Between the Lines: Hey, Slow Down
It's the old guy cliche that time goes faster and faster. But, hey, guilty as charged. This summer was particularly rough. I need another three months to prepare — thus the reason why this season-opening Between the Lines column is just being published now.
Between acclimating to our new baby daughter, putting an addition on my house, and circumnavigating the world's political climate while trying to not go insane, I've never looked more forward to hockey season. It just came on too quickly.
Oh, but you didn't want to hear about me. Well, for college hockey, it was also a summer of — perhaps not tumult, but certainly change. Nine new coaches, including the retirement of the legendary Red Berenson at Michigan, and a change at Michigan State. It was nothing like five years ago when all of the conferences got re-shuffled, but it was a bit dizzying at times.
Through it all, Denver, which seemed on the precipice of having a coaching change and numerous blue-chip-player departures when Jim Montgomery was interviewing for NHL jobs, comes back essentially intact, ready to make a run for another championship.
Can anyone stop them? I've watched enough college hockey seasons to know that STUFF always happens. The last odds-on favorite of this magnitude to go wire to wire was Maine in 1993, and they were a third-period miracle away from losing the final.
There's a lot to think about as the new season gets started.
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There was a time you could sprinkle in political remarks in my columns and not be too worried. I'm pretty middle of the road, I think, and the country wasn't as polarized. Now — I ain't touching any of it with a 100-foot Authoritarian Haircut. At least not in this space.
Where it does matter for college hockey, however, is when it comes to The Olympics. This year's Winter games, in South Korea, already has the potential to cause some turmoil in the second half of the college hockey season. But it could get more hairy. Everyone is reluctant to admit the possibility, especially because they don't want to be disappointed, but there's a better-than-zero chance that there will be no Olympics. With what's happening on the Korean Peninsula right now, there has to be serious security concerns. And if that escalates even further, or hostilities break out entirely, the Olympics might be scrapped for this go round.
I'm not saying the odds are better than 50-50, but they're somewhat significantly more than zero. And it's something people seem reluctant to acknowledge.
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Some teams will lose players mid-season to the Olympics, but at least they will theoretically be back for the postseason. And it probably won't be that many — around five or six.
It could've been worse. USA Hockey decided not to put together a travelling, year-round team. It would've had to scramble to do so, and college teams weren't prepared for it, so I commend them on the decision. It is a Catch-22 though; Canada is doing so, and the U.S. may not be as fully prepared for the games.
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The nine coaching changes is high for this era, but didn't match the 10 from six seasons ago. That's a lot of changes, but I can't really complain about anything any of the schools did — which is the unusual part.
Some people wanted Red Berenson to retire a year earlier. That was always up to him, and it's not something people should get up in arms about. Despite the setbacks in recent years, the program is still well-positioned to get big recruits and return to dominance. Mel Pearson can do that. I thought Michigan might want to go younger, and selfishly I'd hoped Pearson stayed at Michigan Tech because I like seeing many different schools prosper. But it's hard to argue with the move from anyone's standpoint.
Meanwhile, Michigan Tech is left feeling jilted, but in moving right to Joe Shawhan, they get someone who paid his dues and earned the spot. Sustained success will not be easy there, but same is true for anyone. Shawhan got off to a good start with two wins at The Icebreaker.
Northern Michigan and Alaska are two more WCHA teams that made moves — in the case of Alaska, relatively late in the offseason because of Dallas Ferguson's departure. Northern Michigan made a tremendous move hiring up-and-coming coach star Grant Potulny, someone who, through hard work, has excelled at everything he's chosen to do. But again, these places are tougher to win at than they used to be — not within the league, but nationally. Still, as I've said all along, these schools are better off in a league among themselves because they have a chance to dominate the league, if they do things right. And while the league may be weaker compared to the others, dominating the league looks good, and has a chance to raise your profile that way, to the point where competiting nationally ultimately is then possible. Think Gonzaga or UNLV basketball back in the day — teams that dominate smaller conferences and then over team build into something that can win nationally.
