The Last Word*

… on Scheduling

I’ve taken a fair amount of flak in my time manning USCHO’s ECAC Hockey (nee ECACHL) desk. Some of it has been perfectly valid, and I’ve tried to acknowledge as much. Some has been bred of confusion or misinterpretation; some of ignorance; and no small amount has been borne of the bat**** lunatic North Dakota fringe, with which all college hockey writers are well-acquainted.

The picked-bone-du-jour (though really, it’s an issue every year around this time) concerns my treatment and perspective of the league’s (and/or individual programs’) non-conference scheduling. I’ve been criticized by representatives of every house on this one at one point or another, and perhaps I should make myself clear in a specifically devoted piece… i.e., this blog entry.

* for this week**
** maybe

As I see it

I believe that ECAC Hockey is not only a unique league, but the most unique in the college hockey universe. I don’t have figures in front of me, but I would be floored to learn that any other conference might beat this one in student GPA and/or general academic achievement (except maybe the NESCAC?). Princeton’s Landis Stankievech (’08) won a Rhodes Scholarship just three years ago, for crying out loud. The history is as deep and tenured as anywhere else, the hockey programs tend to be the athletic pride of the member institutions, the rivalries and passions invoke generations of extraordinary teams and players.

The long and short of it is, I love this league.

So when I criticize, I try to make the incisions constructive, and at the bare minimum factual. In this case, the facts are that many ECAC teams schedule a lot of Atlantic Hockey opponents. So far, the league has played 16 games against the AHA out of 33 total (all non-conference) games.

But wait, there’s more

The facts are also that it is surprisingly, even incredibly difficult to fill a 12-game non-conference schedule. AHA and Hockey East teams only have seven non-league slots each year. The WCHA and CCHA, six. While this may seem like a great opportunity to get nationwide exposure with games against far-flung foes, or to boost the ol’ RPI in anticipation of the PairWise rankings, it’s nowhere near that easy. For starters, the 14-point bucks – the real big game of the college hockey landscape – are limited in number: Boston College, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Michigan State, Miami, Boston University, Maine, Notre Dame and New Hampshire draw very well and make regular appearances in the NCAA tournament. (Denver, Colorado College, Minnesota-Duluth, Nebraska-Omaha, Ferris State, and Western Michigan are on that cusp, but don’t yet have the long-term cachet.) Everybody wants them on their schedule.

But who do they want to play? Each other, of course. North Dakota has undeniably little incentive to play Colgate, Brown, or St. Lawrence, home or away… at least until the Raiders, Bears or Saints start becoming regular fixtures in the Sweet 16. Even the powerhouses of neighboring Hockey East frequently feel that they are better served by making Western road trips than by visiting or hosting local ECAC squads.

At this point in time, the ECAC Hockey programs that play the toughest non-conference opponents are a) optimally located geographically (Harvard), b) have earned recent and/or regular “contender” status (Yale, Cornell, Rensselaer), or c) play a lot of road games (Brown). It doesn’t hurt to have a well-connected coach, but it doesn’t always help, either.

So that’s why half of the league’s out-of-conference docket reads like an AHA visitors’ guide. It’s not anybody’s idea of ideal, but “optimal” is a relative term.

Bearing the barbs

As I noted earlier, I do my best to acknowledge valid critiques, and one that holds water now is that I have been too tough on programs for not scheduling more big-name opponents. Even I have a learning curve, and I have – at times – lost track of how challenging it can be to get one national power to commit, much less 10. For that, I apologize. Furthermore, isn’t a game against RIT or Air Force as likely to boost the strength-of-schedule as a game against Lake Superior State or Vermont? Maybe, maybe not – but today it’s worth considering.

Great expectations

So what do I really expect from ECAC Hockey? Where is the threshold below which teams become targets?

I’ll put it simply. Schedule all the good teams you can – gotta beat the best to be the best, as the idiom goes – but when your opponents leave you uninspired, just take care of business.

The frustrated slights come from weak results against weak opponents, because this league – and everyone in this league – is supposed to be better than that. Off nights happen. Upsets happen. Underrated opponents happen, too. But not everyone is underrated, every night can’t be an “off night”, or else the upsets are no longer upsets… and the league is diminished just a little bit more.

Right now, ECAC Hockey is 16-12-5, all against non-conference opposition. So far, teams that the ECAC has already played are 33-47-6 against everyone else. (My math may be slightly off, but to the best of my knowledge I’ve tallied correctly.) The teams the league has beaten are a combined 12-25-1 (again, against everyone else). Teams that ECAC programs have lost to are a combined 15-16-3, and the ties are 6-6-2.

That’s all I’ve got. At least I’ve avoided mentioning North Dakota in any kind of judgmental light… I think. (I hope.)