Things to Watch in 2012-13
by Joe Meloni/CHN Staff Writer
The last time college hockey lost a conference was 2010. As Boston College celebrated its national championship, College Hockey America disbanded officially after an announcement the previous year. Bemidji State headed to the WCHA, Niagara and Robert Morris to Atlantic Hockey and poor old Alabama-Huntsville found itself on its own.
The Chargers, whose existence is a story in and of itself, enter the 2012-13 season still without a home, but will be joined this year by Penn State as the nation's other independent school. The Nittany Lions begin their first year in Division I men's ice hockey playing a schedule mixed with fellow top-flight programs, Division III schools and even club teams. As PSU, led by former Princeton coach Guy Gadowsky, embarks on its prologue of a season, more realignment and conference killing awaits at the end of the marathon set to begin Saturday afternoon when Bowling Green and Niagara play in Niagara Falls, N.Y., at 4 p.m.
Gone will be the CCHA, as five clubs from the league borne in 1971 migrate to the WCHA. The announcement of Penn State's foray into varsity hockey brought with it the formation of a Big Ten conference. This year, Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State compete for CCHA Championships for the last time, while Minnesota and Wisconsin say farewell to the WCHA. The shakeup doesn't end with the Big Ten-member programs, as the more noteworthy programs remaining in Division I's two western conference opted to form a super league of sorts. From the WCHA, North Dakota, Denver, Colorado College, St. Cloud State, Nebraska-Omaha and Minnesota-Duluth join the CCHA's Miami and Western Michigan in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference.
The CCHA's death also sends Notre Dame east, as the Fighting Irish prepare for their move to Hockey East. Meanwhile, UND's choice prompted Hockey East to extend an official offer to Connecticut, currently fledging in Atlantic Hockey. The Huskies accepted but will wait until the 2014-15 season to officially join Hockey East.
Next summer will be an exciting one and the subsequent season will provide us a look at the new normal in NCAA Division I men's ice hockey. That's in the future, though. Not too distant, but, still, the future. For many, the impending 2012-13 season represents a last chance to settle old rivalries. For others it represents another chance to find a home or to gauge a team that didn't exist a season ago.
Welcome to College Hockey Happy Valley
The last 18 months have been difficult for everyone even tangentially associated with Penn State. The controversy surrounding its football program and a massive cover-up carried out by a region's most beloved figure still pervade the entire university. It's with that, along with a talented hockey team and experienced coach, that Penn State kicks off the newest chapter in the history of its hockey program.
The Nittany Lions begin their season on Oct. 12 with the first of two against American International at Greenberg Ice Arena. PSU's future home, Pegula Ice Arena, named after the program's benefactor, won't open until the 2013-14 campaign. The club, comprised of club hockey standouts and Division I-caliber recruits, named Tommy Olczyk, son of former NHL star Eddie Olczyk, its captain earlier this week. Olczyk is joined by Nate Jensen and George Saad, two of the holdovers from a successful club program. Jensen spent his freshman season at Mercyhurst, appearing in 36 games with two goals and 14 assists for the Lakers, before transferring to PSU.
"Tommy, George and Nate are three outstanding student-athletes who were selected by their teammates for their strong work ethic and commitment to the program," Gadowsky said in a release. "They are fantastic representatives of Penn State hockey, and the staff is extremely excited to have them lead the team during our first NCAA season."
Even as PSU's players and coaches insist otherwise, the 2012-13 season is largely a litmus test for the program. Acclimation begins with the two games against AIC next weekend. From there, PSU plays 19 more games against Division I opponents, including two each against Big Ten rivals Michigan State and Wisconsin on the road, four against Division III schools, six against club programs and two with the U.S. National Development Program's Under-18 side.
The opportunities to play against top competition for the first time and strengthen the program's framework are vital.
Naming Olczyk as a captain in his first season at the school could mean a three-year reign with the "C" on his chest. Even with Gadowsky's experience, the calming presence of Olczyk will help the club navigate the inevitably difficult season ahead.
"It's an honor to be named one of the captains for this hockey team," Olczyk said. "It's something very special and something near and dear to my heart. I've worked a long time to get into this position, and, even though I don't have any NCAA experience, I try go out and do the little things right and lead by example on and off the ice."
BU's Season Under a Cloud
The arrests of Max Nicastro and Cory Trivino last season stunned a program in the middle of a successful run. Even as the Terriers advanced to the Hockey East semifinals and qualified for their first NCAA Tournament since their national championship season, more news came late in the summer that took the focus from hockey.
