Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Severe Fisking of Bucky Gleason

I hate to do this, because this guy seems to be on the right track in discussing what he wants to discuss, but he trips and falls over himself so many times along the way that it practically requires a fisking.

First, for those that are unaware, the definition of "fisking."

fisking. n. A point-by-point refutation of a blog entry or news story. A really stylish fisking is witty, logical, sarcastic, and ruthlessly factual; flaming or handwaving is considered poor form.
OK. So now that that's out of the way, let me introduce you to one Bucky Gleason. Seems like a decent guy. Covers the Sabres for The Buffalo News. Enthusiastic. Highly supportive of growth for college hockey in the Buffalo area. Sounds sweet, right? Well, let's make sure we've got our ducks in a row before we start making requests here.

If it's obvious to Paul Kelly all the way from his office in Newton, Mass., how can it remain largely overlooked here? Buffalo is one of the premier hockey hotbeds in the country. Check the television ratings. Check the youth leagues. Check the number of ex-NHL players who stick around.

News flash: Hockey is huge in Buffalo no matter how many years sail past without the Sabres winning the Stanley Cup. Thing is, this region could celebrate a major hockey title if college administrators opened their eyes and understood the opportunity before them.

Aaand stop. Gleason starts off on a roll with a number of really good points about why Buffalo is a top hockey hotbed. Having experienced a Sabres game at HSBC Arena this past season, I get that very much. And truth be told, I think there's definitely a room for growth in the region for college hockey. Yes, I agree with the main premise of his argument.

But any college hockey fan will tell you that it takes a lot more than administrators opening their eyes, or having opportunity, to celebrate a major hockey title in college hockey, what the layman would refer to as "the national championship." Ask the University of Michigan how their long streak of NCAA Tournament appearances has translated into "major hockey titles." Their rivals in East Lansing won one a couple of years ago, but they're almost as successful at taking the taco lately. Ask New Hampshire. Ask Colorado College. Ask St. Cloud State. They're all in hockey hotbeds too, and they focus a LOT of attention on their teams, and yet... nothing.

Kelly, the former NHL players' association chief, is now executive director of College Hockey Inc. Basically, his group offers guidance for colleges looking to build bigger, better programs. And what he sees here is a geographic gold mine begging for a major Division I college program that could compete with the best teams in the country.

"Buffalo is a natural," Kelly said. "You're in the center of hockey up there. You're right on the Ontario border. Yes, it would make a great deal of sense, definitely."

OK, OK. Fair points. I'll let him slide on referring to College Hockey Inc. only as an outfit offering guidance to colleges, though to be completely honest, CHI is also focusing big time on lobbying junior A players to maintain their NCAA eligibility and choose college over major juniors. They're going to be a major player in the brewing talent war.

Kelly's absolutely right. Given their geography and their high level of support for the game, Buffalo's a natural location for college hockey to grow. He's also investigating California, which is both intriguing and logical, given their massive population and an ever growing supply of players who hail from the Golden State.

All it takes to tap into our natural resources is vision and commitment, which have been lacking at Canisius, Niagara and the University at Buffalo. The first two have at least made the attempt. UB has no valid excuse for not putting together a program that has the potential to become a national powerhouse quickly.

Heck, it should be an arms race.

(headdesk)

I don't know where to begin here. It's true Canisius and Niagara have "made the attempt." Niagara's even made some strides. But to say UB has "no valid excuse" is laughable, and to say that they have "the potential to become a national powerhouse quickly' is even worse.

No one becomes a national powerhouse quickly. Ask Rico Blasi at Miami. He's been there for 11 seasons, and they weren't all 1st place finishes and Frozen Four appearances. It took him the better part of a decade to build his program into one of the newly dominant programs in the nation - and he wasn't starting from scratch, and he wasn't in a minor conference like Canisius and Niagara are.

Constantly, people are saying that such and such a school has no excuse for not playing varsity hockey. Syracuse and Penn State are usually the most commonly cited schools in the East. Whenever someone says this, they betray the fact that they don't know what goes into starting up a varsity hockey program. It's very expensive - more expensive to start-up than most sports, given the costs of a rink and the machinery necessary to maintain an ice surface, or the generally high cost of renting ice time.
Rochester Institute of Technology became a national contender in five years. RIT last season emerged from Atlantic Hockey, which included Canisius, and reached the Frozen Four. It was a great story, one that could easily be repeated if administrators in our region get their heads out of the sand. This is a no-brainer, a belt-high fastball down the middle.
(facepalm)

A history lesson, Mr. Gleason. Back in 2006, George Mason University shocked the sporting world when they advanced to the Final Four in men's basketball. They were the feel good, Cinderella story of the decade. Did anyone call them "national contenders?" No, and for good reason. They'd done very well in overachieving in a single-elimination tournament, but that's where it ended. They've played in precisely one more NCAA tournament GAME since then, losing to Notre Dame.

