Between the Lines
The latest on Northeastern, officiating, Jerry D'Amigo and Rick Comley
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Greg Cronin's suspension was, in one sense, a bit seismic, but in another sense, lost amid the flurry of important games going on right now. The Northeastern coach became the first suspended in hockey over possible NCAA rules violations since, ironically, Cronin himself took over for Maine's Shawn Walsh on an interim basis for one year (1995-96).
Everyone at Northeastern is tight-lipped about it, and their investigation is internal and ongoing. But Northeastern took a hardline stance because of its recent history — it is currently on probation, through April 25 of this year, because of violations in its basketball program two years ago.
So you have to read between the lines a little bit, and glean what we can from the opinions of others. It seems like a case where Albie O'Connell, the Northeastern assistant coach that was suspended indefinitely with Cronin, was responsible for the violation that took place, surrounding improper text messages to recruits. That can mean sending too many messages, or sending them at the wrong times. It seems clear it was O'Connell, and not a program-wide systemic issue, or else the other assistant, Sebastien Laplante, would've been suspended as well.
Of course, it ultimately falls to Cronin's responsibility as well. What's unclear still, of course, is whether whatever happened was intentional or not. Remember, New Hampshire is currently on two years probation because of e-mails sent at the wrong times, hundreds of them via an automated computer program. The school deemed that a mistake after its own internal investigation.
The problem here is that Cronin's past can haunt him. Clearly, he was not responsible for the situation at Maine, since he came in well after the violations Walsh was targeted for. But Cronin was also involved in a situation at Colorado College prior to coming to Maine. In that case, the program was cited for improperly recruiting a goalie mid-season, among other things, using an assistant coach's frequent flyer miles to fly the recruit in. CC coach Brad Buetow refused to cooperate with an NCAA investigation, and was fired, leading to the hiring of Don Lucia.
Cronin's personality is "type A to the max," as one observer noted. And it's always possible that he's rubbed people inside the Northeastern administration the wrong way. Will this lead to a lack of support for Cronin over this? A lack of benefit of the doubt?
Whatever happens, this must be killing Cronin, to miss his teams games like this at such a crucial point of the season. And until we find out what happened exactly, it's hard not to sympathize with him.
There has been a lot of talk this past week about ECAC officiating, inappropriately so, frankly.
There is little more boring than constant harping on officiating. Every fan and every coach does it, everywhere, during every game. It's the equivalent of the people who ignorantly yell "shoot" during a power play.
We all clamor for consistency from officials — but which calls to harp on is largely in the eye (and the bias) of the beholder, making such complaints useless. The best referees are in the NHL, and they get criticized constantly. What do you expect to get from guys — no offense — who are a couple levels down the pecking order?
These guys do the best they can, and it's the job of their supervisors to work with them to try to improve, just like a coach tries to work with his players (which in college, are also a few steps below their development from NHL players).
These are ongoing, never-ending issues, which is what makes complaining about them such a waste of time (not that we all don't do it in the heat of the moment).
That isn't to say officiating issues are always irrelevant.
In the mid-'90s, some leagues first experimented with the two-referee system. It didn't work. Referees were just getting in each other's way, calling different games, driving both teams crazy. In both the NHL and college hockey, the two-ref system has gone much better these days. They've worked out the kinks, and the overall level of competency is good enough to support having enough good referees to go around.
Hits from behind are always an issue because of safety concerns. It's important for officials to make these calls consistently. I last wrote about that in 2004. Cornell coach Mike Schafer went on a rant about it, and got himself suspended. The whole thing was calculated, though — he waited until all reporters were there to suddenly go from calm to "upset," and wanted to be quoted verbatim. He was hoping to get suspended — and did — to send a message. Subsequently, the amount of hit from behind calls went up dramatically in the remaining weeks of that season — so we wrote about how Schafer's calculation must have had an effect.
The officiating mandate to crack down on interference, and the like, implemented five years ago, caused a lot of stir at the time. The NCAA was really ahead of the NHL on this issue, which was/is a good thing. It was controversial because of the parade of players to the penalty box it caused, and the stark increase in power plays. But in the long haul, it did open up the game because they stuck with it, which was exactly the idea. But the WCHA openly defied this mandate at first, which caused issues. Even now, many coaches believe games are called differently in the various leagues, and they are probably right. This is a situation which still deserves discussion and scrutiny, because consistency across leagues should be a goal.
And a couple of years ago, some WCHA refs botched a series of video replay calls, leading to a suspension of one. And in the Frozen Four that year, there was another controversial video review in the Notre Dame-Boston College game, which led to a rule change.
These, of course, are legitimate talking points.
But on the day-to-day, game-to-game level, no league has any more of a "problem" with officials than any other league on the planet Earth.
Jerry D'Amigo was recently sent back to junior by the Toronto Maple Leafs. D'Amigo left RPI after one season to sign with the Leafs, and had been playing in the American Hockey League.
D'Amigo, a member of the 2010 gold medalists for Team USA at the World Junior, is a good kid and you hope it works out for him. But, as RPI makes its run towards a potential NCAA berth, he must be kicking himself right now for leaving.
Unfortunately, the hockey landscape is littered with cases like this — players leaving school early and seeing their careers quickly stall. For every one that works out, there are many others that don't. Obviously, some players are ready for the NHL. But if you're not, and you're just going to play in the AHL, why leave?
Again, this is preaching to the converted, and we've screamed it until we're blue in the face — to the point where, like with officiating, it's kind of pointless to bother. But it remains irritating that college hockey loses these players, and more importantly, the players are not serving themselves well. The myth that playing 80 games in the AHL (or junior) helps your career more than college hockey, is still too pervasive.
I have never seen a player hurt their career by staying in school and developing more. They get the practice time, and as they become upperclassmen, learn invaluable leadership skills.
College hockey will miss Rick Comley, a great ambassador, and a true gentleman. But time marches on, as it does for everyone.
Comley is certainly not the first veteran coach to be eased out the door, delicately or not, and he won't be the last. Just in recent years, it's happened to Tim Taylor at Yale and Jeff Sauer at Wisconsin, and in each case, it's hard to say it wasn't the right move. There's no easy way to tell a veteran coach, who has had a lot of success, mind you, that his time is up.
But unlike those others, Comley won two national championships. And there is so much pressure on these guys nowadays. The heightened expectations have created momentum that's led to better and better coaching in the college ranks. The quality is at an all-time high. But sometimes, those expectations can go overboard. Do you have to win every year? Not everyone can.
Don Lucia has also won two national titles, and gets creamed at Minnesota at every turn because the Gophers have now missed the NCAAs the last couple years. Red Berenson has won two national titles and made the NCAAs 20 years in a row, but hasn't won a title since 1998, and was recently criticized by an NHL general manager. Jack Parker hadn't won at BU since 1995, and there were some who wanted to give him the shove out the door, until he shut everyone up by winning his third national title in 2009.
Rick Comley has nothing to be ashamed of. The thing is, Comley doesn't have thick skin. And that's not an attack. There's nothing wrong with being sensitive to mountains of criticism, especially when it's so easy to hear these days, coming from all directions on the Internet and what not. We are human. But unlike some other people I can think of, who would react defensively and antagonistically and say things that just make it worse, Comley internalizes it. He holds no bitterness. He simply laments it and doesn't want to deal with it. So he made Michigan State's decision easier and stepped aside.