Between the Lines: Potpourri
Thoughts on Coaches, Recruiting, Frozen Four and More
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
There hasn't been much real news about which conference Arizona State may wind up in. But there are some tea leaves to read, while they keep things close to the vest for now.
According to a recent report, ASU will try to build a new arena in conjunction with the Arizona Coyotes. That's a pretty good accomplishment unto itself, and they may figure that a conference isn't really necessary right away. That might be true. Until the team is ready to compete for a conference title, it doesn't really help them.
But one way or another, that day will come eventually. And the same three possibilities are still on the table: NCHC, WCHA and Big Ten.
The NCHC, you would think, would want to add two teams. There are very few options right now. Perhaps Bowling Green is the lone possibility. Whether that's a fit, is unclear. The NCHC would love Notre Dame, of course, but the Irish appear to be settling into a comfort zone in Hockey East that wasn't there initially. The travel situation is better for them in Hockey East, and there has been a net positive impact on recruiting, so don't expect Notre Dame to switch.
The WCHA would welcome ASU with open arms, no matter what. It's just a matter of whether ASU wants to take it, or wait for something it perceives as better.
The Big Ten has always been out there as a small possibility, because the Big Ten has taken teams from outside the conference in other sports, like Johns Hopkins recently with lacrosse. The difference there is, Hopkins isn't a competitor, so to speak, in other sports. Arizona State, meanwhile, is in the Pac-12, which is an equal behemoth to the Big Ten with its own TV network to feed. It seems unlikely they'd want to have that kind of marriage of convenience.
So, that's where it stands. We wait and see.
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Last year, there was only one coaching change in college hockey. There's only been one other time since 1961 with that few changes. And that wouldn't even have happened had Dave Hakstol not been offered an NHL job late in the spring.
This year, there may be more. The names you hear about on the hot seat the most are Wisconsin's Mike Eaves, Michigan State's Tom Anastos, and Massachusetts' John Micheletto.
Personally, I don't think Eaves is going anywhere. He has a national title to his credit, and was in the NCAAs just two years ago. The last two seasons have been nothing but abysmal, and attendance is sagging, but in the latter department, they're not alone. And I expect the performance to turn back around.
Anastos is one of the smartest people in college hockey, but he hasn't been able to get the team on course for a few years, and there are still alums that are sour he was hired without any previous college coaching experience. So that may weigh on the athletic director's mind there.
As for UMass, they have floundered for years now, unable to make any progress. Which is weird considering it recently put Matt Irwin, Frank Vatrano and Conor Sheary in the NHL.
The entire athletic department is actually a shambles right now; the hockey team combined with the men's and women's basketball teams are a combined 4-27 in the calendar year 2016. Hockey's two wins are against Army and American International.
And then there was this quote recently in the New Haven Register, from K.J. Tiefenwerth, who transferred from UMass to Quinnipiac: “Guys work super hard and pay attention to details. Coming from the program I was at, it’s night and day. The way guys prepare for practice, the way they battle for spots. It’s a fun environment to be around and it translates well into games.”
Now, look, I know that winning helps everyone's attitudes, and of course everything looks rosy at QU compared to UMass right now. But attitudes also help in winning. Something isn't right at UMass. It can't necessarily all be pinned on Micheletto, but he may take the fall. UMass is a school where it should be possible to win. It hasn't really done so since Jonathan Quick left.
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How about Maine? Whether Red Gendron is the right man to lead Maine hockey forward is actually not the right question. Gendron is a great coach, good hockey man, and a revered persona in the game. But the question is whether anyone can lead Maine back to where it once was.
Part of the problem is contained in the question. Too many Maine fans — maybe most — look to the past instead of to the future. No matter what you think of ousted coach Tim Whitehead's coaching ability, his tenure was doomed from the start. Shawn Walsh, um, "shaped" the rules, ruffled feathers, but brilliantly coached his way to two national championships, and he's considered a legend in Orono. Whitehead went to four Frozen Fours, and ran a program with class and dignity, but nothing he did was right in the eyes of the faithful there.