A task force charged with assessing the behavior of BU hockey players away from the ice found a series troubling trends. For BU coach Jack Parker, this season is a chance to move on from the cloud caused by last season's arrests and the report that suggested he has lost control of a program he's ran for the last 40 seasons. On the ice, BU is not unlike any other team in the country, beginning the season with some holes to fill and questions to answer. However, few college hockey programs have dealt with the type of reputation issues the Terriers now face. Parker is confident BU will move on from its problems, but the Terriers desperately need a clean season off the ice to begin the process of moving on from the last 10 months.
"I think it will be (good to start playing hockey again)," Parker said. "It would've been nice if the (task force report) came out earlier instead of September. We're not playing games yet, but that stuff is behind us. We've already endorsed everything the task force recommended in terms of what we were asked to do, what the department was asked to do and what the university was asked to do. Students, coaches, athletes, everybody will be better off for it. I think it's an exciting time to be around BU."
The bigger issue is not Boston University itself, but what kind of effects this might have nationally. College hockey coaches have generally shown little tolerance for bad behavior, but expect that tolerance level to get closer to zero now.
Meanwhile, Parker's club landed in the No. 3 spot in both the Hockey East coaches and media polls, and the club boasts the type of talent that gives them an outside shot at league and national honors. For many, though, questions with BU hockey no longer deal solely with the product Parker and his staff put on the ice.
"We have a hockey program with a reputation that's been going on for a long, long time," Parker said. "It goes back to when Harry Cleverly was here, and Jack Kelley was here, and I've been here for 40 years. Our reputation stands on its merit. (BU players) came here because of that reputation, and they're going to add to it. People want to come to Boston University. It's a great school, and it's a great place to play hockey. We've had success recruiting in the past, and we will continue to be successful."
The Ramifications of the NHL Lockout
The National Hockey League's ongoing lockout shows no sign of a conclusion, and the labor strife will likely impact college hockey in some ways. Many seem to suggest a lack of professional hockey will lead to increased interest in the college game in the U.S., and that is likely true to an extent. However, some of the most respected names in college hockey aren't looking forward to a full year without the NHL.
Parker said, and many agreed, that the best thing for college hockey is a fast end to the lockout. Potential impacts on college players leaving school early to sign pro contracts, especially undrafted players, could be felt depending on the negotiated collective bargaining agreement that will be reached at some point. The entry-level contract has been a major sticking point of the conversations, or lack thereof, between the National Hockey League Players Association and the league's owners. Currently, all ELCs are three years, but it's likely that owners will look to extend that to control player salaries as long as possible.
Aside from players moving on to the NHL, some have suggested increased crowds or larger television audiences in markets typically occupied by NHL teams.
Perhaps an unexpected by-product of the lockout could be the shift of the Great Lakes Invitational from its planned venue of Comerica Park back to Joe Louis Arena. According to a source at Western Michigan, the NHL is funding the development of the outdoor rink at the baseball stadium. This could all change given the issues related to revenue and other factors. While moving the GLI back to Joe Louis likely wouldn't cause too much damage to the tournament given the all-Michigan field with Michigan, Michigan State, Western Michigan and Michigan Tech participating, it does take away from some of the buzz related to the event.
The 2012-13 college hockey season, like most, presents very few certainties. One guarantee, however, is that the final game of the year will be played on Saturday, April 13 at 7 p.m. EST at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh. The 2013 Frozen Four will be the first ever in Pittsburgh or the state of Pennsylvania, with Philadelphia set to host the event in 2014 as well.
Last season, Tampa, Fla., hosted the event, and many wondered what kind of success it would enjoy. While it didn't sell out, its 18,818 attendance in the national championship was the best ever for a first-time host. Even in the non-traditional college hockey market, the event went off without any issues and proved a memorable occasion. Pittsburgh certainly has a lot to live up to, as well as a lot to build on. The success Robert Morris has experienced in cultivating a fan base in recent years, as well as the emergence of Penn State will certainly drive interest in western Pennsylvania.
On the last two national championship teams, Pittsburgh has been well represented with UMD's Kenny Reiter, as well as Boston College's Parker Milner and Patrick Wey, hailing from the area. With BC among the favorites for another national championship, the city's first Frozen Four could have an interesting hometown feel. In general, hockey's growth in the region in the last seven years, at least since Sidney Crosby made it relevant again, has led to another potential great hockey moment for the city.