Between the Lines
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
As you could imagine, we received more mail, and more passionate mail, about the Vermont column from the last BTL than any other topic.
I wanted to take the time to run some of these letters, and respond a bit. Most of what I received, even from those who vehemently disagreed, were very thoughtful and reasoned responses. For that, I am thankful.
Perhaps in the future, we will revisit the situation, or do a whole column on the letters I received. But too many other issues have cropped up recently, and they can't be ignored. So, I'll bid farewell to the Vermont issue for now.
Which is not to say it will be forgotten. I think the message of the whole issue should be, more than any other, that we should not forget what happened, or what happens all over.
Before moving on, however, if I can quickly summarize a public response to what I responded privately to many people: I reiterate, I do not condone the behavior of the Vermont hockey players in any way, shape or form. I do, however, believe that we have to ask "why" this behavior exists, rather than simply punishing it without exploring it in all of its complexities. The actions should not be forgiven, but they should be understood in their context.
The NCAA has listened to hockey and amended the current amateurism deregulation proposal to maintain the status quo for U.S. junior-A leagues, Tier II and the prep schools.
Otherwise, the notion of opening up college sports to anyone, no matter where they previously played, stands. This includes ex-major junior players.
Of course, men's basketball is trying to squelch the whole thing, with many of their coaches complaining that it opens too big of a can of worms when it comes to recruiting. How will the NCAA regulate things, they say, such as the number of recruiting visits each team is allowed, when you have start recruiting now from places like the CBA?
Hockey has many of the same concerns. For example, it will make coaches' lives a lot harder because many teams will start recruiting overlooked players that may be in some of the low minor leagues. Some teams may have the resources to expand their recruiting budget, but some won't.
I don't think hockey has been as vociferous on this — at least, not yet — because they were so worried about the junior and prep school implications. But I don't think they should be worried about it at all.
Part of the deregulation means you can have played anywhere before, but it also means that, if you played outside of college after age 18, you have to sit out a year in residence, and lose a year of eligibility for each year played. Say a kid playing in the ECHL left juniors at 18 and played a year in the minors. Is that kid going to want to go to college, sit out a year, and then be allowed to play just three more years? Maybe some will, but it won't be many.
And what we have to remember is, the kids that will want to do that will be doing it because they see they made a mistake in going pro or to major juniors, and want to go back to school instead. So often, the NCAA gets in the way and actually investigates kids right out of school, when the goal should be getting as many kids into school as possible — especially the ones who actually want to be there. Instead, here, the NCAA is actually helping the kids to have more choices while recognizing that having played in major juniors or the low minors doesn't give that kid an unfair competitive advantage.
Some people are excited because of the extra good players that could come into college hockey. But the bottom line is, this is for the kids.
If men's basketball was behind it, deregulation probably would've been passed already. Instead, we'll have to wait until that group wakes up and smells the coffee.
Fly In the Ointment
What happened to our nice, cut-and-dried process for selecting the NCAA field?
While that process still exists, now we've got Quinnipiac and Niagara trying to muck the whole thing up.
Let's start by saying that we've received some very passionate e-mail from fans of both of these programs regarding their support for inclusion in the NCAA tournament. At Quinnipiac, I think even the coach and administrators know they won't get a bid.
Niagara is a little more tricky, but most of the reasons I've heard for their inclusion are completely invalid. I've heard about all the good teams they've beaten, and all the good teams they've had close losses to, and how they're among the nation's leaders in goal-scoring and team defense, etc...
Good wins and close losses are, in and of themselves, irrelevant. You could point to almost any team in the nation and find a string of good wins and close losses. The only thing that matters is your season in total, and how the five selection criteria rank compared to the other teams under consideration.
In regards to some of Niagara's more gaudy statistics, it must be remembered the competition these numbers were compiled against. This is not to take anything away from Niagara's players, some of whom are top-flight, especially goalie Greg Gardner. But their strength of schedule cannot be summarily dismissed. You might want to argue that their strength of schedule is irrelevant when citing these numbers and backing an argument for inclusion in the NCAA Tournament, but I don't think you'd find many people who'd agree with you.
So, dismissing the above arguments, we are still left with the fact that Niagara is currently eighth in the Pairwise, and that's based completely on criteria, right?
