The End of The Interlock — ECAC East and NESCAC to go separate ways in 2011-12

“It’s a done deal,” stated Bowdoin coach Terry Meagher. “The league approved the change last fall and the schedule has just been finalized for next season, with the NESCAC becoming a separate playing conference and the ECAC East mirroring the change.  This will be really exciting, playing everyone at home, and should make for a very competitive league.”

Both conferences officially will move to a home-and-home format, with each team playing each other twice during the regular season and travel partner alignments remaining intact for at least the first two years in the new schedule.  This means that 18 games of a 24-game regular season schedule are accounted for in league play, leaving six remaining games for nonconference match-ups or tournaments which traditionally take place over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

So how did we get here?

Over two years ago, USCHO broke the story about the likely defections from existing conferences in New England to create the current MASCAC Conference, comprised of Massachusetts-based state schools and members of the Little East Conference.  The first attempt to form the new league failed based on the allegiances of Salem State, Massachusetts-Boston and Southern Maine to the ECAC East.  Eventually, due to political and economic pressures, the league was formed and Salem State did leave the East, only to be replaced by the brand new varsity program of the University of New England in the ECAC East.  This was the wake-up call that all leagues across the Northeast took note of with regards to wondering just what did the future look like in D-II and D-III hockey, in light of the fact that alignments like MASCAC were trending towards playing conferences.  Proactively, the discussions at the time moved towards identifying measures to act in the best interests of the member institutions and playing conference alignments.

For NESCAC, the move is certainly an obvious one, with the conference already playing full schedules in all intercollegiate sports and including Hamilton as a universal competitor across all sports within the conference last year.  The conference is now positioned with 10 member institutions (11 schools overall, but Bates does not have a hockey team playing at the varsity level) playing each of nine opponents twice during the regular season – once at home and once away – and maintaining the playing conference status enjoyed across all of the other sports.

For the ECAC East, the logical move was to match the NESCAC change which has been approved and the master schedule created for next season.  What will be interesting to note is the dynamics which in many ways have not changed on the ECAC front and may impact the future direction of the league.

Today Mass.-Boston and Southern Maine are both members of the conference, with alignments in all other sports in the Little East Conference.  Fellow members are now associated with MASCAC and there may be increasing alignment and financial pressures exerted on the schools to make the move  for consistency in league competitors across all sports.

Also, the D-II status of St. Michael’s and St Anselm may force changes similar to what was seen in the NE-10 teams being ousted from the ECAC Northeast and being required to play a complete nonconference schedule outside of the six conference games with the fellow D-II institutions that create the seeding for the end of year NE-10 conference.

Like the ECAC Northeast, opponents that are D-III level teams ca not count any victory against a D-II program as part of their overall record in consideration for  making an at-large NCAA berth.  With criteria so tight and the margin for getting into a limited field so selective, many schools do not want to lose the opportunity for additional wins to bolster their chances at national tournament play.  Add in uncertainty for the ECAC West and Skidmore’s proximity in New York, and there are lots of considerations that will be open to discussion and consideration for future league alignments.  If all of these things happen, and four or five schools are impacting the members of the ECAC East conference, there may likely be more re-alignment across the ECAC member schools in the forseeable future.

Overall, this is a much bigger shift for the East schools than the NESCAC conference.  Likely a surveillance or evaluation period will be used to evaluate the changes, schedule, and impact on competition within the leagues.  Additionally this may trigger other changes in the ECAC profile in New England.

Of course, there are other questions that still remain on the table and unresolved.  Currently the playoff format is expected to remain the same, but ongoing dialogues have covered a format where the playoffs would include all teams in NESCAC and top-ranked teams would receive first-round byes as rewards for their position in the standings.  Moreover, the overall competitiveness of the conferences may necessitate the inclusion of all the teams in the post-season based on the overall level of competition.

What are the negatives here with the split?  What about the long-standing rivalries?

Certainly the rivalries within the conferences will only be enhanced by the home-and-home format of play and meeting teams twice per season as part of the new alignment.  So how do the long standing match-ups like Middlebury/Norwich and Bowdoin/Babson stay alive?  It’s likely that many of the long-standing rivalries will remain intact in the next couple of years, based on the desire to keep the rivalry games in some format and maintain the long-term rivalries that go back decades.  So whether it is a tournament of nonconference game, it is highly likely that many of the long-standing rivalries will not be lost in the for  the next two to four years.

So what does this mean for the future of D-III hockey in New England?

It means that schools and conferences are looking out for their best interests in aligning all of their sports programs within particular budgetary constraints and playing conference alignments.

So what are the positives for the fans?

This writer sees many options, including the development of more intense rivalries within the conference  as well as the ability to maintain those special match-ups that have meant so  much to the flavor of the game in New England.  There is sure to be more news on the league alignments, schedules and impact to the programs over the next remaining months of the season, and USCHO will be updating the fanbase as new information becomes available from the conferences.

So during one of the most entertaining seasons in recent memory, we are clearly off to a flying start with the competition on the ice and the proactive management of the conference alignments for the best interest of the schools and partner institutions.

The interlock is soon to be gone, so make sure you check out some of the upcoming match-ups remaining on this year’s schedule, since some will for sure be gone next year. Drop the puck!