Editor’s Note: This is the third of six in a series looking at each conference’s schedule for the upcoming 2018-19 season.
The ECAC is one of college hockey’s oldest conferences.
Its tradition of excellence dates back over 55 years with a membership largely untouched since the 1960s. Ten of its 12 current members helped found the league with a membership largely untouched since the 1980s. College hockey’s realignment left the league untouched, the only such conference to neither lose nor gain a program.
So there are few surprises when it comes to scheduling. The conference’s 12 teams all play a balanced schedule with a home-and-away series against every opponent. The teams are paired with a geographic travel partner, resulting in four-team round robins each weekend.
It’s the only format that forces new opponents each night. Harvard and Dartmouth, for example, are paired together and on any given weekend would host or play at a pair of opponents. If Harvard plays at Brown on a Friday, Dartmouth plays at Yale. The teams then swap the next night, with the Crimson heading to Yale and the Bears hosting the Big Green.
“I’ve never considered it clean, and there are a lot of parameters,” commissioner Steve Hagwell said. “But in terms of a balanced schedule, 22 games and 12 teams with a home-and-away is a huge plus. You could argue that you get a true champion in there, but there are always different parameters (to how it’s built).”
The ECAC schedule stems from a footprint representing both a strength and a weakness. Though it’s a northeast, “bus league,” it stretches from New York’s North Country into New England and New Jersey during a time when regional weather patterns are often unpredictable. So the league attempts to avoid back-to-back long road trips
“If you take Princeton and Quinnipiac, you have to send them at some point to Clarkson and St. Lawrence,” Hagwell said. “To send them to Cornell and Colgate, which is their next longest road trip, in a tight window isn’t fair. So we try to balance that, and I spend a lot of time at it.”
It’s been a league success over the past decade. There have been only three seasons in the past 10 completed seasons where the ECAC actively scheduled Princeton and Quinnipiac for a road series after the Clarkson-St. Lawrence road trip. Each time, they’ve been sent to Union and RPI, a ride of only about three hours.
Brown and Yale experienced something similar, having traveled only once after the North Country road trip in the past 10 years. But that road trip was to Quinnipiac and Princeton, and the Bulldogs are approximately a half hour’s drive from the Bobcats’ campus. Additionally, the road trip staggered Brown to Quinnipiac on Saturday, enabling the Bears a shorter trip home.
That said, it’s occasionally unavoidable. Princeton finished the season in the North Country in 2013-2014 but wound up going back to Clarkson the next weekend for the first round of the playoffs.
“You have a window of 17 weekends, and it rotates or changes based on the calendar,” Hagwell said. “I don’t think there’s a perfect schedule, but I don’t know that one exists. We do our best to try and accommodate as many requests as we can. So at the end of the day, some people will probably like it and some people might not.”
“You can argue that you get a true champion in there, but there are always different parameters. You have to play an opponent twice within a month. For example, Harvard and Dartmouth could play Colgate and Cornell first week in February and again to close out the month. I like our league setup, but we do have our own obstacles that you just can’t overcome when building a schedule.”
The biggest of those obstacles is simply the number of available games. Six of ECAC’s membership are in the Ivy League, which enforces its own rules on when teams can start practicing and playing. Those six typically start playing games three weeks after their counterparts, which in turn will have six games played by the time the Ivy schools start playing.
“The Ivies have a formula within the Ivy League itself that dictates when they can start practicing and skating,” Hagwell said. “We have a formula or policy that the first full weekend in November is our first full weekend of games. So if Cornell or Dartmouth or another Ivy starts in mid-October, they can play scrimmages against one another. There are set criteria for that such the inability to charge admission, and they can’t publicize the game. And we’ll open the league campaign by having them play each other early.”
Cornell opened last season with Canadian exhibitions and a couple of non-conference games. They opened league play, however, with games against three fellow Ivies. Harvard, meanwhile, played Dartmouth, Yale and Brown before playing Colgate and Cornell, which meant the Big Green went with them. Two weeks later, both played Princeton.
“We have a system in place that helps get our athletes ready for the contact of the game on a conditioning level,” Dartmouth head coach Bob Gaudet said. “We just manage what we can manage, and we look at it as a positive. Our kids have a chance to get involved with their schoolwork in the fall, get on the ice with training with the coaches and then start practice. We’re not overdoing it, and we’ve been a very strong team in the second half because we’re still fresh.”
Since the restricted Ivy League schools only play 29 games per year, they have to fill less games on their schedule. The unrestricted ECAC schools, however, play the full 34 game slate, giving them the option of playing upwards of 12 games out of league. It’s a number that can seem burdensome, but it’s opened up opportunity for games against a complement of national opponents.
Clarkson has played opponents from a minimum of three different leagues every year except for 2016-2017, and it played at least one opponent from every conference, including independent Arizona State, in 2015-16. Quinnipiac, meanwhile, played the majority of games against Hockey East but scheduled games against both Alaska schools and Arizona State.
From an Ivy standpoint, the restricted calendar places a premium on the opportunities presented. Dartmouth, for example, hosts the annual Ledyard Bank Classic, while Cornell used to host the Florida College Hockey Classic. Brown, Yale and Union all appeared in Dartmouth’s tournament since 2015, with the Bears returning in the upcoming season. A static schedule ensures the league will play non-league teams.
“We have seven games that we can play as an Ivy League institution,” Dartmouth head coach Bob Gaudet said. “We have our Ledyard National Bank Tournament, and we’ve really tried to beef that up since I’ve been here. It’s a really great tournament (for us), and we’ve been able to recruit teams as a reciprocal. We just had Minnesota-Duluth in, so we’ll go there in a couple of years down the road. So it’s a really, really good thing for us to have that.”
From there, the teams typically reach out to their interstate rivals, with Brown-Providence, Dartmouth-UNH and Harvard’s Beanpot participation dotting the schedule. There’s also the Friendship Four in Belfast that guarantees one non-conference game against a Hockey East team.
“We traditionally play our old friend Vermont, typically alternating at home or away, at a traditional time of year,” Gaudet said. “And we will play UNH for two games for what I think if the first time ever this year.”
Every league underwent change in the last 10 years, but ECAC always seems to remain a constant because the changes never drastically altered the landscape. Swapping Vermont for Quinnipiac changed travel partners in the mid-2000s, but it never changed the number of teams and therefore never unbalanced the schedule.
“Twelve is our number,” Hagwell said. “It’s a perfect number for us. Twenty-two games with a balanced schedule is the perfect number because six schools are maxed out at 29 games. For the other six schools with 12 games, it gives them those three weekends to schedule. Maybe they can get four to six games out of the way early because I imagine filling 12 can be a task at some times.”