Here's the problem: In basketball, the RPI (ratings percentage index, which is used only as a guide in choosing the basketball field) is determined by weighting your winning percentage 25%, your opponent's winning percentage 50% and your opponent's opponents winning percentage 25%. This, combined with the fact that there are a lot more men's basketball teams, helps weed out the teams from weaker conferences that have great records.
But hockey's RPI breakdown is 35-50-15, meaning your own winning percentage has much more to do with your RPI.
Furthermore, the men's ice hockey committee uses a strict set of criteria when determining who should be in the tournament. The process can be confusing, but it is precise, and leaves nothing up to chance. The committee takes a team's set of five criteria, and matches them with the criteria for another team (commonly known as a "comparison"), and in that way, determines what team is "better" among the two.
But because the criteria includes things like the aforementioned RPI, record in your last 16 games, and record against other Teams Under Consideration (other .500-or-better teams), your criteria can be tainted in your favor by playing a weaker conference schedule than other schools.
The other two criteria — record against common opponents, and head-to-head record — are much more indicative of your strength relative to another team, but they are only two of the five.
As such, the NCAA ice hockey committee realized their system would not do a good job of handling teams like Quinnipiac, which has a tremendous overall record and would otherwise make the tournament under the criteria outlined above. So the committee imparted their sole subjective criterion into the mix: they voted to reserve the right to exclude a team based on their "conference RPI," i.e., relative strength of the conference.
Despite the arbitrary nature of that definition, there's no question from a common-sense standpoint that Quinnipiac doesn't deserve an NCAA bid. Sorry, guys, I love ya, and you and the MAAC as a whole are great for college hockey, but your time isn't here yet.
But, all that being said, I support Niagara's inclusion in the NCAA tournament.
Niagara, as I mentioned, is currently eighth in the Pairwise, the system used to help mimic the NCAA's selection process. In this system, Niagara has enough "comparison" wins against enough other teams to otherwise justify their selection.
However, their conference, the CHA, is, by all rights, no better than the MAAC.
So, the essential question comes down to, on what basis should the committee decide whether to exclude Niagara because of the conference RPI? I don't know what the committee's answer will be, but I know what my answer would be.
To me, the question is not "how many goals have they scored?" or "How many close losses do they have?" or what kind of wild statistics I can point to.
To me, the only question should be, do their head-to-head comparison wins warrant being considered? And are those comparison wins legitimate? You can make the argument that they are. And once you believe that, you have to let them in based on those comparison wins.
Whatever team Niagara knocks off the bubble is going to be pretty sour about the whole thing, I'm sure. They will make the argument that the CHA's conference RPI is lousy, and that therefore Niagara shouldn't be included. They will say that we can't just forget the fact that Niagara has all those wins against the CHA.
Well, this is true, but even throwing all of those wins out, we then have to look to their non-conference wins to see if those are justification for inclusion. Do they have enough of them to justify using the PWR as a valid indicator? Remember, the committee doesn't have to consider Niagara's conference RPI, it only reserves the right to. I look at Niagara as akin to an independent.
To go into it a little more closely, and with an analytical eye, you have to consider Niagara's individual comparisons against other teams under consideration. Are those comparison wins tainted by things like record in the Last 16 games (a criterion where Niagara clearly has an unfair advantage due to weaker competition), or do they come because of categories like record vs. common opponents. If it's the latter, than the comparison wins are justifiable.
So, looking at it closely, their comparison wins against BU, BC, Clarkson, CC, Cornell, Lake Superior, Michigan State, Northern Michigan, Providence and Rensselaer are all just as valid as anyone else's. (Ironically, they lose the head-to-head comparison with Quinnipiac.)
Niagara does have five of what you might call "tainted" comparison wins. Against Colgate and North Dakota, Niagara ties in comparison points, but wins the tiebreaker based on their relative RPI. Against Minnesota, St. Cloud and Ferris State, the RPI and record in the last 16 are clearly determining factors.
I'd call those tainted because they benefit Niagara as a consequence of the Purple Eagles' weak conference schedule. But take away those five comparison wins, and what are you left with? You're left with Niagara still ranked 13th in the PWR, or 12th if you exclude Quinnipiac.