Whitehead's tenure coincided with some drastic budget cutbacks at the university. It also coincided with vast improvements at numerous other Eastern schools, in budgets and facilities. Whitehead lost Grant Standbrook as a recruiter along the way, but do you think Whitehead's staff forgot Western Canada existed, or were they just not given the resources?
None of this is to say Whitehead was the greatest coach or not. Or that Gendron is or is not. The point is that, anyone who expects Maine to be a national power again any time soon, may have a long wait. And that letter penned by then-assistant Bob Corkum — distancing himself from Whitehead while the university was happy to send it out as a news release — still baffles and irks me. It was pretty distasteful.
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I never get enough of comments like this from Omaha coach Dean Blais:
"I just liked to score goals (as a player). Very rarely did I have to backcheck. ... I just hate to dump and chase. You have to do it now and then. If you're holding the red line, and now you get to the red line and you're right on them, I might as well dump it and try to forecheck. But I hate automatically (doing it), now you have to chase and fight to get it back. So you'll see our players try to make plays.
"Kids are conditioned, when they have the puck, to defend. I don't think that's the way college hockey should be. Yeah, you win more games, you survive, but I don't think you win championships. It's not fun to play and I hate to coach it. We've lost games by being too offensive, but if I can hold these guys together, I think we'll be pretty special next year and the year after."
UNO had a great start to this season, but has been struggling lately. We'll see if they can bounce back and fulfill Blais' dreams of another Frozen Four with this up-tempo style.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Cornell coach Mike Schafer, who had a defense-first style that worked for many years as Cornell carried the load for the entire ECAC. Cornell was the only ECAC team to make the Frozen Four from 2001 to 2011, and his teams played in six other Regional finals. For a variety of reasons, the team hit a bump the last couple of years, as ECAC recruiting and coaching improved across the board. Cornell had some recruiting rules working against it at first then, got those straightened out, brought in a hugely talented class that included Brian Ferlin, Cole Bardreau and Joakim Ryan, but that group struggled getting itself to be cohesive. As it struggled, Schafer tried to change his sytems last year, and it only made it worse.
"We've got to make some major changes within our program," Schafer told the Ithaca Journal last spring. "I tried to make some changes this year with some of our systems, and I thought they failed miserably, and we've got to go back to the drawing board. I did things one way for 19 years, made a change this year, and now we're going back to the way we did it the previous 19 years."
With another big, highly-talented recruiting class in this year, Schafer went back to what had worked in the past, and, more importantly, has managed to get everyone on the same page again. The results have been mixed so far, but with more good signs than bad. There's no doubt the competition within the ECAC — for recruits and on the ice — is way better than it was 2003. But I expect Cornell back near the top within a couple years.
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It's been about a year now since schools have been offering recruits "full cost of attendance" scholarships. Something the "Big Five" conferences introduced (which in hockey, means only the Big Ten and a handful of other schools), and many other schools followed suit in an attempt to keep up.
I've written before about there coming a time when this arms race might reach a breaking point, but we have a ways to go before that might happen. Still, it's something to keep an eye on.
"I think we're a little different sport than football and basketball from the recruiting side," Minnesota-Duluth coach Scott Sandelin said. His is one of the seven NCHC schools now offering the extra scholarship money; only Denver is not. "Just look at some of those schools, there's not a huge difference in the full amount. We're like $500 less than North Dakota. It's not like it's extravagant. The kids, they're getting it, but they still don't really know what it is.
"I hope it doesn't have (a negative) effect. Hockey guys are sometimes different. We live in a different world. Football and basketball are in a different universe as far as their way of doing business. I don't see it being as much of a factor in our game. I do agree that you hope it doesn't burden any more programs."
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Recruiting will always be a tangled web of intrigue. People wring their hands about the problems with recruiting these days, and believe me, I know there are many problems. But there have always been problems. So, I don't worry about it too much.
That said, there still are things it would be nice to see rectified. Nothing wrong with trying to make things better.
That "Gentlemen's Agreement" thing doesn't seem to have much solution though. Originally intended to stop teams from pilfering each other's players, it got to be a sore spot with players committing younger and younger, and then in some cases, the player then being "released" from the commitment by the team before getting there, without other schools getting a chance to recruit them. Interestingly, some of the coaches who have been accused of using the Gentleman's Agreement as a way to "stockpile" players, have no problem with other teams continuing to recruit those players and believe the GA is useless. For them, it's more about backup plans in case of admissions issues, not an inethical stockpiling.
