ECAC Presence in Frozen Four Not a Fluke
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
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PITTSBURGH It's a noticeable, and oft-mentioned, theme of this year's Frozen Four that no "traditional powers" have made it. Last year, Ferris State and Union made the Frozen Four, and others have broken through in the years before that. This year, the ECAC has two teams in the Frozen Four for the first time since the split with Hockey East in 1984.
The question is whether this is a coincidence, a down trend for the "big" schools, or a sign of something changing for the better for ECAC schools.
The answer is probably all of the above.
* Coincidence ... mathematical probability would suggest that this would happen sooner or later, but no one ever wants to hear that, and in this case, it most likely does not explain it all.
* Smaller schools have better coaching than ever ... there is no doubt that coaching, across the board, is better than ever. It's just something that gets constantly, incrementally better, through attrition, which eventually trickles down to everyone
* Players leaving early ... the massive amounts of elite level talent that are leaving school early or never coming in the first place these days, is leaving holes in the big programs, and messing up their recruiting habits. This has been discussed over and over, and certainly contributes to an evening out of the playing field. There was concern for many years that the rich were getting richer, and that the formation of the Big Ten would just make that worse. But the early departure of blue chippers is an off-setting dynamic.
* Quinnipiac ... In the case of Quinnipiac, it has emphasized hockey over the last 10 years, and this is the culmination. It's an ECAC school that can give 18 scholarships, and has devoted the resources to making hockey successful. The program is similar, at this point, to Vermont, which left the league, allowing Quinnipiac to take its spot. Each program now has one Frozen Four under its belt since then.
* Increased Ivy League resources ... And this is the key to the whole thing that may not be realized by most people. The Ivy League schools are able to give de facto scholarships to many kids these days. The federal government, concerned with the high endowments stored at many large universities, including the Ivy League, pushed the schools to do something with the money. The result was that, for all students, these schools now offer free tuition for families making under a certain amount of money, around $80,000/year, with a sliding scale up from there. There was an obvious side effect on athletics. Furthermore, even though Cornell, Brown and Dartmouth do not have the endowments to do that, they successfully lobbied the Ivy League to allow their athletic programs to match whatever package Princeton, Harvard and Yale are offering.
All of these are factors. Some people attribute it only to the big schools being dragged down by early departures. But if that's the case, explain why so many ECAC alums are currently in the NHL. Dartmouth and Cornell have six each, Yale has two, Princeton has four, Brown has two, and Harvard has three.
"In the years I've been here, I've seen individual institutions making a re-commitment to playing big-time college hockey," said RPI coach Seth Appert. "You look around, Cornell builds a locker complex and puts millions into it. And Yale puts millions into renovations, and we do renovations, the weight room and what not. And Union, their locker complex is fantastic.
"So you go down the line, and either in facility upgrades or in coaching upgrades, or in upping the ante to keep a coach instead of letting them walk away, the commitment is there. I think that top to bottom, 1-to-12, in our league, our individual institutions at the highest levels have made a re-commitment to making us nationally competitive."
In order to keep the momentum going, ECAC coaches want to keep the playing field as level as possible going forward, which includes as many neutral-site games, or home-away non-conference games as possible.
There has always been a dynamic where bigger schools get more home games than road games. ECAC schools have tried to band together and agree not to go to any non-league road game, without a reciprocal return. Some schools like Michigan and Minnesota just won't do that, so ECAC schools rarely play those teams.
In the future, starting next year, those schools will have even fewer league games in the Big Ten. Hockey East will also have fewer league games, and the NCHC created an unbalanced 24-game schedule in order to leave more room for non-league games. That means they will all be looking for more non-conference games to fill, and it means those schools may get an inordinate number of games at home. That could provide a large advantage for those schools in the Pairwise, which is the system that picks the teams for the NCAA tournament.
When you combine that with the call from some places to get NCAA Regional games back at campus sites, many coaches see that as a double whammy. So expect that to be a hot topic during the offseason.
But the bottom line is that ECAC teams — while never as down as some fans, who exaggerate the differences, liked to think — are making a legitimate comeback. This is not a mirage. And the rising tide of Quinnipiac and the Ivies is lifting all boats.
"One of the reasons we ended up No. 1 in the Pairwise," Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold said, "(is) our league had a lot of great non-conference wins. We're all in this together. We have to battle each other and go head-to-head, but in the end, I need those other 11 teams to do well so we can go to the NCAA tournament, as does everybody.
"I think our league is as good as any in the country, top to bottom. We might not have some of the high-end Thomas Vaneks of the world, but we've got some great players, great student-athletes, and we play hard."