What this tells me is, the committee should not flat-out dismiss Niagara based on conference strength. And once they determine not to do that, they have to let Niagara in based on the comparisons.
If Niagara hadn't lost its game with Canisius, things would be a little clearer. But that's a huge rivalry game against a nearby opponent, and, remember, the whole idea here is to not look at things in microcosm.
But I think what this all says is, if the committee wants to continue to use a completely objective system, based solely on criteria, it must change its criteria. The criteria used, and the system of comparisons, is not meant to handle large irregularities in schedule strength. It can handle some differences, but not when there are teams with overwhelmingly weak schedules relative to the other conferences.
Thing is, if we get what we want, which is more teams playing Division I ice hockey, then this situation is only going to get worse. The criteria system works because the relative strength of the four major conferences is pretty close. But what if we get closer to basketball, where there are a number of power conference, a number of mid-major conferences and, finally, the weak conferences like the Patriot League?
What happens this weekend could make some of this invalid by the time you read it. But, in essence, I say put Niagara in.
Recently, the media and coaches were asked to select an ECAC All-Decade team. Ever willing to get into heated debates, I jumped in the fray.
Let me tell you, this was tough.
First off, I made a philosophical decision to eliminate players who played at least half their time before the '90s. Undoubtedly, there were people who picked Joe Juneau, but he played mostly in the '80s. Additionally, I really hope everyone knew better than to pick someone like John LeClair. Not only did he play from 1987-91, but his college career was not anything near what his NHL career became.
A lot of this was like splitting hairs, and there's certainly plenty of justification for other guys, so, if I left off your favorite player, try not to kill me:
Goalie: 1) Tim Thomas, Vermont 2) Neil Little, RPI (Honorable Mention: Dan Murphy, Eric Heffler, Todd Sullivan, Joel Laing, Les Kuntar, Jason Elliot, Allain Roy)
Defense: 1) Brian Mueller, Clarkson 2) Daniel Laperriere, St. Lawrence 3) Ray Giroux, Yale 4) Sean McCann, Harvard (Honorable Mention: Dave Tretowicz, Sean O'Brien, Mike Brewer, Dan Ratushny)
Forwards: 1) Martin St. Louis, Vermont 2) Craig Conroy, Clarkson 3) Mike Lappin, St. Lawrence 4) Eric Perrin, Vermont 5) Mike Harder, Colgate 6) Todd White, Clarkson
(Honorable Mention: Ted Drury, Ted Donato, Peter Ciavaglia, Joe Juneau, Paul DiFrancesco, Eric Healey, Hugo Belanger, Burke Murphy, Jeff Halpern)
I know, I know, I have four forwards from the Class of '97 in there, but I couldn't help it.
When I started covering college hockey, in the late '80s, the ECAC was filled with players who would go on to have great pro careers, many in the NHL. In fact, college hockey as a whole had increased its production of NHL players steadily throughout the 80s. But around 1993 or so, things seemed to taper off, especially in the ECAC. And it's worth noting that, around this time, the ECAC stopped regularly sending teams to the NCAA Final (now Frozen) Four.
But by 1996, without my realizing it, things were changing back. It's only now that I realize how special the year 1997 was. Even looking back at the famous Michigan-BU NCAA semifinal in Milwaukee, I marvel at how many future NHL players participated in that game.
Consider the Hobey finalists from that year: Jason Blake, Randy Robitaille, St. Louis, Harder, White, Brendan Morrison, Chris Drury, John Madden, Brian Swanson and Mike Crowley — all except Harder and Swanson have tasted the NHL, some very prominently.
Fight the Good Fight
Here we go again.
Every year about this time, the NCAA makes its annual declaration that on-line media sites will not be credentialed to cover the NCAA men's basketball tournament.
Says NCAA media director Jim Marchiony, "There's just a finite amount of seats and space, and there's no legitimate way to distinguish between legitimate and non-legitimate Web sites."
Since our sport of college hockey is not widely covered by traditional media on a national scale, operations like U.S. College Hockey Online are recognized by the NCAA as a viable media outlet. They have no problem letting us cover the hockey championships. So maybe I should keep my mouth shut. Well, I can't, on principle. We in the online media, and those of you who have come to respect it, must stick together.
