Reflecting on the 2018-19 Hockey East season to date, according to Bertagna

Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna was in attendance. - The visiting Boston University Terriers defeated the Boston College Eagles 5-3 (EN) on Friday, November 7, 2014, at Kelley Rink in Conte Forum in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. (Melissa Wade)
Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna, on the 2018-19 Hockey East season: ‘The big story remains UMass.’ (photo: Melissa Wade).

We’re a little past the midway point in the Hockey East season, so it’s a perfect time to catch up with commissioner Joe Bertanga on a number of topics.

Here are his thoughts on everything from the explosion of UMass to the playoff race, from streaming games online, to Belfast.

On Hockey East’s improved play outside of the league:

“We seem to have done a little bit better outside of the league,” said Bertanga. “I never get too excited either way. Things go in cycles. But we do expect us to do better and they started to do so.”

Currently Hockey East is 51-44-8 in nonconference play. The major issue is that 38 of the 51 wins come against the ECAC and Atlantic Hockey, two conferences with worse records than Hockey East, which could hurt hopes in NCAA selection.

On Massachusetts and its breakout season:

“The big story remains UMass. I think [UMass and Northeastern] are two of our top three teams, in some order. I think Providence, though they’ve had some tough games recently, I still think Providence is in that conversation.

“I can’t quite figure out where [Boston College] and [Boston University] fit. BC considers this Jekyll and Hyde. BU has a lot of talent, young talent, so it’s hard to say.

“Right now, you can make a case that UMass, Northeastern and Providence have a step on the pack.”

In the commissioner’s defense, this conversation occurred last Friday before Providence feel again to Boston College. Still, most will agree the Friars have the horses to be a pretty solid team.

On Northeastern and the ability to reload as opposed to rebuild:

“I think Northeastern has done a nice job of reinventing themselves after they were solely dependent upon that one line (of Nolan Stevens, Adam Gaudette and Dylan Sikura) a season ago. They’ve been able to put new pieces together and that’s been a great addition.

“[Goaltender] Cayden Primeau continues to mature. So they’re really interesting.”

On parity in the league and the impact on Hockey East in the national tournament:

“I did the stats when I first got [to Hockey East] and if you considered the regular-season title, and a lot of those were shared, and the postseason titles, four schools (BC, BU, New Hampshire and Maine) won 90 percent of them.

“It would be interesting to go back and look at the last decade because UMass Lowell, Providence, Northeastern, UMass hasn’t won a title yet but they will be a contender, it will be intesting after this year to see those four schools and what percentage have won in the last decade.

“I’ve always said there are two things you want as a conference: you want parity, and you don’t want a drop off. You want the eight-place team to be able to beat the first place team. And you want some separation at the top because you want the team that goes to the postseason to be a legitimate [national] contender.

“If you get a number of teams in the [NCAA tournament] and they’re ranked eighth, 11th, 14th and 16th, that’s not as good. You want somebody in that top block. Our top team last year was ranked seventh (Hockey East didn’t advance a team to the Frozen Four).

“This year we might not have numbers (of teams to qualify for the NCAA tournament), but we have UMass near the top of the PairWise. Sure, there’s a lot of games to be played and we don’t want to get too excited too soon.”

On Hockey East’s new streaming deal for the quarterfinals with FloHockey and how it may impact the league going forward:

“There’s no secret that we’re being very aggressive in acquiring new properties. In my time, though, [streaming] has become quite complicated.

“The league office doesn’t have the rights to streaming. Schools still hold the rights to streaming. So playoffs are a little bit different; we have playoff jurisdiction. But when you get to the regular season, our schools are all over the map in terms of who currently streams there games, who’s invested where – and they’re all invested but some have gotten a jump on the others.

“It’s not easy to convince all 11 schools to go under one banner. Everyone wants to do what’s best for the league.

“The playoffs will be a good chance to do something with FloHockey and see how this goes. It might be a big piece to the puzzle in terms of moving forward with an aggregated regular season deal.”

On Belfast and expanding this year’s events at SSE Arena to include a women’s series in Belfast this past month:

“The women’s game [between Northeastern and Clarkson] checked off all the boxes. There had never been a women’s ice hockey game in that building of any kind. This established the first NCAA women’s game in Europe. If I was a betting man, I think there will be another year of two [women’s] teams going over, but then after, we’d turn that into a tournament so that the women can have the same experience as the men.

“We’ve got UNH, Northeastern, Princeton and Colgate for next fall’s [Friendship Four]. The host finds that the earlier you announce the teams who are going, the more likely the [school] are to have people travel. They had a pretty good alumni fan group this year.”

There is a level of enthusiasm for teams that have visited Belfast to want to return.

“I know Lowell wants to go back, Quinnipiac wants to go back, Vermont wants to go back. Not forgetting that this is a Boston-Belfast sister city relationship when it started, we’d like to continue to have a Boston presence in the tournament.”

There is a commitment for three more years at least, with a hope to have teams named for the 2020 and 2021 tournaments soon.

Bertagna noted, though, that both the Hockey East and ECAC, which founded the tournament and have provided the teams to participate, might open it up to other league members in the future.

“There have been 37 NCAA Division I men’s teams who have sent players to [play for the Belfast] Giants. This initiative of the tournament is an ECAC/Hockey East thing. There’s even some talk about going beyond the ECAC and Hockey East if we can get a large school like a Penn State or Michigan that might bring more fans.

“We like our stronghold about it. But we’re committed to go outside of that if it keeps this thing going, particularly if it grows the women’s side.”