One step forward, one step back for CHA with Niagara dropping hockey

It seemed like everything was in place for the CHA. Penn State and Lindenwood were joining. A long-coveted automatic bid for the NCAA Tournament seemed possible as early as 2014-2015. The “worst-kept secret” in women’s hockey was that Rochester Institute of Technology, which won the D-III Championship this past weekend, was going to announce on Tuesday that it is moving its women’s hockey program to Division I in 2012-2013, playing an independent schedule, with plans to join the CHA in 2013-2014, though they would be ineligible for postseason play until the 2014-2015 season.

Yes, it seemed the CHA had finally achieved stability, never mind the rumors about whether it would change its name to Atlantic Hockey to line up better with many of the men’s teams that compete at Division I. There has been speculation that Holy Cross and Sacred Heart might join. With an automatic bid, it was even possible that two teams from the CHA might make the NCAA Tournament, as would have happened this year if an automatic bid had been in place. The stability would have ensured that recruiting opportunities got easier for the league members.

Then, today, out of the blue, Niagara University released a statement that read, “In order to strengthen existing competitive opportunities and ensure sustainable future success for the Department of Athletics, Niagara University has announced a restructuring of its intercollegiate athletics program. … The restructuring includes the addition of women’s track and field as a varsity program and the immediate contraction of the women’s ice hockey program.

“‘Niagara University has a proud history of competition in the NCAA, and any change to our programs are taken very seriously and reviewed completely. Today’s announcement is no exception,’ said Jeff Holzschuh, chairman of the board of Niagara University. ‘We understand the disappointment for these young ladies, their families, the coaches and the fans of women’s ice hockey. We will always be very proud of all of the young women who have competed as Purple Eagles on the ice for Niagara University.'”

The release further stated that the current members of the women’s hockey team that are on scholarship will continue to receive their scholarships “for a period equal to their remaining eligibility.” Those that want to transfer to another school to continue to play would be granted an immediate release from their scholarships.

Niagara coach Josh Sciba was unavailable for comment as we went to press.

“We’re shocked,” said David Rourke, director of media relations for the CHA. “We don’t know anything else about it yet. I just heard about it. As far as the autobid, I don’t know what the plan will be going forward with that. Hopefully something will come up so we can add a couple more teams to get us there. Regardless of what happens, the conference will have to play together for two years with six teams before it can apply for that.”

Niagara finished the year with a 10-16-8 overall record and a 3-6-3 conference record, and was very competitive. The Purple Eagles had a tie and an overtime loss to longtime conference power Mercyhurst, and went 1-2-1 against conference tournament champion Robert Morris in the regular season before bowing out in a tough 3-2 loss to Robert Morris in the CHA Tournament.

“It’s unfortunate,” said Robert Morris coach Paul Colontino. “You can’t really say much more than that. You hope it’s not a trend. It’s definitely tough. With the economy and things, things are tough. You have to move forward though. It’s a great thing that we have Penn State and Lindenwood coming in, and RIT stepping in as well. You have forward movement in the women’s game; bringing in those three programs. But you feel bad for all the players and coaches that have worked at Niagara.”

This is the second consecutive year that the women’s CHA has lost a member squad, as Wayne State dropped its women’s program last May. Other former members of the CHA include Findlay, which dropped women’s hockey in 2004, and Quinnipiac, which moved to the ECAC after the 2004-2005 season.

Next season’s CHA will consist of Mercyhurst, Robert Morris, Syracuse, Penn State, and Lindenwood. More information will be posted as this story develops.