Some people wanted Michigan State to make a move earlier too. It's hard for me to criticize Tom Anastos, who I still believe is one of the best people in hockey. But it's hard to argue with the Spartans making the move to Danton Cole. The key there is recruiting — they absolutely must make inroads in that department.
Same goes for RPI, where another of my favorite people, Seth Appert, was let go. Appert landed on his feet with the USNTDP, which will be great for everyone. Dave Smith is a solid hire, though, despite the rumblings that came from some RPI alumni circles. I can understand their concerns, and there was an inflammatory report in the local newspaper there that made it seem like RPI's world was crumbling. That's a historic program, and it's great for the ECAC and college hockey if RPI can get back to competing nationally again. It's a good fan base, with a string alumni base. But from talking to many people, I am convinced the criticisms are premature. Dave Smith was a good hire, and the resources are there to compete. For sure, the school needs to keep the momentum going and make critical improvements to facilities and budgets. But the talk seems sincere, so we'll see. Just like with Northern Michigan, you'd like these things to happen in time to help the old coach, but this seems to be the way of the world.
Finally, there's not much to say on Nebraska-Omaha's hire on Mike Gabinet. He's young, but has an already-impressive track record, and has surrounded himself with quality people. It may be the jolt of energy UNO has needed. Dean Blais is a legend and got them to a Frozen Four, but I think the transition timing was perfect.
And then there's Dick Umile. The New Hampshire coach announced this will be his final season. Another coach who takes way more criticism than he deserves from antsy fans and alumni, so I am rooting for a big season for them, and it's off to a good start with a pair of wins. When he steps down, that will leave Jerry York and Andy Murray as the elder statesmen, with only Frank Serratore and Jeff Jackson also over 60.
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The summer saw another year of largely the same debates, and the same lack of significant changes. Debates over emphasizing crackdowns over this penalty or that; debates over the recruiting issues and what will happen there; debates over whether the NCAA tournament will continue to be at neutral sites; etc...
We've talked about these things all ad nauseum, and there's no use repeating any of them until something significantly changes. After the push to change icing rules and age limits all got significant pushback from the larger coaching body, those issues died down. They'll come up again, but for now, it's tranquil.
The commissioners are discussing what to do about overtimes, because no consensus could be reached there either. There has been talk of trying to make overtimes uniform. Some conferences — after the initial 5 minutes — play a 3-and-3 and/or a shootout to determine a winner for the league purposes, but it doesn't count towards NCAA records. A proposal to go to 4-on-4 overtime across the board, was shot down.
My take is ... who cares? What is wrong with leaving the status quo, and letting the conferences do what they want after the initial 5 minutes? It doesn't have to be uniform. As far as the NCAA is concerned, the game is over after 5 minutes of 5-on-5. I see no pressing need to change that, nor a pressing need to care about what the conferences are doing. The 3-on-3 and the shootout, in particular, are a circus sideshow and if I had my druthers, it wouldn't exist. But I'll refrain from the "get off my lawn" commentary, and just let it be. Last thing we need though is some sort of circus that actually matters in real records.
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The only other thing of note in the summer was the addition of Allentown, Pa., and Sioux Falls, S.D., as NCAA Regional sites. Of course, the Committee is beholden to which venues apply, so it's not like they actively sought new places and decided to mix it up. But it's nice to see new places nonetheless, especially since I now live with 90 minutes of the "Midwest Regional" (Allentown).
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Finally, Kyle Hayton was the most noteworthy grad transfer this offseason, from St. Lawrence to Wisconsin. But there were a bunch of others. Including a surprising one: Tommy Davis going from four years at Princeton to Providence. He played seven games as a freshman at Princeton, and so was therefore still eligible for another year, assuming he got a medical redshirt for that season. Still strange to see. When did the grad transfer thing become a bigger thing?
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Enjoy the season. It's already off to a rocking start. I just hope the calendar slows down a little.