March 28, 2013 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Atlantic Hockey Hopes for Growth

by Mike McMahon/Senior Writer

The landscape of college hockey is rapidly changing.

It isn’t just the advent of two new leagues on the horizon for next season, and the end of another, but the gap between the bottom and the top is as close as its ever been.

Parity, they call it.

For the first time ever, two Atlantic Hockey Association teams will be a part of the NCAA tournament after Canisius won the league’s automatic bid last weekend and Niagara, on the heels of a marvelous regular season, earned the league’s first ever at-large berth.

Robert Morris, which finished No. 17 in the final Pairwise rankings, was even in contention into the conference championship weekend, finishing ahead of longstanding powers Boston University, Colorado College and Michigan.

Atlantic Hockey’s success this season isn't new. It's been brewing for a while, coming on the heels of RIT making the Frozen Four in 2010.

“Parity in hockey is tremendous,” Robert Morris head coach Derek Schooley said. “We had three teams under consideration and none of them won the automatic bid. The gap is closing from the bottom to the top. There will still always be the ‘BCS schools’ but we’re seeing teams narrow the gap.”

Canisius drew the tournament’s top overall seed, Quinnipiac, in the first round on Saturday in Providence. Niagara travels west to play North Dakota on Friday.

Atlantic Hockey’s surge in the Pairwise this season couldn’t have come at a better time. Next season, with conference realignment taking effect, most teams will be tasked with filling more non-conference dates. In Hockey East, for example, the number of non-conference games teams are looking to schedule will double from seven to 14.

“In the old days many of us were just hoping to say we played against some big schools,” said Army head coach Brian Riley. “Now we feel confident when we go into these games that we can win. The talent level in our league has grown considerably. Getting two teams in the tournament this year is great for our league and great for hockey. Things like this, and RIT making their run a few years ago, that helps grow our league.”

Growth needs to be expected starting next season.

With so many games to fill, it’s not practical for teams with high prestige to expect that paying for home games will be acceptable to enough teams. Not just in Atlantic Hockey, but even for lesser-prominent programs in large conferences, they’ll want to play at home at least once in a while.

“At West Point we’re a little more fortunate than others in our league in that we can get teams to come here,” Riley said. “But, I know it’s hard for some of our teams to get non-league games in their facilities. To get some of the teams to come out would be great but a lot of teams have the financial backing to throw out a really good guarantee. Let’s face it, it’s hard to win, but it’s really hard to win on the road. It will be interesting to see how it plays out because these leagues will need to find more non-league games, and I know there are a lot of teams in larger leagues that have been great to everyone in our league over the years.”

Canisius’ auto bid has drawn the ire of some fans across the nation, questioning whether a team that finished barely above .500 on the season deserved a spot on the national stage. Even ESPN during its selection show barely mentioned the Griffs, who are one of the hottest teams in the nation entering the tournament, winning their last eight games including six conference tournament games.

Even the fact that Atlantic Hockey was placing two teams in the tournament for the first time ever – just one less than Hockey East, home of four of the last five national champions – wasn’t mentioned once.

“Canisius has nothing to apologize for,” Riley said. “I thought, to barely be mentioned, was really disrespectful to them. They’ve been extremely hot and they’ve beaten good teams. I felt like they were ignored. Maybe if (Niagara and Canisius) make some noise, it will be different. I certainly felt that Canisius was disrespected and to be quite honest, I thought the league was too.”

In large part, but not exclusively, thanks to Canisius’ upset over Niagara, left out was Robert Morris.

Still, the Colonials treated last week as a learning experience and a moment of grown for their program.

“I became sort of a Pairwise expert,” Schooley said. “It’s something we’ve never had to deal with before but I think it goes to show you the body of work we had this season. It was really a roller coaster. We got swept my UConn and we thought our season was over and we were saying goodbye to our seniors on the bus driving back and then you realize there is a chance of us getting an at-large. Not only that, but it was possible. It wasn’t one of those scenarios that couldn’t happen. It was unprecedented for us. We practiced last week and it’s something we’ll learn from.”

Robert Morris will also host this year’s Frozen Four in Pittsburgh.

Aside from off-the-ice milestones for Atlantic Hockey, on the ice, many within the league believe Niagara, Canisius, or both, could surprise folks this weekend.

“They both have great goaltending,” Riley said. “Both teams also defend really well in front of their goalie, but their goalie could also steal a game making 45 or 50 saves. With Canisius, half of being good is thinking you’re good, and they’re as hot as anyone. Niagara just seems to be deep everywhere and they have so many skilled guys. I think they could both surprise people.”

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