To quote the Talking Heads, same as it ever was.
One glance at the CCHA standings and last week’s results show the league’s top tier populated by a familiar cast: Miami, Note Dame, Michigan. Alaska and Northern Michigan are in the mix, for now. Michigan State isn’t. Yet.
The difference between this year and last season is that Notre Dame and Michigan are returning to form, poised to finish near the top after single-season anomalies. These teams — and I’d argue that MSU is a member of this fraternity — are The Haves, the teams that are now and likely will ever be pushing the top of the standings.
That being said, the league appears to be tighter this season, top to bottom, than it was last year. Even if the RedHawks blow everyone else away — and they can do that — the rest of the league will exhibit the dreaded parity, and genuinely so this year. Half of the conference games so far this season have been decided by a goal or less.
Don’t believe me? Maybe you’ll take Michigan coach Red Berenson’s word for it, summing here as he did after the Wolverines escaped Ferris State 3-2.
“I think — we were just talking about it in the locker room — I think this is what we have to expect every night this year, in this league, with this team,” Berenson said. “Look around, all the other scores, no matter who’s playing who.”
Asked if his team would have to display the kind of grit it did in that excellent contest, Berenson said, “We’re going to have to grind it out, because everyone else — they’ll make you grind it out.”
Before facing once-lowly Western Michigan last weekend, Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson warned that his team would have its collective hands full. Given that the Irish beat the Broncos, 3-2, with a late-third-period goal Friday and tied WMU the next night, 2-2, I’d say that Jackson is a good authority on parity, too.
Even the RedHawks, poised to dominate again this season, lost a point to visiting Lake Superior State in a 2-2 tie Saturday night.
And now the RedHawks and Irish are tied in first place for the same reason — a win on the weekend with a shootout “win” to follow — and the Wolverines are in second place because a tenacious and defensively talented Ferris State team took two of six points from them on the weekend, rather than just one.
What this return to an old form may mean, however, is the demotion from top tier to middle of some very good Semi-Haves: Northern Michigan, Ferris State, Alaska — the teams that can’t compete with the top-tier teams in resources and, therefore, recruiting.
With new coaches at Bowling Green, Western and Ohio State, there may be some redefining soon, too, about what it means to be on the bottom in the CCHA.
A have-not, in a specific way
“You have to make a decision to go 100 percent. We talk about that a lot.”
So said Alabama-Huntsville coach Chris Luongo after his team scored three goals in four minutes to come from behind and tie Michigan State last Friday in East Lansing. While Luongo was talking about the Chargers’ third-period awakening — and an awakening it was, as the Spartans outshot UAH 29-12 in the first two periods and were leading 4-1 until Justin Cseter’s goal with 3:38 remaining in the game — I had to wonder about the Chargers’ program as a whole.
As the only current independent team, the only team without a league to call home, playing at 100 percent must be difficult for UAH and must be an active decision. The fate of the program is still up in the air after UAH’s application to the CCHA was denied in the summer of 2009 and the CHA dissolved after last season. With no league, there’s no conference title to aim for, no conference autobid for the NCAA tournament.
With no league, the entire UAH season is dependent on the charity of other teams building the Chargers into their own schedules. For the first half of the season, UAH has four series and nine games against CCHA teams, including one versus Bowling Green at the RPI Holiday Tournament on Thanksgiving weekend.
The rest of the first half is filled out by single series against Providence, Cornell, Robert Morris, Mercyhurst and Rensselaer — Hockey East, ECAC and Atlantic Hockey teams. The Chargers see three series against WCHA teams in the second half of the year.
“At this point, I don’t think it’s been much of an issue, certainly not on a daily basis in the [locker] room,” Luongo said. “You do get in the bit of the dog days. I imagine that will be something we’ll have to address psychologically with the guys to get them through, but you know what? You’ve got to go. That’s a fact of the matter.”
Luongo said that it’s a challenge to keep the players, the coaches, the whole program focused on remaining in the moment, playing hockey as competitively as they can when it feels like there’s nothing tangible to play for.
“As a coach you understand the situation,” said Luongo. “As a staff, we deal with that ourselves. But if you’re OK with it” — it being not playing hard enough because the team isn’t competing for league glory — “it’s your first step toward losing that battle.”
For the first half of the season, Luongo said, it’s a little easier. The team focuses on each week, and the Chargers (and the other former CHA teams) were accustomed to playing plenty of non-conference action anyway. Little feels changed at this point.
It will be harder, in the second half, Luongo said, when UAH isn’t looking at the standings — because there are no standings. “We’ll just have to deal with that when it comes.”
Players of the month
Congratulations to Miami senior forward Carter Camper and Notre Dame freshman Anders Lee for having been named the first CCHA players of the month.
There can be no debate about either of these choices. Camper had nine goals and 13 assists in October. That’s a good season for many players in the league.
Lee had six goals and two assists to lead all league rookies in scoring.
Good guys doing good things
Sure, it’s easy to hate the guys in black and white stripes. When they wear pink, however, they may be a little easier to love.
On Saturday in Marquette, the NMU hockey team was participating in Northern’s Pink Experience, a series of events Oct. 30 that aimed to raise awareness of breast cancer and money for breast cancer research.
The Wildcats traded their home whites for home pinks and auctioned off their game-worn jerseys after beating Ohio State, 4-3.
The NMU players weren’t the only ones in pink, though. CCHA Director of Officials Steve Piotrowski told me Saturday that NMU asked him during the summer if it would be possible for the officiating crew to wear pink jerseys, too.
“I told them I’d look around,” Piotrowski said. “We were able to find someone to make the jerseys locally. We’re really glad we could do it, and the guys [officiating crew] were happy to be a part of it.”
The men looking good in pink in this photo are, left to right, referees Keith Sergott and Dean Sanborn, and assistant referees Josh Hatinger and Eric Froberg. Hatinger played for NMU, sort of; he was a goalie for the team for three seasons (2004-07), and is listed as having 38 seconds of a game in his final season. He never faced a shot.
He does, however, look good in pink.
“I see we have guest media here,” Berenson said when he walked into the postgame press conference following Saturday’s win over Ferris State. It was my first Michigan game of the season.
Berenson also took gentle aim at Jeff Arnold, my esteemed colleague from AnnArbor.com. “I like to see the media dress up like that,” Berenson said. “That’s good. That’s good.”
Jeff was (uncharacteristically) wearing a suit. It was the night before Halloween, after all.