Times are changing for Hockey East and a quick look at the league’s coaches poll proves that not only is this no longer your father’s Hockey East, it might not even be your older sibling’s Hockey East.
It has been five years since Boston College ripped off four straight postseason titles. And in that time frame, three of the four league champions were not members of what was once referred to as the “big four.”
“If you had been away for a while and came back and see UNH and Maine at 10 and 12 [respectively, in the coaches’ poll], you’d be scratching your head wondering how did that happen,” said Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna. “It wasn’t that long ago that I’d be having to acknowledge that 90 percent of our championships were won by BC, BU, UNH and Maine.
“We’re in a different world now.”
In fact, when you look at those four schools mentioned by the commissioner, only one – Boston University – is predicted to be a top-four club in preseason polls. The Terriers, thanks to three straight top-tier recruiting classes, are a near unanimous favorite. But UMass Lowell and Northeastern, which have accumulated three of the last four postseason championships, along with Notre Dame make up the other three teams picked for first-round postseason byes.
The obvious missing party is Boston College, picked sixth by the coaches, due in most part to the Eagles losing seven players early to NHL contracts.
As Bertagna points out, the success of individuals is a nice feather in the league’s cap, but also brings some concern that blue-chip players continue to spend less (far less, in some cases) than four years on their college campus.
“It’s a dual-edged sword,” said Bertanga. “What you’re doing and what you’re putting out there, the best kids are coming to your programs. At the NHL Draft in June, [Hockey East] did very well.
“But I’d be disingenuous to say that it’s not problematic that those kids don’t always play four years.
“The fans feel cheated. I’m sure BU fans were thrilled to pull up to Agganis and watch a full season of Jack Eichel. But imagine if they could have watched four years of it. It’s different and we’re still adjusting to it.”
Bertagna and the league will also soon have to make another significant adjustment. Last March, Notre Dame announced that after just four seasons in the league that it will move to the Big Ten, leaving a hole in Hockey East.
Bertagna acknowledged that 11 teams is not impossible to operate with and in fact, is likely how the league will move forward for 2017-18 and 2018-19. But 12 teams is the more ideal number for a league in every way – scheduling and playoffs being the primary area of benefit from an even dozen.
While the league is still open to adding a 12th member at some point, it is not actively soliciting a new member, Bertagna said.
The 11-team league will require the conference to make some scheduling changes next season. Each team will add an additional league game against four different opponents. These opponents were selected in an attempt to balance opponent strength using last season’s standings. Two games will be home for each opponent and two will be on the road.
In the 2018-19 campaign, those four additional opponents will remain the same on each team’s schedule, reversing which games are played at home and on the road.
“There really is nothing imminent about a 12th team on the men’s side,” said Bertagna. “We’ll see how that goes and see how conversations follow up.
“Next year would have been impossible [and] 2018-19 would have been doable [to add a 12th team] if something had developed over this offseason or even now, but there’s nothing in place that can even happen for ’18-19.”
The league will continue to assist in hosting ancillary events this season, expanding beyond last year’s offering of the Friendship Four, a four-time Hockey East/ECAC tournament played in Belfast, Ireland.
After the success of that event, it was immediately announced that the Friendship Four would once again be held this season with Vermont and Massachusetts representing Hockey East (St. Lawrence and Quinnipiac will represent the ECAC).
According to Bertagna, the tournament organizers are currently working to extend the event for at least two additional years (2017 and 2018) and an announcement could come early in the season.
In addition to the Friendship Four Hockey East will, for the fourth time, host Frozen Fenway, outdoor league games played at Fenway Park in Boston. This year’s edition will feature four league games played over two weekends.
“We have the conversations about the viability of these outdoor events,” said Bertagna. “We all know at some point you’re going to hit a point where maybe you went one too many.
“But the continuation of these special events is here to stay. It’s a charge from the [athletic] directors to the [league] office to create events that extend their branding.
“Fortunately for me, these are things I look forward to.”