Who will save the ECAC West and its teams?

The men’s ice hockey teams of the ECAC West are in the midst of a struggle for the existence of their league and possibly their teams as well.

Formed in 1976, the league has had a long and storied run, including member teams winning three national championships (Rochester Institute of Technology in 1985, Plattsburgh in 1992 and Neumann in 2009). But with the demise of Lebanon Valley’s team at the end of last season, the league has dwindled to five members and might be splitting apart.

Before 1976, the ECAC was divided into divisions. What became the ECAC East and West in 1976 was known as ECAC Division II before. The ECAC West at that time was composed of 17 teams, including such notables as Army, Middlebury, Union, Norwich and Plattsburgh. The only team that has been a constant member from the league’s founding until today is Elmira.

Manhattanville celebrates the 2010 ECAC West championship.
Manhattanville celebrates the 2010 ECAC West championship, but how many more of those titles will be celebrated?

Since the SUNYAC teams split off to form their own league in 1992, the ECAC West has varied from seven members to as low as four teams from 1998 to 2000 after Canisius and Niagara moved up to Division I. The league was on the verge of qualifying for a NCAA automatic bid in 2004 when Lebanon Valley joined to make seven teams. But RIT started the transition to Division I at the end of that season and the ECAC West once again fell below the limit.

So what makes the current size of the league — which includes Elmira, Hobart, Manhattanville, Neumann and Utica — such a dire problem? The answer is the NCAA Championship Pool selection system, the current form of which was implemented in 2005 but dates back several years previous to that.

Since the league has been below the required seven teams to earn a Pool A automatic qualification into the NCAA tournament, through the years it has had to rely on a bid from Pool B, which is reserved for such leagues. Historically, this has worked out well — the ECAC West has dominated this pool and has earned the Pool B bid every year. The ECAC West has even sent three teams to the NCAA tournament in three of the last five years by taking advantage of difficult schedules to earn extra at-large bids from Pool C.

After the newly formed MASCAC earns an automatic bid from Pool A next season, the Pool B bid could be no more as the ECAC West will be the only league left eligible for this pool and there are too few teams to qualify. The formula in the NCAA bylaws calls for at least seven teams to be in the running for a Pool B spot for that bid to be given. The combination of only being eligible for an at-large bid from Pool C while all other teams chase after automatic qualifiers puts the ECAC West teams at a big disadvantage.

In response, the ECAC put together a meeting last August hosted by Western New England College and invited all Eastern Division III teams. Representatives from 23 teams attended and discussions ranged far and wide. Three sessions were held during the long day of meetings. First, the coaches met in the morning. They were joined by athletic directors midday and then the coaches were dismissed in the afternoon so that only the athletic directors were present for the final session.

“We discussed a variety of items,” ECAC Director of Sport Administration Michael Letzeisen said. “The two items that were discussed at length were restructuring and scheduling.”

In reality, the ECAC is a very loose organization of member institutions. The ECAC provides many services to its member leagues, including league scheduling, referees and awards, but has very little authority when it comes to the composition of those leagues. This fact became painfully obvious during this meeting.

“Twenty-three teams were represented at the meeting,” Utica coach Gary Heenan said. “There was strong sentiment against accommodating the five ECAC West teams and trying to figure out a way to reconfigure the leagues. We came up with several propositions, making it two leagues or three leagues; none of them were adopted. There was discussion for a scheduling alliance, but that wasn’t what we were after.

“It was disappointing. Our five coaches struggle to understand that the ECAC is one conference. We want to think that way but clearly it is not.”

Hands tied

“Not that the ECAC isn’t working on doing anything, but the way the leagues are structured, their hands are tied,” Elmira coach Aaron Saul said. “They are trying to do what is best for everybody in the ECAC and not leave the five teams in our league out to dry. At the same time, we try to come up with certain plans to shift teams from one league to another. For a combination of certain reasons, it doesn’t seem to work in our favor. It is definitely a frustrating situation.”

