Between the Lines: ECAC's Winter Calm
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
After an autumn of discontent around the ECAC, things are settling down.
The departure of Jeff Fanter as ECAC Ice Hockey Commissioner, just before the season started, came as the league was being criticized by its own coaches for not doing enough to promote itself, followed by a minor restructuring of the ECAC hierarchy. These kind of events again led to questions about the ECAC's place in the college hockey world.
The ECAC already has a longstanding image problem. Some college hockey fans believe the ECAC contains a bunch of pretenders, and that the conference is not to be taken seriously as a whole.
Many of these image problems are a result of the very nature of the conference itself. The WCHA, CCHA and Hockey East are all self-contained, hockey-only entities. The ECAC, according to many, is such a behemoth, it gets in its own way and, even if by accident, neglects hockey.
Whether any of this still is, or ever was, the reality is not the issue. The perception exists, and anyone who doesn't acknowledge that reality is kidding themselves.
I have long been a defender of the ECAC, but any objective fan has to admit that, as a whole, the teams in the ECAC are just a shade below the caliber of the other three major conferences — the record out of conference and in the NCAA tournament provides overwhelming evidence of that.
Still, perception is far worse than reality. The ECAC is the most competitive conference in the nation during league play, top to bottom, and is highly competitive outside the conference as well. The ECAC has had enough very high-quality teams over the years to justify being included as a power conference.
But sometimes, the league does things that are hard to defend, serving to throw more fuel on its detractors' fires.
Two years ago, Joe Bertagna left his part-time job with the ECAC to take the full-time job as Hockey East Commissioner. The ECAC then hired Jeff Fanter, a former assistant SID at Colgate, to be its first full-time commissioner.
I didn't like the move at the time, and I don't like it now, simply because hiring someone with no administrative background, and who wasn't necessarily a "hockey guy," made the appointment look like nothing more than a glorified SID, and seemed to exhibit a lack of understanding by the ECAC over how best to serve its member schools.
Could Fanter plausibly fight the fight for the conference against, or together with, the likes of hockey heavyweights like Bertagna and WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod? For example, recently McLeod has gone to bat for hockey against the NCAA over its proposal to deregulate amateurism. The perception was that Fanter could simply never have had the kind of clout needed for those kinds of battles.
And when he announced he was leaving to pursue a job as an assistant SID at Indiana, it reinforced that perception in some minds.
There are those who protest this depiction of events over the last two years, at least publicly.
"Jeff did good things with sponsorships, by raising the interest level of the league," says Cornell coach Mike Schafer.
But Schafer himself, while staying away from individual criticisms, has knocked the league on various occasions. He's been unhappy with the way the league publicizes itself and with the TV contract, asking why Lynah Rink is again not scheduled to host a TV game, and has looked into a side deal for Cornell with the Empire Sports Network.
"I'd love to get a deal with Empire, but it's hard to negotiate during the season," he said. "We play in a great atmosphere, but we haven't hosted a home game [on TV] in the last years. It's supposed to be league policy to showcase arenas with a great environment."
Ironically, considering his background, Fanter didn't necessarily get along with the media, either. Now, I know the difficulties involved in the inside of a sports operation. I know that public is often skewered unfairly toward the negative. I know that, while honesty is usually the best policy, being totally forthcoming isn't always the most practical way to handle a situation.
But being a positive force in the advancement of hockey does not have to be mutually exclusive to the idea of a free press. It's just as wrong when the media is unfair and ignorant, but a fair and constructive dialogue is necessary and healthy. Administrators should know that at least some of the media want nothing more than the health and well-being of the sport we love.
Nonetheless, the ECAC's problems pre-date Fanter, and they haven't gone away since he left. But Fanter's departure spurred a minor restructuring that should have major positive effects; indications are that the ECAC is moving away from its old thinking.
Steve Hagwell has replaced Fanter in the league office, and last year, Phil Buttafuoco replaced Clayton Chapman as the overseer of the entire ECAC, which doles out championships and awards in all sports, but only has jurisdiction over hockey.
Buttafuoco and Hagwell worked together at the NCAA for years, where they both worked with hockey — Buttafuoco as overseer of the Division I championship. Where Fanter had no administrative background, but was given universal control, Buttafuoco and Hagwell will work together to their strengths. That means Buttafuoco will use his strong relationships in the hockey world as well as his administrative experience for the benefit of the league.
"Phil is taking an active role," says Hagwell. "We're here to serve. It's what I love to do. I don't need to be the overseer, or the king. Phil will handle discipline. He has a good rapport with the [athletic directors].