As the famous (shortened) quote goes, "They first came for the Communists and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the Jews and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. ... Then they came for me and by that time there was no one left to speak up." (— Pastor Martin Niemoller, 1892-1984)
So, I've written this open letter to Mr. Marchiony:
Dear Mr. Marchiony, I've read today's AP article (copied below) with a lot of dismay. Though it saddens me, I can't say it shocked me to hear, yet again, that the NCAA will flatly deny credentials to online media sources. Your comments, about not being able to distinguish who the "legitimate" web sites are, are the same ones made three years ago. At that time, I wrote a commentary to the NCAA News, which they published, expressing why I believed online media are legitimate, and how everyone should get used to it. At the same time, I understood the need to weed out certain web sites, and therefore laid out what I still believe are solid criteria for determining which web sites are "legitimate" and which ones aren't.
(Here is the link to my original commentary on the NCAA News web site, dated May 15, 1997: www.ncaa.org/news/970519/comment.html#2.)
I asked then, and I ask now (since nothing seems to have changed in three years): what makes a tiny printed publication better than an online publication? Distinguishing between two media organizations solely based upon the medium in which they publish their message is unfairly arbitrary and shortsighted, not to mention the legal implications (which I don't know enough about to comment on, and wouldn't have enough money to fight for anyway).
Since I deal with college hockey, a much less-covered sport, my group doesn't have these problems. But I fight for the principle. I have a very good relationship with many people in the NCAA, and am far from an NCAA-basher. But I don't understand this continued line of thinking.
I truly hope you will re-examine your credentialing guidelines in the summer, as you say you will. However, I heard the same thing three years ago.
I am sympathetic to your space limitations, but a method for distinguishing between legitimate media organizations and fly-by-night groups exists, whether they be online media or not.
AOL just bought Time Warner ... If this doesn't signal to the NCAA that something a little revolutionary is going on here, something "legitimate," then I don't know what will.
Regards, Adam Wodon
I actually received a response to this already ...
Mr. Wodon: Appreciate your thoughts. We've conducted discussions with selected on-line entities and will continue to do so in an effort to develop a policy. For now the basketball committee has elected to keep the current policy.
Jim Marchiony Director of the Division I Men's Basketball Championship, Media
Between the ...
It was recently announced that Worcester was awarded the bids to host the Eastern Regionals in 2002 and 2003. This is in addition to 2001, which they were already set to host.
Some may read into it and say that the NCAA did this in anticipation of the ice hockey tournament going to 16 teams next year (something which still needs approval of the Management Council), knowing they would need another site when a four-regional setup was created.
That's certainly what I read into it.
But, actually, that's not the case. Even though the NCAA sidestepped around an answer, apparently, they received no other bids. Or, at least nothing resembling a legitimate bid. Albany, which has hosted in recent alternating years with Worcester, including this year, will not have the Pepsi Center available in 2002 and 2003 because of other NCAA events they won bids on, such as the wrestling championships and the men's basketball East Regionals.
The anniversary of the U.S. hockey win over the Soviet Union was a couple of weeks ago, and it was widely covered nationally — as it should be.
I don't write this now because I'm unique, but because I know there's so many others like me, and I wanted to share my story.
I wasn't quite 10 years old when those Olympics started. But for some reason, I was always aware, and somewhat interested, in current events and politics, even as a kid. So, I think I had a decent sense about how the game was about much more than just hockey.
The hostage situation, still 11 months away from being over, was something I followed. When their release was imminent, I brought a tiny transistor radio to school so I could update my fifth-grade teacher of the news.
Personally, it was the first Olympics I could remember. Well, I vaguely remembered the 1976 summer games in Montreal, but not really. And when you're 10, four years seems like an eternity. That's why I was so upset we weren't going to be in the Summer Olympics, and so fired up for the Winter Olympics. I wrote school papers about it and everything.
From a hockey standpoint, I was the first fan of the sport in my family. My dad used to let me fall asleep with the TV on, and there was always a Rangers or Islanders game on broadcast TV at the time.
With all of these things put together, from a personal standpoint, defeating the Soviet Union and then winning the gold medal was an incredible moment, even for a 10-year old.
Never again will we see the confluence of events that led to the atmosphere that surrounded those Winter Olympics. President Carter had already announced a boycott of the summer games, inflation was skyrocketing, unemployment was at a peak, the hostages, the Soviets in Afghanistan.
