Wednesday, October 5, 2011

ECAC Hockey: Dialing It Down To 11? An Editorial

With today's announcement that Notre Dame now considers itself an East Coast team in every sport but football and has thus joined Hockey East, there are now vultures circling over the ECAC. Eleven teams is difficult (though not impossible) to schedule so it's possible that once again, a former ECAC team will be joining the original "superconference." The candidates for Hockey East, at least from an ECAC-centric view, are RPI and Quinnipiac. (Okay, there are some people mentioning Cornell based on traditional strength and Harvard based on geography. It's not going to happen though, so let's all just move on from the Ivies for a second.) There are some Atlantic Hockey teams that Hockey East may go after (well, UConn) that would make sense and just to not be cruel, Alabama-Huntsville is probably getting dolled up and pointing out they are about as east as Notre Dame. For more on almost all of these possibilities and why they will or won't happen, read this post by Without a Peer, an RPI site.
While that's all well and good for Hockey East, the biggest concern on this blog is the future of the ECAC's team. If RPI or Quinnipiac leave, it's now the ECAC that has to find a 12th team, again. So let's go through the candidates.
Rochester Institute of Technology (Atlantic Hockey) -'s Jason Klump told us RIT is the "blatantly obvious" choice for the potential 12th spot in the conference. They certainly fit the profile, especially if RPI is the team that jumps. Strong academics, Division III team in Liberty League, like most of the ECAC, doesn't offer athletic scholarships, etc. Here's the one problem - they are in Rochester. I don't mean to say this to denigrate the fine city of Rochester itself but to point out that Rochester's location doesn't quite fit the ECAC blueprint. RIT's closest team would be Cornell, a good 2 hour drive away. RIT would thus likely become Cornell's travel partner, while Colgate, about an hour and a half from Ithaca and the Big Red's geographic rival, would probably get paired with Union, over two hours away. If it's Quinnipiac that leaves (and judging by the value they've been placing in athletics, as evidenced by their big and shiny new sports complex, you have to imagine President Lahey is outside Joe Bertagna's office with a boombox blaring power ballads), then the same thing probably happens, with RPI becoming Harvard's travel partner, Brown and Dartmouth pairing together, and Yale and Princeton becoming an item. While Rochester wouldn't be the furthest trip in the league, with that distinction belonging to the Princeton-North Country swing, it is still a long trip (7 hours from Cambridge, though blissfully as a broadcaster, almost all highway driving.)
Army (Atlantic Hockey) In some ways I think Army makes the most sense of any team to add for the ECAC. A Division-I school, does not offer scholarships, Patriot League ties with Colgate, strong academics, great location that it could easily become either Union or Princeton's travel partner depending on who leaves and that is also close to New Haven. Plus they were an ECAC team two decades ago. The problem is that Army is not going to leave fellow military academy Air Force behind, and those West Point to Colorado Springs Friday-Saturday trips don't seem too appealing. It's just not going to happen.
Holy Cross (Atlantic Hockey) I admit, this is probably the most appealing option to me in terms of adding teams. Again, a Division I institution that does not offer scholarships, it has Patriot League ties with Colgate and a Bay State rivalry with Harvard in other sports (they are the tradition season opener in football and typically on the basketball schedule as well.) There's no denying that the Ivy League and Patriot League get along together so it would be a great fit in that regard. Worcester could also be an easy pairing with either Union if RPI leaves, or with some reshuffling, Harvard if Quinnipiac leaves. On the other hand, there's a reason Holy Cross did not get brought on board when Vermont left in 2004 and that isn't changing.
Connecticut (Atlantic Hockey) First, let me make the pitch for Hockey East to leave the ECAC alone and go after UConn. The Huskies are traditional rivals with Notre Dame in Big East basketball. They were once rivals with Boston College and want to head to the ACC in other sports to be reunited with Boston College. They are a large state school and fit the profile of many of the Hockey East teams. Plus they are already playing women's hockey in your conference. Alright, that being done with, here are the problems for UConn and Hockey East, though not necessarily problems for UConn and the ECAC. Not a great rink, can't offer men's scholarships thanks to Title IX (so come to a conference where over half the league doesn't offer scholarships, is my thinking). That said, UConn doesn't really "feel" like an ECAC school but frankly, their big name, even if not in hockey, should be a plus for the ECAC, feelings aside. Also, if Quinnipiac leaves, this is sort of a slam dunk in terms of geography.
Other Atlantic Hockey Schools/Alabama-Hunstville Geographically, probably not close enough. Sorry.
Penn/Columbia/MIT/Other Schools Without Hockey Teams Unless Terry Pagula accidentally leaves out the "State" when sending his giant check to the "Penn State Hockey Team," Penn's not getting a hockey team in time to be the 12th team. Same with anyone else that would fit the academic and/or geographic profile.
Callup from Division III If the ECAC is trying to get Tufts or UMass-Boston or any other school to make the jump (not to pick on those schools, they were just first to come to mind), the ECAC is probably in trouble.

Alright, looking at all that, geography aside I think RIT is probably the best choice for the league, but I like Holy Cross or UConn more personally. That said, I think there's another solution that everyone is missing and after thinking it through, it is the solution I'm most in favor of. What is it and why have I grown to like it? Find out after the jump.