Many options were discussed, from rebalancing teams among the three ECAC leagues, to distributing the ECAC West teams among the ECAC East and ECAC Northeast, and many scenarios in between.

“We looked at the possibility of having seven members in three leagues so that we could have the automatic qualifier minimum,” Letzeisen said. “The issue that comes up is that each league has different bylaws. So teams would have to extricate themselves from their current league and then apply to the new league within each league’s existing bylaws. We are not at the luxury per the bylaws where we can take a team and put it in a different league.”

But despite the best of hopes and rhetoric, nothing positive was adopted at the August meeting to move teams from one league to another. The only major item for follow-up to come out of the meeting concerned scheduling.

“Everyone needs to come together for the betterment of hockey,” Neumann coach Dominick Dawes said. “You hear a lot of people say that they want to protect the game. The teams in our league have very good histories but we are in trouble. If the other programs don’t step up, and they talk about the betterment of hockey, they need to act on it. If we’d all come together, we could resolve this in a very easy way just by stepping up and playing others. Make two or three leagues, where everyone gets a bid and gets an equal opportunity. But to say we are in it for the betterment of hockey and then do the complete opposite thing and ignore it is a big issue.”

Since the meeting, frustrations have been mounting as it becomes more and more obvious that the existing teams will need to look for a solution among themselves.

“The meeting that was at Western New England was a waste of time,” Hobart coach Mark Taylor said. “The ECAC as a league brought nothing forward. The only thing that came out of it for me was a ‘Hooray for me, too bad for you’ attitude in Division III hockey. There is not an overriding body that says what’s good for everybody here.”

In hindsight, it appears that there were two major stumbling blocks to the realignment of teams within the ECAC. Several teams mentioned the very high level of competition among the five remaining ECAC West teams. Each has been routinely near the top of the national rankings over the past seasons and Neumann won the title two years ago.

To drive the point home, others point to Lebanon Valley, which went from the top of the ECAC Northeast to the bottom of the ECAC West when it transferred conferences in 2004. Mainly due to limited resources provided to the Flying Dutchmen by the school’s administration, the team managed only a handful of league wins over the course of six seasons and eventually downgraded to club status.

However, that argument is countered by looking at Utica, Neumann and Manhattanville. Those three schools all started teams within the ECAC West and have built very successful programs. The reason why is because the schools identified the resources necessary to play Division III hockey at a high level, made the commitment to achieve their goals and then learned from other league members.

“The ECAC drew it out of the other administrators that it was competition that the other conferences were afraid of,” Heenan said. “We can help a team develop if they join our league. As coaches, you’d be happy because your budgets got a raise. They just don’t want it right now.”

“When we first started the program here and I said we were going to join the ECAC West, more than one coach told me I was crazy,” Manhattanville coach and athletic director Keith Levinthal said. “One coach told me I was an idiot to my face. I believe that the reason that Manhattanville, Utica and Neumann have good programs these days is because we joined a really competitive league that forced us to get better.

“When you go into RIT in the first year of your program’s history, you get a chance to see how it should be done. We wouldn’t be where we are today if we didn’t do that. Not everyone thinks the way that we did.”

The coaches in the ECAC West have been forthcoming to share their wealth of knowledge and experience when asked and have helped grow several teams, both inside and outside the league.

“You hear complaints about what Lebanon Valley did or didn’t do,” Taylor said. “They were one of four programs that started just shortly after I got to Hobart. Utica, Neumann and Manhattanville all certainly have it going. So the odds are better in the ECAC West if you want to start a new program. Three out of four are doing pretty damn well. Everything at the WNEC meeting was ‘We don’t want to be Lebanon Valley’. Well, we don’t want you to be, either.”

The other factor that came up in the WNEC meeting was the potential travel distances from other ECAC schools. In a time of tight athletic budgets, it is a difficult sell for teams from the farthest eastern reaches of the ECAC to be forced to bus to more remote areas of New York or Pennsylvania.

“We are the farthest one from everybody,” said Dawes, the Neumann coach whose campus is in Aston, Pa. “We’ve had issues with teams wanting to come down here dropping us. Those other leagues need to look into helping the rest of us out. They all travel down here on the women’s side, so it is just a matter of teams wanting to play good teams.”

