Forces of Change
Mercyhurst Wants Role in Saving the Four Remaining CHA Programs and Autobid
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
The Bible has fewer resurrections than College Hockey America has experienced over the years.
The conference that sprouted in 1999, and eventually received an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament in 2003, has always had a tenuous existence.
None more so than right now, with Wayne State's departure imminent after this coming season. The will consist of four teams, a tenuous proposition, or fold entirely.
But it may not be dead yet.
While many college hockey fans have longed for a Grand Poobah of the sport, one who could force the leagues into a re-alignment plan that was best for the whole, the odds are the same as a true resurrection — slim to none.
Which doesn't even consider that, getting everyone to agree on what's best for the sport would be an exercise akin to the first Continental Congress.
But with some creativity, perhaps it can be done — especially if the schools themselves start taking the lead.
And it appears Mercyhurst, a member of Atlantic Hockey but with ties to the CHA, may be the one taking that lead.
"The window of opportunity is out there now," says Craig Barnett, athletic director at Mercyhurst and former head coach at Findlay when that program disbanded, "to maybe have a lot of people — for the better of college hockey — to step back from our own personal agendas to see if there's anything that can be done to better college hockey."
What this would entail is still anyone's guess. But it's clear Mercyhurst wants to be part of the solution, if there is one to be had.
One solution would have been for Atlantic Hockey to incorporate the CHA's four teams, then realign into two division. But that idea was shelved because it would not maintain two automatic bids.
"We have been big advocates for a couple years now — we believe CHA and Atlantic Hockey should somehow find a way to be one," says Mercyhurst head coach Rick Gotkin. "Doing that is not as easy as saying it."
Mercyhurst's women's program is in the CHA, which always has made its men's program a logical choice to move over. The CHA has made overtures in that direction for years, but Mercyhurst has always resisted, concerned that the CHA was in a precarious situation. After all, even if it would be good for Mercyhurst and good for college hockey, why would Mercyhurst make the move only to see another team fold or love, and then be left in the cold.
And Mercyhurst has built strong ties in Atlantic Hockey already. Its administration likes being associated with institutions such as Holy Cross, Connecticut and Army.
So there are many challenges.
But if Mercyhurst, and Atlantic Hockey, can figure out a way to get the two leagues together, keep the two automatic bids, and ensure the efficacy of the "splinter" conference (or whatever you want to call it), then it could work.
"We'd like to be part of keeping an open mind to what we can do to make sure it doesn't happen again to other programs that might be at risk," Barnett said.
"Everybody has a vested interest into what's hanging out there, which is that AQ. If the CHA on the men's side is going to fall, what's going to happen to that AQ? I'm trying to look at it as a positive opportunity.
"But there's no solid proposal. People are speaking on their own. And the next step is for the few of us, and I'd be more than willing to take a role, to try and put some sort of solid option together."
A natural would be for Canisius to join with Mercyhurst and go to the CHA together. But even still, that would require some kind of commitment from the four remaining CHA schools that they aren't looking elsewhere. Mercyhurst and Canisius wouldn't go to the CHA only to have Bemidji State leave or fold, and then be left holding the bag.
If so, maybe then the two leagues could have a scheduling alliance, and even a common commissioner, and thus be a de facto single conference.
But again, that requires all sorts of cooperation from all sorts of schools.
"Anything's possible," Gotkin said. "I can't speak for Canisius. We love being in Atlantic Hockey. We love the administrations, the schools, the players. They've given us an avenue, a vehicle to do some things on our campus.
"(But) when we entered into the MAAC, a week later, CHA born. Had CHA come along a week earlier, we probably would've been in there. We had some history with those schools.
"So we'd like to be part of the solution. It would make all of us at Mercyhurst College feel good to know we did something bigger than us. ... But we need to do our due diligence, and make sure that when the music stops we're (not) the only ones left without a chair."