I've joked about it on Twitter and toyed with writing a column on it this past summer but I've finally come to seriously embrace the need for an "Ivy League Hockey Conference." I'm not saying that the Ivy League teams should split no matter what, but should only do so if either RPI or Quinnipiac (ok, any non-Ivy ECAC team) leaves. If a Division III school two hours away from any of the current members is really the best the ECAC can do (no offense RIT- you were recently an NCAA team after all) then it's time for the Ancient Six to move on. It's not like the Ivy League doesn't already give out a trophy to the winner of the 10 game Ivy season within the ECAC season so let's make it official. Here's why they should do this (with almost all the reasons translating to the women's game as well).
Scheduling: First off, the more I've thought about how this league would work, the more I like it. The obvious schedule for a 6 team league is a balanced schedule facing each team four times, twice at home and twice on the road for a 20 game total. I admit, I'm salivating as a fan at the thought of the intensity of these rivalries. Harvard traveling to Cornell or Yale and playing them on back to back nights over the course of a weekend? Sign me up. Better still, going from a 22 game ECAC schedule to a 20 game Ivy schedule frees up 2 more non-conference dates.
Keeping Rivalries Alive: Alright, on the one hand, some rivalries would take a hit. Gone would be a league battle between Cornell and Colgate. Gone would be a Connecticut classic between Yale and Quinnipiac. On the other hand, Cornell and Colgate would probably have to split up if RIT comes into the league, and Quinnipiac is willing to split from Yale to head to Hockey East. Better still, two more non-league games means these games can just be scheduled anyway. Cornell can have a 20 game Ivy season, a home and home with Colgate, and then the normal 7 non-conference games they schedule every year (which normally involves at least one game with Colgate anyway).
Level Playing Field: This ties back into scheduling. In the ECAC, six teams have already begun or are about to begin their season. Six other teams won't begin playing competitive games until late October, early November. For instance, Harvard vs. Quinnipiac in the league's first weekend will be Harvard's 2nd game and Quinnipiac's 11th. If it's an all Ivy League conference, than all six teams will start their season at the same time. Simple and easy.
Marketing: This is more gut feeling, but I have to think it's easier to get casual fans amongst the student populations at Ivy schools to games between Ivy schools, rather than Ivy school hosting a Division III program that only plays the Ivy League schools in hockey (aka, a third of the league, and RIT.) Especially if the new Ivy League conference can work to make sure games between these schools are largely not scheduled during Winter Breaks. Last year, Harvard played Yale and Brown during the first weekend of January, when the college was closed to undergraduates except those doing a thesis - not exactly the folks that are going to come out to a hockey game. I don't know that this change will mean more attendance across the board, but I think it's a reasonable possibility.
Looking Out For Number One: Alright, I admit, this might be hypocritical of me. I've been firmly in the "think of the Alaskan schools" camp and the "Save UAH" camp and all those other camps critical of schools looking out for only their own interest. But you know what? If you can't beat them, join them. If RPI doesn't want to look out for a conference member (both ECAC and Liberty League) down the road from it in Union, I fail to see why the Ivy programs should. If Quinnipiac wants to leave- well, we've been expecting that forever actually. Besides:
The ECAC Wouldn't Be in Bad Shape: The fact is, the 5 teams in the ECAC wouldn't be in too bad of shape. RIT would still be there as a 6th team, with its similar profile as well as being in the Liberty League. The Atlantic Hockey schools that wanted to be in the "zombie CCHA" could instead join the ECAC as they would no longer be as far out as they would in the case of the league adding one team. That means Robert Morris, Mercyhurst, Canisius, Niagara, even possibly Army and Air Force, or Alabama-Huntsville, all get looks. With 12 teams already, it isn't going to kill Atlantic Hockey if the rump ECAC steals 5 teams and becomes a solid 10 team conference. Plus Buffalo is supposed to be adding a team soon (as is Syracuse, Navy, a bunch of other teams that have been saying so forever or more recently so take a grain of salt on that) so the ECAC can always grab them as well.
Conference Identity: The last point here is that in 2013-14, D-I hockey will finally once again have a conference that actually sponsors other sports in the Big Ten. (The ECAC might come a close second, since there is an ECAC that sponsors other sports and even has Harvard and other Ivies as members, if it were at all related to ECAC Hockey. But it's not, anymore at least.) The Ivy League could jump into that void as well. Telling a casual sports fan you are playing for an Ivy League team certainly will garner more meaning that saying you are playing for a NCHC team and in basketball, the Ivy League is proving it can actually compete as an athletic entity. Perhaps the Ivy League could leverage its basketball, football, and hockey conferences into some sort of TV package deal. Who knows? I mean, if Notre Dame now has an NBC Sports Group (Versus) deal because its football team is on NBC, why can't Ivy League hockey get on Versus thanks to its football teams already being on Versus? But the opportunity is only there if the Ivy League hockey conference exists instead of being hidden in the ECAC.

This is not to say this has been talked about officially. There has been, as far as I can tell, silence on the subject amongst the Ivy League, at least up to this summer. But if the ECAC drops to 11 members, the Ivy League owes it to its institutions and fans to do what's right for their interests and at least seriously discuss the possibility. Of course, since Hockey East originally formed because of the threat of Ivy League separation from the ECAC, it would be weird yet somehow fitting if nearly three decades later, Hockey East's expansion finally set that in motion.

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