Syracuse Gets Serious
Enthusiasm is Still Tempered, But 'We'd Like to Add Hockey' Says School Administration
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Most college hockey people and fans appreciate the small, homespun nature of the sport. By the same token, they want the sport to thrive, and to that end, continually wonder about the possibility of major Division I programs adding varsity teams.
Ask for the schools on the wish list, and the same names inevitably pop up — schools with top club teams like Penn State and Iowa State, or spreading the sport West to places like USC and Arizona State. Then there are the geographical naturals, like Syracuse.
But, though a natural, Syracuse was never anything more than a pipe dream. Despite occasional grumblings from the school's club program, there was no one at the university giving the idea serious consideration.
That has changed.
Two years ago, Daryl Gross, formerly an assistant at USC in fact, came on as the university's new athletic director. He befriended a local businessman named Henry Wildhack, a self-proclaimed huge hockey fan. One year later, last September, Wildhack got the job as senior associate athletic director.
Today, the idea of varsity hockey at Syracuse is very much on the table. In fact, if things break right, it could happen sooner than later.
"We are in what I would call the exploratory stages of looking at adding hockey, both at women's and men's," Wildhack said. "The investigation that we're doing is serious. We'd like to add hockey. However, I do want to emphasize, we're still exploring — from a gender equity perspective, and a facilities perspective."
Wildhack said it's too early to know whether hockey would come at the expense of another sport, or just be added on to the program's list. But the administration at Syracuse is finally echoing what college hockey fans have been saying for ages.
"The geography makes a ton of sense," Wildhack said. "We're within a five-hour bus ride from the best hockey going. There could be natural rivalries that could develop quickly. There's Cornell, Clarkson, Union, RPI, Niagara, the other Ivies. That could be very, very intriguing."
Wildhack grew up in Buffalo and said he's a big Sabres fan. His two sons play hockey at the youth level. He is good friends, and went to high school with, the father of NHL forward Tim Connolly, who is a native of nearby Baldwinsville, N.Y.
But Wildhack didn't need to do the convincing on his boss.
"He'd thought of it before that," Wildhack said. "I certainly wouldn't take credit for it. But when he and I brought it up, we thought, 'Wow, it's a natural.'
"The tact of the old regime was such that, from their perspective it was not going to work. That's fine, we respect that. We're very respectful of the old regime. But that doesn't mean we're not going to look at the same stone and overturn it."
The news is already filtering out and exciting college hockey people, though the enthusiasm must be tempered. Navy has talked about adding the sport, and that is still on the table, but there's been no recent word about any movement on the issue.
"We want to see the sport grow, but particularly in large universities," said Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna, who hadn't yet heard of Syracuse's overtures. "(What's) always an impediment to our sport, is such a proportion of our schools are small — Division II and III schools playing up. It's a great part of our hisotry, but in the NCAA world today, you're almost punished for it."
To find the last time a school of Syracuse's magnitude added hockey, you'd probably have to go back to 1993, when Massachusetts resurrected a program that roots going back to 1908. Notre Dame also resurrected an old program in 1968. The last time a school like that started a program for the first time was Ohio State in 1963.
Part of making it work would be determining whether the sport could be revenue-generating. Although if it isn't, it doesn't rule out the possibility of hockey at Syracuse, it's certainly a huge help.
Either way, initial funding is probably the first major hurdle. Where that would come from is anyone's guess right now. Facilities, at least, appear in decent shape, with a 700-seat arena currently on campus and access to the downtown War Memorial a likelihood.
"On campus is probably suitable for the women's rink," Wildhack said. "If we woke up and it was Christmas morning, we'd probably have the men at the War Memorial, leading to expanding the capacity of our existing rink or building a new on-campus arena."
One question — would the Syracuse community, known for playing huge schools in football and basketball, embrace a team that plays the likes of Cornell, Colgate and Clarkson?
"We play Colgate in basketball. I believe our Olympic sports play the Colgates of the world," Wildhack said. "Because of the unique nature of where those schools are in basketball and football, it would have little bearing on a hockey rivalry on a Division I level.
"I think people know they're good hockey schools."
There are other questions. Syracuse has had ups and downs with its minor-league teams over the years. Is it a hockey town? Or does it even really matter, considering the rabid and loyal nature of supporters of Syracuse University athletics.
"The minor-league team, the Crunch, has been successful for 10 years," Wildhack said. "Before the Crunch, a series of teams were here in the '70s and '80s that didn't work out. I can't speak to why that works and didn't work."
The Syracuse Invitational Tournament also had a decent run at the downtown War Memorial, but that fizzled several years ago.
"The person that founded that and directed it, Pat Smith, was a friend of mine," Wildhack said. "He was a driving force behind that tournament. Pat passed away, and when that happened, the tournament went with him. ... It lasted a few more years, but they saw the handwriting on the wall."
Wildhack said the process has begun of going to schools like Cornell to scope out what they do, and starting to ask questions around the college hockey world. He said there could be more news available by next month.
If Syracuse does add Division I men's varsity hockey, it could set off a chain reaction of conference realignments. Would Syracuse go to Atlantic Hockey as a stepping stone, or seek immediate acceptance in a conference like Hockey East and ECAC? If it were the latter, it would upset the balance of things, but would conferences like that really turn down a school like Syracuse? Not likely.
All of this is still speculation, but certainly fun speculation for college hockey people.
"It's great to hear," Bertagna said.