The implications on a world scale were enormous, if for nothing else than it made us feel good about ourselves for a little while. Does the fact that this came as a result of sporting event make that feeling invalid? I don't think so.
I've been to Lake Placid many times since then, mostly covering the ECAC tournament. A lot of people hate going, because getting there is a royal pain. It's far away and tucked in the middle of nowhere, with twisting, snowy, two-lane roads your only access into town.
But I love it. I love it because it's a classic upstate New York small town, it's beautiful, and because the place just breathes hockey whenever the tournament is there. It's like the largest-ever meeting of the Moose Lodge convention, with all these people representing all these different teams coming together to celebrate their sport and take over the town.
But more than that, I just can't help feeling a sense of wonder from being there. As a hockey fan, and more importantly, as a U.S. hockey fan, I get the same feeling there that people must get when they visit their holy land. You ride into town on a two-lane road, and there's this enormous ski jump to your left, and you can't believe how big it is. Then you make your way to Main Street, and you ask yourself, how in the world did they host a Winter Olympics here? The street is so tiny. The Olympic speed skating oval is on the front lawn of the local high school, for cryin' out loud. Then you step into that arena, and envision what happened there.
People often ask, where would you go if there was one place in time you could visit. I always say, Main Street in Lake Placid, after the U.S. beat the Soviets in 1980.
Of course, the implications purely from the standpoint of the interest in hockey in the United States is enormous, and still being felt. Clearly, hockey still lags behind other sports in the U.S., but in terms of growth, it is way beyond the others.
Would the 1996 World Cup win have ever happened if not for 1980? Is it a coincidence that most of the players from the 1996 teams were kids, like me, in 1980?
In 1980, the players on the U.S. Olympic team came from four states, led by Minnesota. Today, that would never happen. There are numerous areas of this country producing players now that may never even knew hockey existed before 1980. The kids currently enrolled in college were born right about that time, and the numbers cited here — counting all D-I players — reflect that.
One hotbed waiting to happen is my native Long Island. When I was growing up, there was one rink within a 25-mile radius of my house. We all played street hockey endlessly, but none of us knew how to skate. Remember, this was the time when the Islanders were dominating the NHL, and hockey was huge.
Today, there are at least a dozen rinks in that same radius, and the number of Long Islanders in Division I hockey is now 23, including two from my old neighborhood, and two sons of ex-Islanders — Michigan's Andrew Merrick and Notre Dame's Brett Henning. This number will only get bigger.
A similar tale can be told in Pennsylvania, which can be broken into Eastern Pa. (Philly) and Western Pa. (Pittsburgh). New rinks pop up in these areas like 7-11s, and the minute they do, they are booked for months in advance. The increasing accessibility to rinks has helped produce 10 D-I players from Eastern Pa., and 14 from the West.
Illinois has just exploded in recent years. The Chicago area was always a bit farther ahead than New York and Philadelphia, but it has taken off and now claims 46 D-I players from its ranks.
But then there's some of the more obscure states, like Iowa (3), Maryland/Virginia (6), Missouri (9), Florida (1), Arizona (3), California (9), Utah (1), Nebraska (3), Texas (1), Washington (8), Georgia (1), Montana (1) and Ohio (4).
Some hockey people aren't sure this is a trend pointing to something huge. They say players still have to go away from home to attend junior programs or prep schools, and that's who is developing the players.
It's true that until that changes, things won't really explode in those areas. But there's no doubt that some pockets have already seen the explosion, and I think hockey's growth ability is still humongous. There was a time when you wouldn't see a player from those areas at all, never mind where they got their hockey education.
New Jersey, which has done a great job of producing players, still has room for growth. The Long Island and Pennsylvania areas are on the cusp of exploding. And I fully expect to see a lot more players from Iowa and Nebraska, which, from a fan-base perspective, have been hockey havens for minor league and junior teams. And let's not forget Texas and California, with huge populations, tons of minor league and NHL hockey, and plenty of room to grow.
The parents in these minor league hotbeds are falling in love with the local teams, and their kids are begging them to play hockey. Rinks are popping up all over, and participation has skyrocketed. One of these days, this has to come to fruition in the form of more quality D-I hockey players from all over the country.