"We are a service organization. We work for the coaches. I'm certain Phil understands [hockey's importance]. But we haven't had a chance to discuss philosophy because we're trying to get our hands around everything. It would be different if the change happened in June, but it was recent."
Hagwell inherited a couple more hiccups, including anger from league SIDs over the idea not to publish a league media guide, and the dreaded Hockey News Fiasco.
For its preview issue, The Hockey News offered each Division I conference extra space for an advertising supplement. At the cost of $2500, the conference could put in anything it wanted. The ECAC was the only conference that decided to pass. This infuriated coaches, and left the impression that The Hockey News was purposefully dissing the ECAC. Coaches were up in arms.
"It's a major mistake by our league," said Schafer in Ken Schott's college hockey column in the Schenectady (N.Y.) Gazette.
At the time, Buttafuoco said, "The decision was made that there were no areas we wanted to cut back in the budget to cover the cost of that advertisement."
St. Lawrence coach Joe Marsh said each school could've kicked in $200 and the league the extra $100. "I would've paid for that out of my own pocket," he said in Schott's column. "Or we could have a bottle drive."
Yale coach Tim Taylor agreed, but like everyone else, falls far short of placing the blame on any individuals.
"We should do everything we can to enhance the image of the league," Taylor said. "As coaches, it's frustrating, obviously. Some leagues with publicity are on a very fast track. We have to jump in.
"[But] we shouldn't make it a big political issue. It just fell through the cracks."
Hagwell says that it has been addressed.
"It was an unfortunate incident that should never have occurred. It won't happen again."
The shame of it all continues to be the way these missteps reinforce people's perceptions of the on-ice product. ECAC teams are subject to disrespect by others, and the overall talent level of the ECAC, compared to the other major conferences, is slightly lower. Denying that is silly. But when you consider the academic quality and philosophies of the schools involved, ECAC teams should be commended for their competitive standards.
I'll never forget the reaction in Albany during the 1996 NCAA East Regional, when some folks got to see Vermont's Martin St. Louis and Eric Perrin for the first time. Despite three seasons worth of accolades to that point, even inside hockey people didn't believe how good that duo was. The look on their faces as the game with Lake Superior unfolded was priceless.
But the ECAC's hiccups distract from getting that message out. Did you know that the ECAC pages on this site get almost as many hits as all the other conferences combined? You do now.
"As coaches we're out there fighting the wars, and we hear this [negative] stuff [about the league]," said Marsh. "Our league is competitive. I'm so sick of hearing this. How can you say this is an inferior league? You've got six Ivy [League] schools, Colgate, RPI, St. Lawrence — these are great schools. And let's talk about our graduation rate.
"I think parents, before they listen to all this stuff on the Internet, they should take a good hard look.
"I think in having the resources and the infrastructure that allows you to move the sport [forward], we have a ways to go, but I think other leagues do too."
Part of the solution is having an administrator who follows the philosophy that what's good for hockey is good for the ECAC.
But the ECAC's organizational structure often prevents it from having this philosophy. Since the other conferences (except the second-year MAAC) are hockey only, everyone knows where their concerns are. But, rightly or wrongly, because the ECAC is a multi-sport, multi-leveled behemoth, the hockey-playing schools cannot be convinced that the conference's concerns are always about hockey.
"It wouldn't hurt as long as we have our commissioner in place within the framework of the ECAC," says Taylor.
The MAAC seems to have done very well for itself, using its nature as a multi-sport conference to its benefit. Its administrators have been power brokers at the wide-scale, NCAA level, and can push to get things done.
The difference with the ECAC is, it has no jurisdiction over the other sports it oversees. It's a monstrous multi-sport conference, without any of the multi-sport power — or at least no evidence of it.
This isn't necessarily the ECAC's fault, but it has to acknowledge this fact and do something about it, or risk further alienating the ECAC hockey programs.
This is why, in the past, I have advocated wholesale departure from the ECAC. Just like the current Hockey East teams left the ECAC and formed their own conference, the current ECAC schools could do the same. Nothing would have had to change in the way of academic requirements, scheduling, licensing, Lake Placid, and so forth.
Whispers persist that such an idea has actually been discussed, though no one will talk much about it. But one ECAC insider went so far as to say that getting it done "wouldn't be as difficult as you might think."
Now, with Buttafuoco and Hagwell at the top, I am again hopeful. There is much to be done, but they should be given the opportunity to do it. But if other image problems come up, you may see the revolution that's bubbling under the surface rise to the top very quickly.
"I'd like to let Phil have a little time to prove himself," says Taylor. "He's obviously a powerful man in terms of the NCAA experience. It's great that we've got him in our corner."