Commentary: It’s time to give the ECAC its due

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — College hockey fans, take note: It’s time to finally admit it, ECAC Hockey is one very good hockey league right now.

Yes, I’m a Hockey East guy. And, yes, if you’ve talked to me in recent years the ECAC has often been my go-to punch line. But I’m ready to step up and say that this year’s ECAC is one impressive bunch.

It took me until the field of four ready to head to Pittsburgh for the Frozen Four was assembled to make this admission, mostly because there didn’t seem to be a reason before now. You had a runaway regular season champion in Quinnipiac that faltered down the stretch followed by what on the outside appeared to be a bunch of also-rans.

But now, with the field for this year’s NCAA Frozen Four set, you have two teams from the ECAC — Yale and Quinnipiac — heading to the Steel City.

Yes, that is the same Yale that had what many figured was an impossible path to the Frozen Four. Standing in its way was Minnesota, a team that most believed should have been the top overall seed (see below: lack of respect for Quinnipiac). Not only did the Bulldogs upset the Gophers, they followed it up with an improbable comeback against North Dakota in the regional final.

Then there is Quinnipiac. I personally called them frauds on a few occasions leading into the tournament. In my defense, after the Bobcats finally climbed to the top of the national rankings, they became mediocre at best down the stretch.

I picked the Q to lose to Canisius on Saturday in the opening game of the tournament. And while that almost was a reality — the Bobcats had to score three goals in the last seven minutes to rally for a 4-3 win — Quinnipiac’s 5-1 decimation of Union in Sunday’s East Regional final made me a believer. This team has everything it takes to win a national title.

“I felt extremely confident we were going to be good tonight,” Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold said.

And then there is Union. The Dutchmen ended the ECAC’s drought in the Frozen Four last year, making the first appearance for the league since Cornell in 2003. One could say they were the injectors of belief into the ECAC teams themselves. The one-time doormats of the league made the NCAA tournament for the first time in 2011 under coach Nate Leaman. Then, after his departure last season, they reached the Frozen Four, falling short of the national title game in losing a close game to Ferris State.

Despite Sunday’s defeat, Union helped earn further respect by dismantling Boston College — yes, that Boston College that had won three of the last five national titles — in Saturday’s opening round.

“I thought they were awesome last night the way they dominated Boston College,” Pecknold said of that win. “That was a big win for our league.”

For Union, the question at these tournaments has consistently been about what this win or that win does to put this team on the map.

“Hopefully that map is getting smaller,” Union coach Rick Bennett said. “That question is getting old.”

I ran into ECAC commissioner Steve Hagwell before Sunday’s game. Let me tell you, he looked like the most relaxed man in Rhode Island. He loves the thought that both ECAC teams will play in separate semifinals in Pittsburgh, possibly setting up an all-ECAC final. Someone asked, wouldn’t you rather have them play to guarantee a team in the title game? His response was that his view is more optimistic.

And why not be? Let’s compare what the ECAC has done as opposed to the rest of the nation this weekend.

Atlantic Hockey and the CCHA each got two teams into the tournament and neither will be in Pittsburgh. (One of those two may be more surprising, seeing as the CCHA had a 50-50 chance of winning the Midwest Regional).

Hockey East placed three teams in the tournament. And while Massachusetts-Lowell beat fellow league member New Hampshire in the regional final to head to its first Frozen Four, Boston College was hardly Boston College.

And then there’s the WCHA. The chest-thumpers of college hockey were given six NCAA bids. Six. They were 50-50 in three separate regionals to come out on top and only St. Cloud State can fly the league’s banner. Not exactly impressive.

The college hockey landscape, as most know, is about to change dramatically. The CCHA is now officially gone. The WCHA will never look the same again. And the job of being college hockey’s ego may have shifted to the Big Ten and the NCHC.

So maybe it’s appropriate that for the first time since 1991 no team with a multi-million dollar FBS athletic program will appear in the Frozen Four. It’s also apropos that college hockey will have a first-time national champion with four teams in the Frozen Four that have never been there in college hockey’s modern era.

Back to the ECAC. It might have been Union’s Bennett that best summed up the difficultly of that league this year.

“It speaks volumes to get [ECAC] teams to the Frozen Four back-to-back and not just one, but two,” Bennett said. “It says a lot about how tough it is to get through our league. Not more than eight days ago, you’re holding the trophy and now I’m up here trying to answer these questions about why we lost.

“I wish Yale and Quinnipiac the best. There can only be one winner I and hope it’s someone from the ECAC.”