Decade In Review: Atlantic Hockey starts 2010s as afterthought, finishes as conference to be reckoned with

Air Force players celebrate winning the Atlantic Hockey chamionship (2017 Omar Phillips)
Air Force players celebrate winning the 2017 Atlantic Hockey tournament championship (photo: Omar Phillips).

It’s hard to find a conference capable of reinventing itself as often as Atlantic Hockey.

The original “cost containment” league started the decade with a reputation for the have-nots of college hockey. It was for teams without their own rink or facility or, when the decade began, their own league.

Niagara and Robert Morris started the decade in the CHA but joined in 2011 after the league folded. Connecticut left for Hockey East. Bentley, Sacred Heart and AIC all played in municipal rinks, and message boards lit up with annual conversation about moving this team to a different league or contracting that team altogether.

That’s a stark contrast from the decade’s end and how Atlantic Hockey is a fearsome hockey conference. What began with RIT’s 2010 Frozen foreshadowed annual success at the national level. Niagara earned the league’s first, and to date only at-large bid to the 2013 NCAA tournament, but wins over the overall No. 1 seed marked a near-annual occurrence in the latter years.

That’s not to discredit the increased regular-season wins. Bentley beat Hockey East schools nearly annually, including Boston College, Boston University and Northeastern. Sacred Heart knocked off a No. 1-ranked UMass Lowell. AIC beat Penn State, as did Robert Morris. Canisius swept North Dakota. RIT beat both Ferris State and Lake Superior.

It all happened while becoming a viable home for its programs. There are no more municipal buildings, and eight teams are on campus. Of the three off-campus teams, one (Canisius) hosts the conference championship weekend, one is the defending league champion (AIC) and one ended the decade in first place (Sacred Heart).

The remaining teams all either announced or completed work to their homes. Bentley and RIT opened state-of-the-art facilities while every other team redesigned pieces of their physical home. The biggest improvement came away from all of that when the league voted to allow the maximum allowable scholarships in 2016.

What started as a cost-containment home ends the 2010s as college hockey’s growth league. There’s unprecedented stability in the last five seasons, especially after the first three seasons had three different playoff formats, including the failed divisional structure in 2011. It’s a home brimming with optimism as it stares down the future ahead, no matter how much that pavement likely changes.

Players of the Decade: Brady Ferguson, Robert Morris & Brett Gensler, Bentley

The number of truly great Atlantic Hockey players makes choosing one a near-impossibility, but both Ferguson and Gensler finished their careers with more consistent numbers.

The duo finished with an identical 167 points and a razor-thin margin of error between them.

Ferguson had a high-water mark of 58 points in 2016-17, but Gensler posted two 50-point seasons, each of which had 20 goals. Gensler averaged 1.15 points per game to Ferguson’s 1.10. Ferguson was better on special teams, and Gensler didn’t score any short-handed goals in his career, but Gensler was a better overall goal scorer. Ferguson won two regular-season conference championships and pushed to four straight semifinal game appearances, but Bentley only had one season finish over .500 before Gensler arrived.

Neither won player of the year, but Gensler finished with three First Team All-AHA selections to Ferguson’s two. Gensler won the scoring title twice; Ferguson once. Ferguson won two regular season championships, with four straight trips to the semifinals; Gensler never made it to the semifinals, but Bentley only had one season over .500 prior to his arrival.

I’ll be honest here: I didn’t want to pick Gensler for the obvious conflict of interest as Bentley’s radio announcer. The margin between the two just kept getting more and more razor-thin as I looked deeper.

Team of the Decade: Air Force

Atlantic Hockey loves to pride itself on chaos and parity, but the decade still belonged to two teams. Air Force and RIT combined for seven championship banners, winning a three-year span to begin the decade and a four-year span right before the end. It built a western dominance to the league unbroken until this past season’s championship by AIC.

But if the decade is defined by those two teams’ ability to churn out championships, the margin for error boils down to two years: 2011 and 2012. Air Force beat RIT in each of those seasons to remain perfect in championship game appearances. Had RIT won one of those matchups, it’s a very different conversation.

Honorable mention to Robert Morris, which went to four straight championship games, winning one. Including 2019, the Colonials ended the decade with six trips to the conference championship weekend in seven seasons in the league.