Despite changes, conference stays the same
The winds of change have been shaking up the college hockey landscape with the proposed Big Ten and National Collegiate Hockey conferences scheduled to open play in the 2013-14 season.
And Notre Dame added to the ruckus by annoucing it will join Hockey East in 2013-14.
So far, the only league spared upheaval is Atlantic Hockey.
Despite rumors that Air Force could be a defector in two years, commissioner Bob DeGregorio said the conference remains intact for now.
“I don’t think the season ever ended with all the moving that has been going on,’’ said DeGregorio, who will be on hand when Air Force opens the 2011-12 campaign against North Dakota at Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks, N.D., tomorrow. “It’s absolutely crazy.’’
DeGregorio said some aspects of the shifting landscape are positive, but others are troubling.
“First of all, Penn State adding Division 1 ice hockey is a great thing,’’ he said. “The fact that they formed a new league is a great thing and hopefully they’ll grow that Big Ten league. What I think was a bad thing was that everybody panicked. Instead of seeing how things worked out, and we’re talking about 14 of them starting the Big Ten, people started forming new leagues and breaking up leagues and asking schools to leave leagues. It’s a smaller scale of what’s going on with the big powers of the ACC and the SEC in football. But when you’re the commissioner of one sport and you have 12 members, and you’re trying to protect the integrity of the league, it does create problems.’’
Some of the Atlantic teams were approached about making a move, most notably Niagara, Mercyhurst, Canisius and Robert Morris, which were wooed by the incredible shrinking CCHA. The league wanted to meet with Air Force and RIT, which responded with a no thanks.
“There were members from our league who were approached to leave,’’ acknowledged DeGregorio, who said Air Force as late as this week said it is in Atlantic Hockey for the long haul. “First of all, you have to recognize that every institution has the right to determine their own destiny and make the decision they feel is in the best interest of their institution. To date, knock on wood, all 12 are staying with us, so we are intact, we are whole.
“Over the next two years, could something happen? Something could happen next week. My biggest concern is obviously still we have an independent out there - Alabama-Huntsville - and they’re probably going to remain an independent because none of the new leagues are interested in them because of the travel, and it’s very disappointing. There’s a problem now if there are other institutions who are considering moving their Division 1 men’s hockey program, where do they go?’’
DeGregorio said there’s no way any program can survive as an independent in these times because it’s impossible to get a season-long schedule.
“If you look at the makeup of the leagues coming into February, as an independent, you have no games in the month of February because it’s league competition right down to the wire. Then you have the league playoffs [etc.], so who are they going to play?’’ he said.
Hockey East will have 11 members in 2013-14 and that could mean the league will want a 12th member. Potentially UConn could be the one, or Quinnipiac. DeGregorio said he’ll cross that bridge when and if the league gets to it.
DeGregorio is focusing on the high expectations for the league this season. Not only are Air Force, RIT and Army expected to be terrific, but UConn and Holy Cross should be contenders as well.
“I think we’ve done very well,’’ he said. “I remember the first time I brought up expansion to the board of directors and it was not met with overwhelming support but then, after we went through the process, they really saw a value in Air Force and RIT, which were the first two we brought in. Obviously, their programs made us better. We gave them a home but their programs if you look at how strong they are, they’ve actually made everybody else better.’’
When the Atlantic absorbed Robert Morris and Niagara, the perception was that the league saved them. DeGregorio said not so fast.
“If it wasn’t for the fact that their institutions were committed to Division 1 hockey and the fact they had such strong programs, if they were just wishy-washy programs, they wouldn’t have gotten in,’’ he said. “We wouldn’t have been at 12 but the fact that they showed commitment, and they had reputations already established at the Division 1 level, it was an easy take for us and they’ve made the league better. In one year, they’ve made the league better.’’
The Atlantic is heading into its ninth year and will have a new playoff format with the top four teams earning a bye. The first round will be a best-of-three format. Teams in other conferences have learned that the Atlantic conference is one to be reckoned with.
“It’s a dogfight and if you’re not ready on a night you play a team in our league, you’re going to get beat,’’ said DeGregorio. “No one has a soft schedule. Everybody has a nonleague schedule that is exceptional. We’re very, very competitive.’’
And intact. For now.
Nancy Marrapese-Burrell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.