senior college officials and the athletic department. The school performed the evaluation through use of a “Success Formula” that looked at factors such as costs, student-athlete graduation rates, travel requirements, missed class time and competitiveness.

“All of the vice presidents and president, in consultation with our athletic director, reviewed a variety of pieces of information,” said Greg Krikorian, Lebanon Valley College Vice President of Student Affairs. “A decision was made at the highest level of the college, and in the best long term interests of the college.”

Despite the tenuous state of the program over the last few weeks, the ultimate decision to move to the club level of hockey caught the players off guard.

“It is unfortunate what happened today,” said senior captain Spiros Anastas after the announcement on Tuesday. “It was a surprise for the players and there are 32 guys who are left with no options. I respect this school. As an academic institution, it is top of the line. The people here are wonderful and I have had a good experience here, even as a losing hockey player.

“But the way they dealt with things, the message that they sent to the student body, is questionable in my eyes. That is something that has hurt me deeply. The school couldn’t make it any more evident that they never wanted hockey here, even going back as far as when LVC was a dominant force in the ECAC Northeast. No one ever liked the hockey program here.”

Anastas joined the Flying Dutchmen as a freshman four seasons ago and was immediately named a captain, a post he has held throughout his collegiate career. A triple major student set to graduate in May, Anastas’ senior season was cut short this year when an injury sidelined him. He stepped in as a student assistant coach following the resignation of Russell and has been a passionate advocate for the Lebanon Valley team throughout his career.

After several successful seasons in the ECAC Northeast, Lebanon Valley moved to the ECAC West in 2004. The program immediately struggled to step up to compete in the tougher league and its number of wins quickly dwindled. After amassing an 18-8 record in 2003-04 in the ECAC Northeast, Lebanon Valley fell to a 5-19-1 record in 2004-05 in the ECAC West.

Continued decline led to a crisis for the program in March, 2007 when the college almost decided to kill the team. After a review at that time, and mainly due to a large outcry by alumni, President MacDonald saved the program from extinction with the following promise.

“…we will continue to offer student athletes the opportunity to play hockey here, and we will honor the traditions established by the program’s past accomplishments,” said MacDonald in 2007. “We will place at the disposal of the hockey program the material and human resources it needs to play successfully in the highly competitive ECAC West. I told [the players] that I am committing myself personally to the hockey program. I asked them to stay with us and to commit themselves as well.”

When he heard of the decision this week to lower the hockey team to the ACHA level, Anastas remembered the previous fight to save the team during his freshman season.

“I was given a promise freshman year,” said Anastas. “The president of the school looked at me and said that hockey was here to stay. If the decision to keep hockey at LVC was made, it would be here for at least a hundred years. Those were his exact words. I’ve based my four years here, and everything I’ve done for this school, on that promise. I feel that I’ve held up my end of the bargain. Now I’m a senior and I leave the school with a bitter taste in my mouth because the last four years are a wash based on a promise that wasn’t kept.”

Through the three intervening seasons leading to this week’s decision, the team has struggled through a trio of depressing years on the ice. Hiring Russell for the 2007-08 season failed to breathe new life into the program and a series of large freshmen classes had to be recruited as players fled for a variety of reasons.

“We’ve graduated 12 guys as hockey players as seniors, and I have seen 50 players come and go,” said Anastas. “That has clearly been a problem here that was never addressed, from the school or from the coaching staff. The funding we had was sufficient to be competitive. They had opportunities to bring in a new coach and didn’t take it, instead letting it ride out and get worse and worse.”

Things were actually looking up for the Flying Dutchmen earlier this season. Lebanon Valley showed a noticeable increase in competitiveness compared to previous seasons. Several coaches around the ECAC West noted this in various media sources and were hopeful that the team was rounding the corner.

Even after the resignation of Russell in January, the team played on, including an overtime loss to Neumann and close games against Hobart and Utica. Perhaps more than any other time in the last three years, these eight games showed the resilient character of this team.

“In the last eight games alone, there has been drastic improvement,” said Anastas. “This was a team that was demoralized with no leadership or direction. We were making strides forward. We made it evident that it is possible for LVC, but we never had the right leadership. Just by showing belief in the players, that alone kept them going.”

During the review of the program, the Lebanon Valley administration considered several options.

“All of the options were considered,” said Krikorian. “We looked at situations ranging from whether or not hockey would continue here, to continuing at the current level of a Division III program, as well as the one that was decided on.

“We want to fully fund our program. We want to provide our students with good coaching, opportunities for regional travel, with good opportunities to compete in local market, all of those kinds of things. Looking at the ACHA, those things are all certainly available to us.”

Ultimately, the failure to address the lack of emphasis on player retention and poor institutional support doomed the Lebanon Valley hockey team. College hockey is poorer due to the loss.

“I would apologize, not on the school’s behalf but on the players’ behalf, for any trouble that this causes for the ECAC West,” said Anastas. “It is not something we wanted, but unfortunately the guys above made the decision.”

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