I'm also excited about programs like "Hockey in Harlem," which the New York Rangers have participated in for years. Inner city youths are held back by the high cost of hockey equipment and ice time, something that wasn't so easy for us suburbanites either.
"Hockey is exploding everywhere," says Ferris State head coach Bob Daniels, who coaches Kevin Caudill, a California native. "It's just the tip of the iceberg. There's old hotbeds for recruiting, but the mold is starting to break. Players are players as long as they have access to ice. You're going to see players from all 50 states. It's a positive. It's definitely something that's been brewing for a while."
By the way, the Melting Pot Award goes to Sacred Heart, which has players from Long Island (4, including one from Brooklyn), Massachusetts (3), California (1), New Jersey (2), Rhode Island (2), Michigan (1), France (1), Alaska (1), Washington (1), Saskatoon (1), Quebec (2), Ontario (3), Pennsylvania (1), Connecticut (1) and Montana (1).
On the Flip Side
On the other hand, we have Minnesota, which has recruited solely from one state, its own, for over a decade.
But the times, they are a changin' in Minneapolis, and first-year head coach Don Lucia recently received a verbal commitment from — gasp — a North Dakota native. His name is Grant Potulny and he's from Grand Forks.
Is this a sign Minnesota is getting with the times, or is it the beginning of the fall of Western Civilization, as some Gophers would have us believe?
The best summation of the history behind the Gophers' all-Minnesota recruiting policy came from a reader named Doug Peterson. He writes:
"The focus on in-state recruiting started with the John Mariucci period, about 1952 through 1966. You have to keep in mind his purpose which was to promote hockey in the state of Minnesota. He felt if there wasn't a place for hockey players at the lower, or younger, levels to go then hockey wouldn't develop and grow in the state. One way he did that was through providing them opportunities to play at the University of Minnesota.
"Mariucci wasn't a purist though. He wanted a good program, that was part of the promotion as well. He did recruit from Canada. It may not have been a lot, but he did. However, promotion wasn't just recruiting, it was active development of hockey programs in the state. He went around the state 'lobbying' and speaking. While he was a coach, 160+ hockey rinks were built in the state. He also was active in promoting the development of the University of Minnesota-Duluth hockey program. Later on he actively encouraged Herb Brooks to take the job at St. Cloud and bring it up to Division I.
"I think you can argue about whether the purpose still exists. I think it does to a degree, but that the role of the University of Minnesota doesn't have to be the same. There are now five Division I schools there [in the state of Minnesota].
"An interesting side discussion has also been the cost savings of the recruiting policy. Did it really save money to recruit in-state? It depends on whether you can tell the wooden nickels from the real ones. At a hockey department level it might matter to the department on the cost of scholarships, but that depends on how the budgets are done and how the wooden nickels are moved around. ...
"The problem I see is that it seemed like [ex-coach Doug] Woog was a purist without a purpose. It seemed he was more interested in promoting the all-Minnesota policy than promoting the development of hockey in Minnesota. He may have hurt more than he helped."
Since we like to bring everything full circle in this column, how about Nebraska-Omaha? That area has successfully supported junior hockey, and is absolutely bonkers over the UNO Mavericks. Reading the Omaha World-Herald story about their win over Bowling Green this week to get to Joe Louis Arena for the CCHA semifinals, and the reaction of the crowd, gave me chills.
Compare their success to that of UMass. In just three short years, Nebraska-Omaha, starting from scratch, has built something the whole state can be proud of. Not everyone can expect to be UNO, but you expect to see progress, especially when you have the Mullins Center and UMass' resources. And UNO has more to look forward to, as kids from their area grow into legit D-I players, and look to stay home to play.
And to bring things full circle once and for all ...
There's some talk that Niagara head coach Blaise McDonald could be in line for a Hockey East coaching job, if an opening comes about. But while he certainly deserves one, I would hate to see it. He has done an amazing job at Niagara. He has the respect of a lot of people, and was therefore able to build a tough non-league schedule, and he has used that to recruit some top-notch players. The hockey world needs more solid programs — not just someone building a new solid program, then leaving to go back to an established program.
But, of course, it's his decision. I'm hoping he won't leave Niagara, but it's his prerogative to do so, and it's no one else's right to be mad at him if he does.