Between the Lines: Oct. 26, 2005
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Last week, we saw College Hockey America's future jeopardized by Kennesaw State's decision to halt a plan to start a Division I hockey program.
If the CHA can't maintain six teams, it will lose its automatic NCAA bid. If this happens, it would have a severely detrimental ripple effect on college hockey.
Some will say — big deal, it's only the CHA. But the beauty of college sports, especially hockey, is having these mix of schools, and the NCAA tournament benefits from these potential Cinderella stories. These aren't national powers — but Bemidji State, Niagara and Wayne State are also solid members of the hockey fraternity.
It's hard to understand the mentality that says these schools aren't strong enough to deserve an automatic NCAA bid. Neverminding that it's precisely because of the existence of the CHA that we have a nice 16-team tournament, the presence of a diverse range of schools is good for sports. And the carrot of the NCAA tournament is a worthwhile part of the puzzle for these programs.
Further, if the CHA no longer has an automatic bid, the incentive for some member schools to keep playing hockey could disappear. Schools like Niagara and Alabama-Huntsville, with strong traditions, may just drop hockey. Just because these aren't national powers doesn't make it any less psychologically devastating to the sport.
Fans and administrators alike should be putting on their thinking caps right now, and help try to save the CHA.
Is there hope with Penn State? That's been asked so many times over the years, because they have a strong club program and the school, of course, has a lot of money. But the school's administration has never decided to throw its money behind both a men's and women's program, which for Title IX reasons is what it would take.
Things have been pretty quiet in college hockey in terms of big issues to follow — the CHA's problems notwithstanding. In recent years you had things like the D-III scholarship issue, the problems at Canisius, the ECAC's new structure, last year's obstruction crackdown, the change to a 16-team NCAA tournament, and so on.
Other than the CHA, the things to keep an eye on now include esoteric NCAA rules, but ones worth following. For example, the NCAA is considering legislation that would eliminate the junior year phone contact to recruits. Basketball and football would get an exception, but hockey is not currently slated to. Thing is, hockey needs it more than anyone, because it competes against Major Junior.
Legislation like this is more the result of ignorance than anything, but it's frustrating that hockey has to always fight this battle. It seems like every time something like this comes along, the people that make up the NCAA committees forget this cavaet about hockey. That's mainly because hockey is not well represented on these committees, because there's only so many hockey schools and a lot of them are not from across-the-board D-I programs.
Eventually, what usually happens is, hockey people plead their case to someone, and the committee's go "Oh, yeah, that makes sense," and amend the rules to give hockey an exception.
Over the years, I've become a fan of all of college hockey, and there's something to admire in almost every program. But my roots remain in the ECAC. (And yes, despite my public battles with the former ECAC hierarchy, and the urging for years for the ECAC teams to break off on their own, I will continue to call it the "ECAC" — nee ECACHL — because it's just easier, and everyone knows what you're talking about anyway).
As such, it's been a thrill to see some recent ECAC alumns performing well in the NHL. I particularly get a kick out of it when they are former Ivy Leaguers — as all of the following names are.
Chris Higgins, formerly of Yale and a kid who grew up just minutes from me in Smithtown, N.Y., scored his first career NHL goal recently for the Montreal Canadiens. Teammate Yann Danis, formerly of Brown, registered a shutout in his NHL debut. Big whoop.
Lee Stempniak, one of the best players in college hockey last season for Dartmouth, made the St. Louis' Blues opening night roster, but has since been sent down — so he's, ahem, playing in Peoria.
Former Cornell goalie Dave LeNeveu, who like Danis was a Hobey Hat Trick finalist, is playing for the Phoenix Coyotes after last year's All-Star season in the AHL. Unfortunately, similar to his AHL experience, the Coyotes' defense is pretty suspect. LeNeveu sees more shots in a typical Phoenix game than he usually saw in a whole weekend when with the Big Red.
Finally, George Parros — yes, THE George Parros — is skating a regular shift with the L.A. Kings, and recently scored his first career goal. Wasn't it just yesterday that Parros was a gangly freshman who could barely skate over the blue line at Princeton.
Another fun weekend ahead.
Maine at BC on Friday will be another good measuring stick. I have the sneaking suspicion BC will struggle a lot this year — but that's relative.
BU and Lowell play. The Terriers are coming off an awful loss to RPI after what had been an encouraging start. Meanwhile, Lowell is in disarray. That's a strong statement to make this early, but at 1-4 for a team stacked with seniors, it's pretty disheartening. Moreoever, the RiverHawks were shut out by Providence backt-to-back last weekend.
At St. Cloud State, new coach Bob Motzko goes up against his old team, Minnesota. He was an assistant there for years, and helped recruit this star-studded Gophers freshman class that he now must contend with.
In another reuniting of sorts, Air Force and Bemidji State play — Frank Serratore vs. brother Tom Serratore.
And then there's Michigan State and Cornell. There's high hopes for the Big Red, but the Spartans are playing better than they have yet in Rick Comley's tenure. These are huge games for Cornell, but the problem, as always for them, is that they come at a point when they have yet to play any games. Losing both, while not necessarily indicative of much, would be devastating to their long-term pecking order come NCAA time. At least they'll have home ice on their side.
St. Lawrence and Maine are my sleeper teams of the year. Certainly St. Lawrence is more off the radar than Maine, but most people didn't think the Black Bears had the horses this year. I've been on their bandwagon since before the season, though, figuring all they needed was for freshman Ben Bishop to be a pretty good replacement in net for Jimmy Howard. And while I realize that's a big if, Bishop has come out strong and Maine is in great shape. I love their balance and character, and Tim Whitehead just does not get enough credit for what he's done.
Meanwhile, St. Lawrence has long been a favorite, and this year, with a lot of talented seniors, and a loaded up freshman class, it could be time for the Saints to make one of those runs. They are banged up, however, and lose tremendous defenseman Drew Bagnall for most of the regular season with a severed tendon in his thumb.
I don't think enough was made of Mercyhurst capturing Atlantic Hockey's first-ever win over a WCHA team, when the Lakers defeated Michigan Tech. If you've ever had the opportunity to be around the Mercyhurst program, you have to love that coaching staff and the infectious enthusiasm coach Rick Gotkin and his crew bring to that team.
Freshmen are making enormous contributions everywhere, but none moreso than North Dakota, where the team's four top scorers are rookies — T.J. Oshie, Jonathan Toews, Ryan Duncan and Brian Lee. Everyone knew this was a talented group, but that's mighty impressive. Part of it, of course, is the slower starts from vets Drew Stafford, Travis Zajac and Rastislav Spirko, but so what. Those guys will definitely be there, and next thing you know, North Dakota will right back in the national title hunt. The key for them is all the young defensemen. But Jordan Parise has been so good in net, it hasn't mattered too much yet. "Any time a freshman comes in and plays at the D-I level, there are certain hesitatations there as far as what level they'll play at," said UND assistant coach Brad Berry. "But our guys have played at a high level, and they're put in a lot of big situations right away."
Twenty-one year Minnesota-Duluth play-by-play guy Kerry Rodd resigned after the team's first weekend. There had to be some major philosophical differences with the new management at his station in order for him to take that move — especially at that time. We wish him well.