So, everyone accuses everyone else of doing things differently than they do, but everyone has their reasons. It's like a Chinese menu of options, and teams mix and match what suits them. I'm not sure anyone is being blatantly unethical out there. Some teams ignore the GA, others don't. Some teams recruit early, some recruit late, others in between. Some teams stockpile players, others don't. Mix and match.
Of course, with kids also decommitting left and right, where is the honor anywhere anymore? I had one coach tell me that the recruiting battles are the "worst it's ever been."
Last year, we called the disagreement among coaches a "mutiny," and some coaches got upset. They suggested there was no major disagreement going on and everything was fine. This is clearly not the case. And more and more, coaches have come out publicly with their feelings on this topic. But I don't forsee a universal solution at this point.
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Frozen Four Thoughts
When Tampa was awarded the Frozen Four in 2012, I didn't like the idea. Anaheim wasn't a great Frozen Four in 1999, and going to warm weather climates seemed like something to do just for the heck of it. Or because some NCAA reps wanted to play golf that week. But the Tampa people did a really good job putting on the event, so despite my misgivings about Southern locales for Frozen Fours, I've warmed (pardon the pun) to the idea in general, and look forward to this year's Frozen Four, as usual.
I'm sure glad they didn't go back to Philadelphia. As far back as 2005, I wrote that Philadelphia was a poor choice for the Frozen Four. It lost that time around, with Washington D.C. a far superior choice which won the bid. I wrote it again when it was up for bid in 2010. That time it won, getting this year's bid, of course.
My reasoning was always the same — Philly's sports arenas are too remote from downtown. College hockey fans that go to the event like to have things within easy access. It's part of the charm of going. I heard from a lot of people who liked being in the city. But I also heard from a lot of people who grumbled at the distance to the arenas, just as I figured.
Philly itself has its pros and cons. It certainly has its charms if you know where to look. And it has the historical sites, if you're into that. But down by the arena, there's pretty much nothing — the Comcast-concocted super-bar notwithstanding.
I'm concerned Chicago will be more of the same in 2017, and I wrote that as well, just before the bids were announced last fall. I hope I'm wrong.
* * *
I do hope that everyone gets their act together for the Hobey Baker Award ceremony. That seems to be an annual nightmare that one point looked solved, but then regressed. The Hobey people are a separate entity, so even though it is college hockey's most prestigious individual award, the Hobey Committee is largely on its own to work out logistics. Sometimes this doesn't work out very well.
The NCAA ostensibly helps out when it can, but, from my eyes, has a vested interest in making that event the best it can be — because it reflects upon the NCAA, not just the Hobey people. The public doesn't separate the two.
There was a time when it was going well — there became a Friday night event at the arena where the Frozen Four was being held, and it was televised, and the public was allowed in. That has gone backwards in recent years. The event now is often crammed in somewhere with difficult logistics. The Hobey people say the NCAA is difficult, and the NCAA says the opposite about the Hobey people.
I don't care whose issue it is, but I do hope they come together and figure out a way to make that ceremony solid — for fans and media — every year.
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The last three champions have been schools, and coaches, that never won before. Who knows if that will happen again. But it makes me think of something current Michigan Tech coach Mel Pearson told me a couple years ago. Pearson was an assistant on two national champions at Michigan. He was referring to Union coach Rick Bennett.
"Bennett will be driving somewhere this summer, on a long trip somewhere, and he'll just think 'YEAH,'" Pearson said. I always think of that when I think of the joy of winning a championship. It will happen for someone else again soon.
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Speaking of recent first-time winners, here's what Nate Leaman said last year after Providence won the title, about having fun:
"(As a player), I got the OT winner against Hamilton when Hamilton was No. 1 in the country at one point. I wish I had that picture. But my college roommate passed away (last) January suddenly of a heart attack. He was co-captain with me and roommates for four years. When a bunch of us got together for his service, we got to go through a lot of old pictures from Cortland. And you forget those things, it was like, 'Wait a second, I played? I had fun at this game?'"