Top 10 Stories of the Decade, Part II
Recruiting Battles, New Arenas, and Shawn Walsh
CHN Staff Report
The past 10 years, like essentially any 10-year period, has seen its fair share of changes and big news events in college hockey. In this trip down memory lane, College Hockey News identifies its choice for Top 10 stories of the decade.
The rise of state of the art facilities at Denver, Wisconsin and Boston University — not to mention palaces like that at North Dakota — have thoroughly changed the landscape of college hockey.
Any school with the resources to do that kind of thing, has raised its profile, and increased its recruiting ability — giving them a "rich get richer" feeling that has made it more and more difficult for some of the one-time little-guy powers to keep up.
Consequently, those schools among the "rich-getting-richer" were the powers of the 2000s. The aforementioned four schools won five national championships between them. Boston College, which had built a new arena just a few years before that, won another two. By contrast, the previous decade, schools like Lake Superior State and Northern Michigan won titles, while teams like Clarkson, Harvard and Colgate were in the Frozen Four.
Boston University, perhaps, served as the most obvious example by winning last year, with its Agganis Arena finished mid-decade. BU, a long-time power, had fallen well behind in the recruiting battle, not just because of the arena, but because its recruiting base of Massachusetts has seen itself disintegrate in the amount of high-end players it produces. The arena has helped BU attract players from around North America, and led to the program's resurgence and eventual national championship.
"The arenas do impact scheduling and those programs that can get 22 home games (instead of) those that can get (only) 14," Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna said. "There's monetary guarantees. Definitely the rich get richer. It's something to watch going forward."
Miami has the latest state of the art building, and it's already had an impact, if not a national title. And one for Notre Dame is on the way. The last ECAC arena built (before Quinnipiac's) was Clarkson's Cheel Arena, which opened in 1991. The others are decades old.
College hockey has lost many coaching legends in the past 10 years, including Murray Murdoch (Yale), Ned Harkness (RPI/Cornell) and, recently, Amo Bessone (Michigan State). But there was no more shocking and horrible loss than active Maine coach Shawn Walsh. The at-times controversial figurehead at Maine, winner of two national championships, was cut down in his prime (just 46 years old) in the summer of 2001 by a horrific cancer that he fought to the very end.
His loss continues to reverberate, with Tim Whitehead — who originally came on board to be an assistant, and then interim head coach, as Walsh was undergoing chemotherapy treatments, and then just stayed on the job — doing great work amid Walsh's ever-present memory around Alford Arena.
Walsh was known as a renegade, rubbed many the wrong way, got himself and the program into some trouble — but no one ever questioned his coaching skill, and those around him have remained his staunchest defenders as a person, too.
"In time, the other part of Shawn's persona has softened a bit," Bertagna said. "The accomplishments remain (two national championships, a near-perfect season in 1993, building the Maine program from scratch). Even in his day, when some people felt he was more rogue, he was still respected by his peers as evidenced by naming him Coach of the Year. People are able to compartmentalize things. They have a lot of respect for how good he was in every phase — recruiting, getting better as the season went on, bench management, stealing games he shouldn't have won."
It took a few fits and starts, but in 2002, the NCAA finally approved college hockey's increase to a 16-team tournament. It felt like college hockey had arrived — a tournament with four regionals, resembling basketball, and with no byes.
Furthermore, when the tournament went to 16 teams, the committee at that time seemed to make a conscious decision — for better or worse — to more strictly adhere to the "numbers." In other words, the "Pairwise."
That mathematical system had been in place in the previous decade as well, an objective system that paired each team against every other team with a series of criteria, in order to objectively determine which teams made the NCAAs and which didn't. But at one point, the "Pairwise," was something that college hockey people denied existed, or didn't understand. It was a media creation, they said. But the media merely numerated the system that already existed into a "standings" form. Not its original intention, but essentially a sound representation of what the committee had been doing.
When the tournament went to 16 teams — with more and more people in college hockey finally understanding what the Pairwise was and what the media was doing — the committee simply adopted it as gospel. That awareness and reliance on the Pairwise has come a long way in 10 years — again, in some ways better, in some ways not.
Meanwhile, the tournament itself has come a long way thanks to many people, such as former NCAA Director of Championships, Tom Jacobs.
"The role of Tom Jacobs can't be overstated," Bertagna said. "We had different people that were good administrators, but he was the first one that understood that doing things for the sport helped the tournament, as opposed to just running a tournament. He helped us beyond that, with legislation, with different things we needed help on from the inside. He helped the sport grow and helped the tournament grow."
There are so many issues intertwined here, that we've simply lumped this into one item.
This decade — with the sport receiving more exposure and rising in popularity on a relative basis — saw a big rise in the caliber of player coming into college hockey. It started with the first draft of the decade, when Boston University's Rick DiPietro became the goalie to go No. 1 overall in the draft. The numbers picked up from there.
From 1990-99, 21 NCAA (or NCAA-bound) players were taken in the First Round of the NHL Draft. In the next decade, that number jumped to 72. In 2007, an American went No. 1 (Patrick Kane), and two college players went 2-3. In 2006, college players went 1-3.
The Catch-22 to that is, more players leave early for the NHL — particularly after the new Collective Bargaining Agreement following the 2004 lockout changed many rules.
That dilemma for the big teams, has turned into an opportunity for the smaller guys. As we mentioned previously, the rich have gotten richer, helping to squeeze out some old-time small-school powers. But all of these talent defections have re-opened the door, and leveled the playing field a little bit again.
Last year, for the first time in decades, Michigan State, Boston College, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Colorado College all failed to make the NCAAs in the same year. This opened the door for Yale, Northeastern and Vermont. This year, Bemidji State may be an at-large entrant, Ferris State is near the top of the Pairwise, Yale is there again, and tiny Union is threatening to make the NCAAs for the first time in its 20-year Division I history — all while Minnesota, Michigan, Maine, Notre Dame and Boston University struggle.
Also intertwined into this, is the age-old ongoing battle between college hockey and major junior for players. The Ontario Hockey League, in particular, has aggressively changed many of its practices to make it easier/better for kids to go there instead of college. This has cut into the recruiting pool for many college teams, and has seen more top American players bail out on NCAA commitments for major junior.
It's been a wake-up call for college hockey, which has now secured funding from the NHL — via USA Hockey — to set up a full-time marketing unit called College Hockey Inc., headed by former NHL Players' Association chief Paul Kelly.
"There are 42 Division I players from California. That would've been hard to believe in 2000," Bertagna said. "But as the game is growing in certain places, kids in California, Texas, don't know college hockey from junior. We have to sell it there. ... What we're doing now is only because we're coming into more resources. ... We like our chances when the story will be told."
And while players in the United States are now coming from all sorts of exotic locations — unheard of 10 years ago — such as Texas, California, Nevada, Washington, Oklahoma and Tennessee, previous hotbeds like Massachusetts have dried up. For the first time this year, no one on the U.S. Olympic team is a Massachusetts native. Massachusetts used to be neck-and-neck with Minnesota for D-I hockey players, but is now a distant third behind Michigan, with New York right behind. Why this has happened is a lengthy story for another time.
All of this will be the ongoing story of the 2010s.
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