Northeastern reinstates Cronin, O’Connell but expects major violation ruling

Northeastern coach Greg Cronin and assistant coach Albie O’Connell will both be reinstated following an internal investigation into potential NCAA violations related to the men’s hockey team’s recruiting processes, the school announced Monday.

The school also announced that assistant coach Sebastien Laplante, who took the reins for Cronin during the suspension and led the team to a 2-2-2 record in the six-game stretch, also will shoulder responsibility for the violations and will serve his own six-game suspension at the beginning of the 2011-12 season.

Northeastern athletic director Peter Roby said that the initial investigation found that Cronin and his staff violated NCAA rules regarding both text messaging recruits and contacting recruits during a period when communication with the potential student-athletes was not allowed.

“We want to put this incident behind us to the extent we can without losing sight of the significance of the issues at hand,” said Roby. “What we came to understand is that [the men’s coaching staff] was using texting, which is no longer allowed by the NCAA, until such time that your perspective student-athlete signs a National Letter of Intent. And then, there were phone calls that were either above the limit or that came before the dates that were allowed by the NCAA.”

Roby said that the violations, which come at a time that Northeastern is already on probation with the NCAA for a recruiting incident involving men’s basketball, will likely constitute a major violation when the full investigation is complete. Because of that, the university will self-impose additional punishments.

“The advice we’ve gotten from our all-sport conference (the Colonial Athletic Association) is that it’s hard to rationalize or have it seen as a minor violation,” said Roby. “We’re proceeding with the expectation that this will rise to a major violation status and, as a result, the self-imposed sanctions that we will need to implement and recommend to the NCAA will be reflective of the expectation that is considered major.”

Roby said he has yet to figure out what those self-imposed sanctions will be. They could range from as little as limitations on recruiting and reduction on the number of coaching staff members allowed to contact potential student athletes to high-impact sanctions such as a reduction in scholarships or a ban from the postseason.

Cronin, who met with members of the media prior to rejoining his team on the ice for practice on Monday, said he hopes that the sanctions he and his team receive do not reach the most severe of punishments.

“I hope it’s not a loss of scholarship,” said Cronin. “In hockey, [losing scholarships] is a dent. It’s out of my area. But the scholarship reduction would be the biggest one to manage.”

Cronin and O’Connell were suspended by the team on Feb. 18, prior to the beginning of a weekend series with then-No. 1 Boston College. Since that time, Cronin hasn’t been allowed to have any contact with his players or coaching staff, something he admits was very difficult particularly given the point in the season at which this occurred.

When asked if he felt vindicated by Monday’s reinstatement, Cronin said that was not the case.

“As I always tell the players, if you do things the right way every day, you’ll have success down the road,” said Cronin. “We made mistakes. You can’t put any conditions on them. They’re mistakes. The school did what they felt they had to do.”

Cronin credited the school and its compliance staff on being completely professional throughout the process. That, though, didn’t take away the anxiety of not being with the team.

“We had to be patient,” said Cronin. “That’s the worst part about it. Waiting to find out what your penalty is.

“I felt like I was tethered to the school but I couldn’t go into the school because of the suspension. A part of you wants to get away from it all because it’s painful to watch your team play on a small computer at the best time of the year. But I couldn’t go away because I kept waiting for the answer.”

Cronin rejoins his team just three days before it will open a best-of-three quarterfinal series against Boston University in the Hockey East playoffs. Cronin said he’s thrilled to get back behind the bench and has confidence in his team’s focus heading into the weekend.

“I don’t know if we have the same talent level as [BU],” said Cronin. “But I went down to [the locker room] and said to them right away, ‘This is a big series here’ and gave them some things to think about.”

While Monday’s announcement will return Northeastern and its program to some level of normalcy entering the postseason, it is hardly the end of the process in dealing with the NCAA.

Roby said that the school will make its recommendations to the NCAA in the coming weeks on exactly what sanctions it recommends are imposed on the men’s hockey program. Then the waiting period begin as the NCAA evaluates the complete report.

“Over the next few weeks we’ll pull all of our findings together and send it along to the NCAA with our self-imposed sanctions,” said Roby. “The Committee on Infractions will review what we send in and make a determination as to whether or not they feel what we’ve done is appropriate and enough, or if they feel they need more information or if they feel that there is more that has to be done. If they want more sanctions put in place, they will let us know that.”