Looking elsewhere

The first to shake up the status quo is Utica, which has officially applied for admittance of its men’s ice hockey team into the SUNYAC. The Pioneers are taking advantage of a recent change to the charter of the SUNYAC that allows for admittance of non-State University of New York schools.

“I was approached by a SUNYAC coach who mentioned that the league was changing their bylaws and was interested in a 10th team,” Heenan said. “We had a discussion on campus and our administration liked the idea enough to explore it. Scheduling and financially, it is intriguing.”

Utica’s move came as a bit of a surprise to other teams but it certainly is understandable for the Pioneers to look elsewhere for a new home. They would be a natural travel partner for nearby SUNY-Morrisville and provide the SUNYAC with a 10th team to ease scheduling.

“Initially, it was a little bit of a shock because of the discussions we have had to stay unified as a league,” Saul said. “At this point, teams are going to look at other options and you need to look out for yourself.”

The SUNYAC athletic directors will discuss Utica’s application at their winter meeting Dec. 6-7. A vote could occur at this meeting, but more likely the matter will be referred for further research with a final vote taken at the organization’s May meetings.

If Utica’s application is accepted, a scramble could begin for all of the teams to find a new home. No one wants to be left without a chair when the music stops.

“If Utica gets accepted it will be a devastating blow to the league,” Levinthal said. “In fairness to Utica, everyone starts to cling to their own life rafts. Hockey is a very expensive sport and people are trying to protect their investment. It would be a scary thought to the league if that occurs.”

Several options might still be available if other leagues or teams are willing to help, but so far finding that kind of cooperation has been elusive. One of the most intriguing possibilities that has been raised is to effectively merge the SUNYAC and the ECAC West, forming a pair of seven-team leagues under the SUNYAC umbrella.

This would reconstitute an old league called the NYCHA that was originally composed of New York State schools until 1986. Teams were a member of this league in addition to the ECAC, with many games counting in both standings.

“Maybe we go back to the old New York state league,” Saul said. “We all play each other anyway, so why not make it a league? Do two leagues north and south, seven and seven split. Play everyone in your league twice and the other league once. So it is every other year, which would help with the travel costs.”

It appears that no existing teams are willing to join the ECAC West but maybe the ECAC East and Northeast can step forward to take two teams each. But the Northeast teams effectively pushed Lebanon Valley out of the league due to travel distances involved, so the likelihood of accepting a team outside of their traditional geographical area such as Neumann, Hobart or Elmira is low.

“Not many options are open,” Dawes said. “We’ve looked into everything that can be imagined and are stuck where we are. We need a league to open its doors. This school has made a commitment to compete well in hockey but you can only survive so long as an independent team. We just want to play.”

While the ECAC has been unable to lead any efforts to realign teams within the existing leagues, it has been assisting in identifying and facilitating new schools potentially starting varsity teams.

“Right now, if you look at our priorities, we are looking at adding new teams to the ECAC West and the non-conference schedule concerns,” Letzeisen said. “We are speaking to club programs to see if there is any possible move from club status to varsity status. We have had discussions with two universities in New York, but I don’t want to mention names. They have asked a lot of questions. There is another that doesn’t even have a club hockey team and is investigating whether starting one would be a good decision for them. We’re hoping that the more we talk with them, the better it is for each of the parties.”

Or perhaps the remaining teams leave the ECAC all together. If the organization is unable to help five of its members survive, maybe they’ll decide it’s time to look elsewhere. While it is a more drastic option, it has been discussed at various levels.

“You have to look in different directions,” Taylor said. “I don’t care what league we are in. There’s going to be politics. Focus on winning hockey games and things will take care of themselves. I’m still going forward with that notion.”

The long-term prospects of the ECAC West teams are cloudy and fraught with doubt. No one knows what the landscape will look like a six months or a year from now. Will someone bring the college hockey community together enough to save these history-filled teams from an uncertain fate?