Offseason takes shape, issues come into focus with coaches meetings

Next week, the 59 Division I men’s hockey coaches, five current conference commissioners, those who represent the future of the Big Ten and the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, and members of the NCAA and the NCAA ice hockey rules committee will all gather in Naples, Fla., for what may be the most important meeting of the American Hockey Coaches Association in recent memory.

While there will be plenty of fun in the sun for all who make their way back to Florida’s west coast (many of them for the second time in three weeks after attending the Frozen Four), there will be more than the fair share of hot topics that will be handled in a plethora of meetings.

Many may think last summer was one of the most contentious in college hockey since teams broke away from the ECAC to form Hockey East back in 1984. Massive restructuring of conferences impacting nearly half the teams that play the game made headlines throughout the entire offseason.

But those changes, along with a number of other impending issues, could make this year’s convention even more interesting.

Here is a look at some topics that are likely to be addressed next week:

The fallout

Forget about the fact that there are issues still to be resolved in restructuring, the most overt Hockey East’s search for a 12th member. One of the biggest issues related to restructuring could be interpersonal relationships.

This is the first time all of the coaches and commissioners will be assembled in one place since the explosion that hit college hockey a year ago. One has to wonder what hard feelings exist.

Let’s not forget, while everything about the Big Ten was done out in the open — and of course, that was the domino that first fell — the negotiations to form the NCHC were done out of public view. From conversations that took place throughout the season and at the Frozen Four, it’s clear there were some schools that certainly felt abandoned, slighted and, for lack of a better word, betrayed.

Now, don’t expect fisticuffs that would require Brendan Shanahan to dish out discipline, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see coaches not support other coaches during league votes, etc., simply out of spite.

Clearly, that’s speculation, but we would be naive to think that every conversation and debate will be flowers and buttercups.

Back to UConn

Thanks to a governor in the state of Connecticut who has lips looser than defenses of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh combined, the fact that UConn is applying to Hockey East has become the worst-kept secret.

Commissioner Joe Bertagna publicly acknowledged during his appearance on USCHO Live at the Frozen Four that there have been preliminary conversations. But multiple sources have confirmed in the last week that there have been additional conversations among the current Hockey East membership since Bertagna’s unofficial visit to Storrs, Conn., in late March.

The one thing that is known about UConn’s application is that it would require a hefty investment on the part of the school and the state, one that Gov. Dannel Malloy seems ready to make. Malloy told CBS Connecticut that the XL Center (nee Hartford Civic Center) could be the venue at which the Huskies play, a major step up from the school’s small Freitas Ice Forum.

Nittany Lions ready to drop puck

When the college hockey season opens in October, Penn State, the nation’s 59th Division I ice hockey program, will drop the puck on its first season as a varsity sport.

Penn State will play a season as an independent but Guy Gadowsky’s team will be playing against the big boys for the first time in the school’s history.

While Gadowsky has been scrambling since he first arrived on campus to assemble a schedule, no doubt that handshaking will continue in Naples as he negotiates non-league series.

For that matter, Naples will certainly be the place that many of the leagues will begin to solidify their 2013-14 schedules. While a few leagues may have to make changes to those schedules if teams leave/enter, it’s time that these schedules begin to be put on paper.

And then there are the rules

This summer is what most around NCAA ice hockey call a “rules change summer.”

Every two years the NCAA ice hockey rules committee assembles to review the rule book, making additions and subtractions as necessary. This is one of those offseasons.

During the Frozen Four, USCHO had the chance to talk to four people who will be part of those conversations: Frank Cole, the NCAA’s director of officials; Ed McLaughlin, chairman of the NCAA rules committee; Steve Piotrowski, NCAA secretary of rules; and Ty Halpin, the NCAA liaison for rules and officiating.

They noted that while there are a number of rules that may be considered, the two most notable are the use of half-shield visors — as opposed to full cages — for male college hockey players and the use of four-on-four overtimes and/or shootouts, similar to the system employed by the NHL.

The rules committee has studied the ample amount of data on head injuries related to wearing visors as opposed to full shields but still isn’t convinced that half-shields have the full support of the coaches and administrators.

Overtime, too, is very much up in the air. While it seems like many around the game prefer some sort of final outcome — rather than a tie — to hockey games, Piotrowski said he’s not sure that changing to four-on-four or a shootout has sufficient support.

He also noted that four-on-four and shootouts aren’t the only types of overtime solutions on the table. Another is the use of longer overtimes, as were in place 30 years ago, with the hopes that 10 minutes or 20 minutes might help decide an outcome better than the current five-minute format.

One rule that seems certain to be altered is the awarding of a clear and imminent goal when the net is dislodged. Twice in NCAA regional play this year, apparent goals were disallowed because the net was slightly raised from its pins. The current NCAA rules dictate a goal must be disallowed if the net is not firmly in place when the puck enters.

“We really want to find a way to allow good goals,” Cole said. “If the net moves a little bit, maybe pops up on the pins, those are situations we need to find to allow those goals.”

In addition to development of new rules, McLaughlin said there will be some “tightening of rules,” which could mean that additional clarification, explanations or points of emphasis would be added to the current rule book.

The future of CHI

When College Hockey Inc. executive director Paul Kelly resigned late in the regular season, there was some immediate concern as to what will happen next for the organization that was charged with marketing college hockey to the masses.

There were a number of conflicting reports about just how happy the college hockey commissioners were with Kelly and his aggressive nature. But Kelly established a strong network of educational programs in the U.S. and Canada aimed at delivering the college hockey message to potential players.

Kelly also was successful in leveraging his past job as executive director of the NHL Players’ Association to arrange meetings between college hockey representatives and the NHL brass. Players leaving college before graduation to sign professional contracts continues to be an escalating issue, and there is little college hockey can do without changing the current NHL collective bargaining agreement. While it isn’t known what headway was made in these discussions, Kelly delivered that seat at the table.

Kelly’s replacement, Nate Ewell, still holds the word “interim” attached to his title. Ewell has strong NHL ties, having spent a number of years running the Washington Capitals’ PR department.

But it is unclear how important the NHL network is to the executive director position, at least in the eyes of the commissioners. One thing is clear, though: Whether it is Ewell or another person who becomes the permanent director of CHI, that person will need to work with the commissioners, not around them.

The NCAA tournament

While this year’s Frozen Four may have been one of the best in recent memories in terms of the host city, the venue and the atmosphere created around Tampa, the regional tournaments the preceded the Frozen Four left a lot to be desired.

Many of the regionals had attendance problems, whether because of location or the game times. There has been significant public outcry to examine how the regional tournaments are handled going forward. Whether it is to return opening rounds to campus sites or to use a super-regional format that would bring eight teams in a single region to create two champions (similar to the format used before 2003), dialogue concerning changing the regional format is at least warranted.

And while it may not be a discussion in Naples, this summer will produce the announcement of the next three Frozen Four destinations as the NCAA will award the 2015, 2016 and 2017 tournaments.

All of these topics will make for one very interesting offseason, and it all begins in Naples next week.

Update: An earlier version of this story indicated that Penn State would not be eligible for the NCAA tournament in the 2012-13 season. Penn State’s compliance department, however, said the team is immediately eligible, citing an NCAA interpretation:

An active Division I member institution that adds a new sport is not subject to the two-year conformity requirement prior to being eligible to enter a team or individual in an NCAA Championship, inasmuch as the requirement is intended to apply only to a member institution that is in the Division I reclassification process. [References: NCAA Bylaws (championships-eligibility) and NCAA Bylaw to sponsor varsity sport)]