November 24, 2011 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Many Thanks

Merrimack Was Almost in Alabama-Huntsville's Position

by Mike McMahon/Staff Writer

Merrimack fans, on this Thanksgiving, count your blessings.

Take a good, hard look at the team your Warriors just played.

It's the Alabama-Huntsville Chargers. A team in its final days as a Division I program, after chancellor Dr. Malcolm Portera pulled the fatal trigger on the program last month, announcing it was dropping to club status.

The reasons cited were largely financial and the trigger-happy Portera decided to fire the bullet quickly, rather than listen to droves of supporters and alumni who had plans in place to finance the program.

He was the man in charge. He wanted hockey at Alabama-Huntsville to die, and that's what is going to happen.

Merrimack fans, this was almost your fate.

Was there a Malcolm Portera at Merrimack, a man in power who wanted to kill a Division I program? It certainly teetered that way, even if it wasn't publicly expressed.

Under the previous administration at Merrimack, hockey, and athletics in general, floundered. It was an afterthought.

Many people blame the revolving door of athletic directors, but that wasn't it. This sabotage was happening from the top.

Would the program drop? Would it inexplicably leave Hockey East for College Hockey America, a conference that folded at the end of the 2009-10 season?

Merrimack's players, coaches and alumni didn't want to leave Hockey East. They wanted to put their best foot forward in an effort to compete.

But when then-president Richard Santagati was publicly questioning the viability of the program, things were tough to get behind.

"The question is when you don't perform well and not compete, does (the hockey program) remain a positive? Of course not," he told The Eagle Tribune in 2005, following a 1-22-1 season in Hockey East play. "If we're not competitive year-in and year-out, I think a positive can become a negative.

"If we were to remain clearly in last place or not ever get beyond .500 in Hockey East, we should assess if we can compete in the conference."

Then, things changed.

Santagati stepped down and a slew of changes across the college administration took place in a two-year period.

Call it the perfect storm.

Instead of giving up — instead of resigning itself to second-tier status — Merrimack's new administration saw an opportunity. Athletics went from the grave to the forefront, with hockey prominently featured on the marquee.

The No. 1 team in the country, which just saw its 10th straight sellout in the game against Alabama-Huntsville, could be the program on the other side. Instead of an unbeaten team in one of college hockey's top conferences, it could be a winless team whose heart was ripped from its chest by an ignorant administration.

In no particular order, here are just a few people Merrimack fans should be toasting over turkey tomorrow:

Mark Dennehy

The architect. I can't help but think of the scene in the recently released movie "Moneyball," where Brad Pitt, playing Billy Beane's character, describes the Oakland Athletics by saying, "You have rich teams, and you have poor teams. Then, you have 20 feet of crap, and then there's us."

Dennehy's Warriors are in a similar position.

They're No. 1 in the country, but as the smallest Division I school in the nation (based on enrollment), they by definition have the fewest resources.

Dennehy has used his own form of Moneyball; let's call it Moneypuck.

He hasn't chased the highly touted recruits. He's brought in older players, from winning programs.

In essence, he's counting cards. He's taken the advantage from the house.

It's a model other teams will look to mimic. At least, they should.

Glen Hofmann

From day one, Merrimack's athletic director has had a plan. With support from the top of the college down, he's been able to put together projects like renovating Lawler Arena and orchestrating an expansion, which is slated to add another rink to the front of the building as well as new athletic training facilities.

Like his hockey coach, the outside-the-box mentality has proved to be the difference.

Dr. Christopher Hopey

The head of Alabama-Huntsville is smothering its program to death.

The head of Merrimack College takes his place every game, sitting in his jam-packed box, right on the red line, screaming and cheering as loud, if not louder, than the 500 or so students that pack the grandstand behind the net.

It's always a good thing when the college president is one of your team's biggest fans.

Even outside athletics, the college under Hopey is expanding and renovating, updating long-needed infrastructure like the library, roadways and classroom buildings.

Athletically, he's helped spearhead an exploration into going Division I across the board. And with Hofmann, Merrimack has added eight sports in the last two years.

And to think, he hasn't named one dormitory after himself.

Sports is not the end all be all of the world. We've gotten important reminders again recently, in case anyone still needs it, to that point — evidenced by scandals at Penn State, Miami (the Florida one), and so on.

But athletics, when done well, when done right, and when done in lockstep with the goals of the university instead of against them, can be a positive thing for students, student-athletes, the school and the community as a whole.

Merrimack has shown how it can be done.

Alabama-Huntsville, for all of its similarities to Merrimack, has differences, admittedly. It doesn't have the geographical advantage that Merrimack has, not even close.

But for a program that has won four national championships in its past, and has a loyal following, the administration has an opportunity to leverage its uniqueness, instead of discarding it as a burden.

If it weren't for the new regime at Merrimack, the Warriors could have very well found themselves in the Chargers' shoes.

Those kids and those coaches are getting the rug pulled from underneath them. And if any program in the country should show solidarity with them, it's Merrimack.

You were almost them.

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