Niagara Hopes This Goodbye Isn't Permanent
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
ALBANY, N.Y. With Niagara's 5-1 loss to Michigan still fresh on everyone's mind, it was nonetheless hard not to reflect on the bigger picture. The Purple Eagles said goodbye to the 2008 NCAA tournament, but hopes it wasn't a more permanent goodbye.
Despite a strong team coming back next season, who knows when, if ever, Niagara will get another crack at playing in the NCAA tournament. Its league, College Hockey America, will drop to four teams next season, below the threshhold for securing an automatic NCAA bid.
There are a variety of options on the table — for the individual programs or CHA as a whole — but none of them have particularly strong odds.
"It's a topic now that — something I think as a hockey program and administrators, we need to be full time working on a solution," said Niagara coach Dave Burkholder. "I'm hoping that college hockey is going to do the right thing. We have four teams out there that are going to need something done for them (including Alabama-Huntsville, Robert Morris and Bemidji State). I just keep telling recruits and parents and my players that are coming back that something good will come out of this."
The rumors have held a varying amount of fact and fiction. One solid possibility seemed to be Canisius and Mercyhurst leaving Atlantic Hockey to play in the CHA, where it could have 18 scholarships. That idea has waxed and waned, combined sometimes with the possibility of Atlantic Hockey administrators running the CHA as a sister league. Or, Niagara could just join Atlantic Hockey with Robert Morris, which could tip the balance of schools that favor going to 18 scholarships (Atlantic Hockey's limit is 11).
"I think fingers are crossed is a good way to put it. We're still working to make sure that, in some incarnations, we're all playing together next year," Niagara athletic director Ed McLaughlin said. "We're going to keep working at it. We spend a lot of time on it every day. We're trying to explore every options. We want to keep the league together, because an automatic qualifier is precious.
"The landscape changes a lot quickly. So what we're trying to do is figure out the best thing for us for the next five years. I'm not smart enough to plan beyond five years, but that's what we're thinking right now."
The shame, of course, is that Niagara has done so much already. It is the only CHA team that has won an NCAA tournament game, actually doing that as an at-large team in 2000 while Burkholder was an assistant.
"Look what we've done. Our 100 percent graduation rate, we've invested millions in the rink — what we do on the ice, we play the game right, we play it clean and we have some huge wins," Burkholder said. "We're building nice history and tradition here. It would be a shame if there's another Kent State or Wayne State, Iona, Fairfield — we can't have that happen.
"I would think next year's team is going to be really, really good. Obviously Matt Caruana, as was the case with Sean Bentivoglio last year — how do you replace his 40-plus points. But look how well some of our freshmen played — the (David) Ross line, (Egor) Mironov's only a sophomore. We have everyone back except (Scott) Langdon and Caruana next year."
So the administrators will continue to burn the midnight oil looking for a solution.
"If I would look at the crystal ball, the best case is we're part of another league next year," said McLaughlin, who used to work for Atlantic Hockey commissioner Bob DeGregorio at Merrimack. "But finding the right league, and who wants us, and who mathches up right, is the hard part."