Saving the CHA
Will Any Other Program Step Up and Step In?
by Tom Reale/CHN Correspondent
What would save the CHA?
The answer is as straightforward as it is difficult to achieve — the league needs two more teams to ensure its survival.
Shortly after Air Force announced its plans to depart, the league put forward an attractive incentive package for any potential sixth members, including a waiver of the initiation fee, a waiver of league dues for three years, $50,000 in cash for three years, a share of league revenues, and special scheduling considerations. They specifically began targeting Canisius, Mercyhurst and Merrimack at that time.
Since then, college hockey fans have gone to great lengths to propose ideas for saving the league.
Ah, but if only it was as easy as saying "Hey, you. You're going to the CHA."
Merrimack or Union
The Warriors have long been put forward by college hockey fans as an excellent fit in the CHA, and it's not without a hint of truth. Merrimack has failed to produce a single winning season since joining Hockey East in 1989, and the total in the win column has steadily decreased each year for the past five. The Warriors haven't been to the Hockey East Tournament since 2004 and haven't recorded a win there since 1998.
The same has been true for Union. The Dutchmen have finished with a record above .500 only twice since entering Division I and the ECAC in 1991. Union has yet to win an ECAC playoff series after 16 seasons in the league. In 2004, when voting against NCAA Proposition 65-1 to allow Division III schools "playing up" like Colorado College and St. Lawrence to continue giving scholarships, then-President Roger Hull proclaimed that he was satisfied with the team winning only 40-percent of its games, a proclamation that stunned supporters and fomented the idea among some college hockey observers that the school might be happier in the CHA.
The argument is that either of these teams would be able to find more success in Division I by playing in a weaker conference. That might be true, but they'd be giving up an awful lot in order to gain that kind of benefit. Both would suddenly be required to make two trips a year to Alabama and Minnesota. Both would be giving up on traditional local rivalries — Lowell for Merrimack, RPI for Union. Both would be leaving conferences with long histories and a great deal of respect in the college hockey world, a solid selling point for fans and recruits alike, for a young league with very little history.
Both programs would arguably be more competitive in the CHA than they have been historically playing in their current leagues, but neither will make the jump for the reasons listed above, and more. New Union president Stephen Ainlay has displayed much more support for hockey than his predecessor did.
Canisius or Mercyhurst
The idea of luring a team from Atlantic Hockey has some degree of merit. The CHA does not have the restrictions on scholarships that Atlantic Hockey has imposed on its members from its original incarnation as the MAAC, and the CHA offers a shorter route to the NCAA tournament. Canisius and Mercyhurst were two teams from Atlantic Hockey that were specifically targeted by the CHA for membership, and both programs have good reasons why they might consider such a move.
For the Griffins, a move to the CHA would promise a situation where they would be in the same league with nearby Niagara, potentially creating a local rivalry that fans could get excited about. They would have less competition for an NCAA bid, something which Canisius has never seemingly been very close to attaining in Atlantic Hockey, especially as teams like Sacred Heart, Holy Cross, Mercyhurst, and now RIT and Air Force have established themselves as the big dogs of the league.
Mercyhurst made perfect sense from the CHA's standpoint, especially since their women's team, which is among the best in the nation, is already a member of the league. The Lakers have already shown that they are restless in Atlantic Hockey and want to take the next step to improve the program, having already applied to join the ECAC following Vermont's departure. This past season notwithstanding, the Lakers are basically always in the mix in the AHA, with three tournament titles and two NCAA appearances already under their belt. A move to the CHA would give Mercyhurst the opportunity to enhance the team's national competitiveness by allowing the program to offer more scholarships. A natural Western Pennsylvania rivalry with Robert Morris could develop.
Both teams would help the CHA become slightly more regional in nature, being able to group in the Eastern Great Lakes region between Wayne State, Niagara, Robert Morris, and one of these AHA teams. That kind of regional base might encourage other schools in the area to give the CHA a shot, even with the outlying members in Huntsville and Bemidji.
Again, the CHA's overtures were shot down in both cases. Mercyhurst is looking to move up, and a move to the CHA would only be, at best, a baby step in that direction. Canisius wasn't likely interested bailing on a stable conference for one whose future is still in doubt even with their addition.
Fortunately for the River Hawks, considering the way their offseason has gone, the whole "Lowell tossed from Hockey East by their own Board of Trustees" issue is no longer a problem, but you have to think that maybe the CHA might have been silently pulling for the ejector seat to have been blown. Of course, considering the next problem that came down the road for UML threatened the very existence of their program, perhaps it would have been just another kick in the pants for the beleaguered conference. But if Lowell had indeed found itself sans Hockey East, Lowell certainly could have hacked it in the CHA, especially given the posturing of the trustees who wanted the Amherst program to be clearly superior — the CHA would have been a step down, but a welcome one in the eyes of the bureaucrats. Perhaps such a result could have even helped entice a similar move by Merrimack. We'll never know.
