CHA Appears Saved
New Legislation Would Allow Permanent Five-Team Exception For Certain Team Sports
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
College Hockey America will be allowed to play with five teams and continue to receive an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament in perpetuity, assuming a ruling recently passed unanimously by the NCAA Men's Ice Hockey Committee passes through the final stages of NCAA approval.
The conference's future has been seriously in doubt since Air Force announced last year that it was intending to join Atlantic Hockey for the start of the 2006-07 season. That leaves CHA with just five teams, one short of the NCAA-required minimum for receiving an automatic NCAA bid.
After the possibility of adding Kennesaw (Ga.) State as a sixth team fell through last fall, CHA athletic directors had been set to announce that the league would dissolve following the 2006-07 season, leaving the future of its five remaining programs in serious question. The league would have been able to play with a two-year exemption at five teams and still receive the automatic bid, but once the league returned to six (if it ever did), it would have to forfeit the automatic bid for each year the exemption was used.
However, NCAA officials recently brought attention the existence of precedent within the NCAA by-laws that provides an avenue for playing with five teams while still receiving the automatic bid, in perpetuity, without penalty.
The CHA's chances lie in legislation forwarded to the NCAA Championships/Competition Cabinet, which meets in June. From there, it would have to be approved by the Management Council. But an item with this kind of support, especially already from key NCAA people, often means it will require nothing more than a rubber stamp.
At the Frozen Four, the commissioner's group raised the possibility of requesting a waiver for the CHA. It was then that the NCAA's Director of Championships, Tom Jacobs, mentioned that there may be some precedent for it, and after researching it, brought to light a specific avenue through which legislation could get passed.
Jacobs pointed out NCAA by-law 126.96.36.199, which discusses the various "groupings" of sports for the purposes to determining automatic qualification to the NCAA Tournament. Section "c." of that by-law groups individual sports that are not "timed" (as in track) — i.e. cross-country, fencing, golf, wrestling and tennis. In those sports, the respective sports committees are allowed to grant exceptions to the six-team requirement.
Jacobs suggested that the Ice Hockey Committee forward legislation under an "item (d.)" that would create a new grouping of sports — ones whose membership is 25 percent or less than the total NCAA membership. Those sports would then also be eligible for that five-team exception. With just 59 Division I teams in men's ice hockey out of nearly 400 Division I schools, membership is well below 25 percent.
The Men's Ice Hockey committee, once it determined that the CHA was willing to hang together through this legislative process, unanimously agreed to forward the legislation onto the Championships and Competition Cabinet.
Coaches in the league, eager to bolster recruiting, are speaking in very optimistic tones, as if it's a foregone conclusion. And while it very well might be, CCHA commissioner Tom Anastos was more cautious.
"People (feel) optimistic for sure, based on precdent and based on the rationale behind it," said Anastos. "And because there are people on the Championships Cabinet and Management Council that very well understand our sport. So you never know, but there's optimism."
The Cabinet includes representatives from hockey-playing schools Miami, Connecticut, Denver, Cornell and Quinnipiac.
Robert Morris coach Derek Schooley said that, if passed, this ruling will not only save the CHA, but be very important for college hockey as a whole.
"This is very important for our league and very important for college hockey to have a place for new emerging programs to go," Schooley said. "Each league is pretty full right now and there's no guarantees we could go anywhere."
Said Anastos, "We were in a no-win situation for the sport. It was lose-lose. If the CHA didn't survive, we'd lose programs, and we'd lose the option for emerging programs to go to, and that would be the most devastating thing of all. Even if existing leagues could absorb the teams, we'd still lose."
As recently as three weeks ago, Niagara coach Dave Burkholder blew the lid off the CHA's plans, telling the Niagara Gazette, "We are going to disband (after the upcoming season). We're telling college hockey we're folding. We're going to make it a national issue. Who's going to step up?"
Each program was at various stages of discussion about other possibilities. Wayne State and Niagara had approached the CCHA about possible admittance there, even going so far as to create a 14-team schedule as part of its proposal. Bemidji State had begun to explore the possibility of joining the WCHA. Robert Morris would be a more natural fit in Atlantic Hockey. While Alabama-Huntsville faced the possibility of being alone, or even folding its program.
That now appears unnecessary.