Vermont's Move to Hockey East a Resounding Success
by Mike Machnik/CHN Senior Editor
Five years after Vermont left the ECAC to join Hockey East, it's hard to look at the move as anything other than a great success.
The northern New England school had been a part of the ECAC since 1974, moving up from the ECAC Division II, and advanced as far as the NCAA semifinals in 1996. But Vermont had fallen on hard times since the year after that appearance. Seven losing seasons preceded the decision to depart, which came in Sneddon's first year at the helm (9-22-4) and just four years after a hazing scandal led to the cancellation of the remainder of the 1999-2000 season.
It was far from clear that stepping up to join Hockey East was going to work. But there can be no question now that the move was a real shot in the arm for a once proud program intent on returning to the national stage.
"Obviously, it was a tough decision," said Catamount coach Kevin Sneddon. "I give our president, our athletic director, certainly the board and everybody involved in the decision making proces a lot of credit because they tried to think outside the box and look at what's in the best interests of our institution moving forward. We've now got a lot of similarities to our other programs here that we're competing against. There are rivalries with Maine and New Hampshire and Massachusetts, similar to what our other teams have in America East.
"We've got a ton of alumni in the Boston area and we're down there almost every other weekend, which has been really positive for us. We're with our sister schools. We fit better from a lot of different standpoints with schools that are similar to us.
"I think first and foremost, Hockey East is the best conference in college hockey. And it's nothing against the ECAC. It was a tremendous stay for us in that league. There are some great teams and great tradition in that league as well.
"But from our perspective, Hockey East is the best conference in college hockey, from the way it's administrated right through to how important it is for every school. You look at the league and there are no weak teams."
Following a sixth-place finish in Year One in their new conference, Vermont went on to fifth in '06-'07 and third each of the next two years. Vermont has only finished under .500 in league play twice — a game under in 2005-06, and two games under (eighth place, yet three points out of third) this season. And last season, the Catamounts advanced to the NCAA semifinals in their first appearance since 1996, falling to eventual champion and league rival Boston University, 5-4.
Sneddon said being in Hockey East has improved his ability to get better players to Burlington.
"That was the first thing we noticed," he said. "Again, I was an ECAC guy, played in the ECAC, coached in the ECAC, that's the only thing I knew. Probably the most shocking thing when we made the decision to move to Hockey East was the result in recruiting.
"The perception out there, right or wrong, was that we were elevating our program. In a lot of ways we were, but it made you wonder, what were family advisors and NHL scouts saying about us before, because as soon as we jumped in there, it was like they all came out of the woodwork."
It culminated last year in a Frozen Four appearance. This year has been more up and down, and after Friday's Hockey East semifinal loss to Boston College, the Catamounts appear just on the outside of the NCAA picture. But the foundation remains.
"We've been able to attract some elite players to Vermont," Sneddon said. "Last year was a special time for us. It was a big step for our program to get back to the tournament. We were kind of the odd team out for two or three years in a row and that was getting kind of frustrating. So for our guys to have a taste of that NCAA tournament was excellent, and then to get all the way to the Frozen Four was a special moment for us.
"We'll benefit from that, in the recruiting battles for the next several years and try to take advantage of it."
Vermont's ability to upgrade its schedule has been another plus, according to Sneddon.
"Scheduling wise, the league has helped us out. We've got Denver on our schedule, they're coming back here next year; we've got the Gophers on the schedule, they're going to come back. We would have struggled to have those teams come in to play us perhaps in the other leagues."
The higher caliber of opponents, Sneddon said, has helped raise fan interest in the program.
"I think our fans are really pleased to see the level of talent that's coming up here. Again that's nothing against the ECAC, but to see BU and BC coming in here, UNH, all these great programs. I think they just see the level of competition being a little bit higher than where we were at before."
According to Sneddon, the program's increased visibility has already paid off in a number of other ways, not the least being the name recognition in the league's geographic center.
"The one area that's been opened up a little bit is Boston. I can't really comment on specific guys right now because they aren't here yet, but in the past we'd have a heck of a time trying to get a student-athlete to come take a look at us from the Boston area.
"But now that we're in the league, we're down there all the time, we've got more exposure through the league office, through television and all that, people understand that hey, if you want a great education and a hockey program that's very important to the community and a great area to live, this is a great option."
As Vermont looks to the future, the school's plans to eventually replace aging Gutterson Field House remain very much in the picture. The rink was built in 1961 and renovated 19 years ago, and remains one of the great atmospheres in college hockey, but the new Taj Mahals at a number of other schools around the country make it more and more difficult for Vermont to compete.
"I think that's the final step in the process," said Sneddon of the new rink plans. "It's no secret what helps you win the recruiting battles and what helps you sustain excellence. Last year was a great step for us. To sustain going to the NCAA tournament and competing for a national championship every year will take some extra support, and you look at what's happened with Miami, what's happened at BU, a great program for years, but now they get Agganis Arena; Northeastern just did a major renovation. That's the one area that we're probably lacking compared to some programs.
"We've got a great old building, and when the fans are here, it's awesome. When they're not here, it shows its wear and tear. It is what it is, it's an older facility — again, great atmosphere, but when you're showing a recruit Agganis or Conte Forum, or the Whitt, a lot of nice places across the country, we don't exactly equal that.
"The economy didn't help us out. We're in the process of trying to get the building going. It's probably put us back a few years, but it's definitely on the forefront of everybody's mind here from the administration's standpoint. From the president on down, we all feel that athletics facilities in general need a major boost, and the arena project part of that whole piece is a major component of it."
Vermont Recent History
04-05 - 4th ECAC, 13-6-3, 21-14-4 overall, ECAC semifinal loss to Cornell (L 3-0)
05-06 - 6th HE, 10-11-6, 18-14-6 overall, HE quartefinal loss at BC (L 3-2 ot, L 6-2)
06-07 - 5th (t-Maine) HE, 12-10-5, 18-16-5 overall, HE quarterfinal loss at BU (W 3-2, L 2-0, L 3-2 ot)
07-08 - 3rd HE, 13-9-5, 17-15-7 overall, HE quarterfinal win vs Northeastern (W 1-0, L 2-1 ot, W 4-1; HE semifinal win over BU (3-1); HE championship loss to BC (4-0)
08-09 - 3rd (t-UNH) HE, 15-8-4, 22-12-5 overall, HE quarterfinal loss vs Lowell (L 4-3, L 4-2);
NCAA regional wins over Yale (4-1), Air Force (3-2 2ot); NCAA semifinal loss to BU (5-4)
09-10 - 8th HE, 9-11-7, 17-14-7 overall, HE quarterfinal win at UNH (L 7-4, W 1-0, W 1-0 ot); HE semifinal loss to BC (3-0)