Ultimately, no matter where an existing program may come from to potentially join the MAAC, one has to bear in mind that the concept of a team moving from one of the other five conferences into the CHA is essentially asking a team to move from a stable and secure conference with plenty of teams into an unstable conference just getting by with a bare minimum of teams. It's a high risk situation and the reward — whatever incentive package the league offers and likely an easier path to the NCAA tournament — realistically isn't enough to get any of these teams to ditch their current conference and join the CHA.
Liberty, Lindenwood, Kennesaw State, Missouri-St. Louis, Navy ...
Therefore, the simplest solution is not for a team to move from one conference into another, but for a completely new program to join the Division I varsity ranks. The CHA has already gone this route when its viability was first threatened by the loss of the program at Findlay — Robert Morris, which had previously been destined for Atlantic Hockey, reversed course and joined the CHA.
Over the past several years, there have been more than a few rumors and schools showing interest about taking the plunge and joining the college hockey family, but in case after case, either the rumors end up untrue or the interest drops, usually for lack of money — but now, even the possibilities that have some meat to them do not seem to meet the needs of the CHA.
Lindenwood University, an NAIA school outside of St. Louis, seemed interested in moving their wildly successful club team to the NCAA's Division I back in 2004 in an attempt to capitalize on the Frozen Four in Missouri, but so far there hasn't been much motion on the idea. They'd need clearance from both the NAIA and the NCAA to do it, and while the effort hasn't exactly been pronounced dead, it hasn't had much motion in the last few years. A similar effort at Missouri-St. Louis which involved discussions with the CHA died on the table when priorities at the school changed and no longer included varsity hockey.
Kennesaw State, as school outside of Atlanta, was also bandied about as being interested in starting a program during the summer of 2005, and the CHA seized upon the opportunity to offer their financial package to the school to get the team into the conference in time for the 2006-07 season. But interest was spiked in October 2005 when the school declined the package, citing financing as the major issue keeping the school from moving their successful club team to Division I.
Liberty University, the Christian university in Lynchburg, Va., founded by the late Jerry Falwell, has also made some overtures of capitalizing on a successful and popular club team by moving to the varsity level. They have a brand new rink on campus, the LaHaye Ice Center, which seats 4,000 spectators, and are moving from Division II to Division I in the ACHA in time for next season. Falwell's son, Jerry Jr., the new chancellor at Liberty, has stated that varsity hockey at Liberty is an institutional goal, but has also admitted that it likely will not happen in the immediate future. The school is making advancements toward that goal — the new rink, the higher club division, and a new women's club team to begin play next season — but in all likelihood, the Flames would not arrive at a varsity status in time to save the CHA.
The Naval Academy in Annapolis is an interesting proposal. The school is already hosting the 2009 Frozen Four at the Verizon Center in Washington, which is only a couple of years away. They already have funding for an on-campus rink. They already have most of the support they need to make a move. Of course, are we to expect that if and when Navy joins the varsity ranks that they'll turn their backs on the opportunity to be in the same conference as their academy rivals, Army and Air Force? Atlantic Hockey is the only conference that makes sense for the Midshipmen — and you'd better believe that Atlantic Hockey would love to welcome them.
According to sources, Syracuse is already making in-roads into the world of Division I hockey, planning to begin a women's varsity program in 2008. This will make the Orange the only school in Division I sponsoring women's hockey without a corresponding men's team. The rumors are already swirling: how far behind can a men's program be? Without completely jumping the gun here — after all, according to the Syracuse Post-Standard's sources, the school is cutting sports in order to fund women's hockey, and would presumably have to do the same in order to have a men's team — where exactly would such a team play? Is there anyone out there who has reason to believe that a school with the athletic pedigree of Syracuse would be willing to join a minor conference with Niagara and Robert Morris as the only other Division I schools? I'd wager that Syracuse would think twice about even joining the ECAC — which is rapidly becoming college hockey's lone version of a mid-major. Schools on the level of Syracuse, and this includes other big name schools sometimes mentioned, like Penn State, are not going to spend the big bucks to support a varsity program and then join a small conference, especially not one with a bare minimum of teams.
Back in January, the NCAA announced a 10-year pilot program to allow "international schools" to seek membership, partially based on the inquiries made by the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. UBC is, by far, the Canadian school most interested in NCAA membership at the Division I level, and if the Thunderbirds gain acceptance, they're essentially assured of bringing their hockey program with them. The CHA would welcome them with open arms, but much like Liberty, UBC wouldn't be able to arrive soon enough to save the league. Besides, wouldn't the CHA have to become College Hockey North America at that point?