Same goes for RIT. They were easily the feel good, Cinderella story of the year in advancing to the Frozen Four. I don't even like them, and I can make that assertion. But if you're putting your money down on them making a repeat appearance in St. Paul next season, I suggest you prepare to lose your bet. It WAS a great story, but the only way it's likely to happen is if coaches and administrators KEEP their heads in the sand when it comes to minor conference teams like RIT this year and Bemidji State last year (although they're no longer minor conference). They're no slouch, but they aren't often going to be world beaters. They did very well in overachieving, but their Frozen Four game with Wisconsin was... less than memorable to say the least. (Personally, I'd rather not have my team there than watch them get systematically torn apart by a vastly superior team, but hey, that's just me.)

Canisius coach Dave Smith has done a terrific job, but he's tangled in an unfair fight despite the pretty campus, excellent academics and rich tradition. Recruiting hits a wall when he's forced to admit the home rink rests — where? — on Buffalo State's campus.

Rumblings had Sabres owner Tom Golisano willing to donate some $10 million toward an on- campus events center, which would house graduation ceremonies, basketball and hockey, if Canisius approached him. School officials are waiting for him to come to them.

Good heavens, people, make it work. Canisius hockey with a 4,000-seat rink could become Miami of Ohio hockey, which spent most of last season as the top-ranked team in the country.

Oh. My. God.

Canisius just needs a 4,000 seat rink in order to become the best team in the country? Hells bells! We've got way more than that at RPI. Where are all of our 1st place votes in the USCHO.com poll? Does it have to be brand new? Well shoot, Quinnipiac should have been at least to the Frozen Four by now if Miami is the model.

Canisius has come a long way from where they were before Dave Smith took over. Cory Conacher wouldn't have even sniffed Canisius before Smith took charge there. They do need an arena of their own if they're going to continue to grow. But let's not get carried away here. They still play in Atlantic Hockey. Their prospects for getting access to a Big Three conference is lower than a lot of their peers in Atlantic Hockey. They won't be in the ECAC anytime soon, either.

Oh, and that "rich tradition" at Canisius? It pales in comparison to other far more established programs. But I'm sure Tom Golisano can just sprinkle his magical fairy dust and fix that.
Niagara was going in the right direction before pulling back when it should have pushed. The Purple Eagles had 18 scholarships and planned to expand Dwyer Arena; then its conference folded. It joined Atlantic Hockey, which allows only 12 scholarships. The concrete had been poured, but why expand the arena after contracting the program?
Contracting the program? Have you been paying attention, Bucky? I know you are, because you referenced this in the passage above. If Niagara hadn't joined Atlantic Hockey, they'd be in a conference with precisely ONE other school, that other school being in ALABAMA. This wasn't something they decided to do in the middle of the night as some kind of cost-saving measure. Niagara's a MAAC school. Atlantic Hockey was once operated by the MAAC, as the MAAC. So why was Niagara never part of the MAAC, Bucky? They didn't want to play with six less scholarships. But when the rest of the teams in your conference up and leave, what are you supposed to do? Dangle in the wind, or accept the shelter of another conference when they come calling? It was a no-brainer decision. Now they've got to figure out how to operate with six fewer scholarships. Does that mean they're "contracting the program?" Of course not! Strangely enough, Niagara can't just show up on the CCHA or the ECAC's doorstep and demand entrance just because they want a full complement of scholarships. It doesn't work that way.
And then there's UB, which could build a major D-I contender in no time. The backward thinking common in state government suggests a lack of funding is the problem. Top officials haven't caught on to the idea that strong hockey programs often turn a profit. Just ask Michigan.
OK, sure. Ask Michigan. Then ask, oh, I don't know, practically anyone else. There are a lot of strong hockey programs that are nowhere near turning a profit. What makes you think that UB, which would be starting off with no hockey pedigree whatsoever other than that of their region, and zero college hockey credibility, would turn a profit at any time in the next 50 years? Look at RPI. It's true, Albany's not a major hockey hotbed. It's not even where it was 15 years ago. But RPI's at least got its college hockey pedigree to play with, and we're not even close to turning a profit, even when we were winning national championships. UB doesn't even have that. So how exactly are they supposed to be a "major D-I contender in no time?"

My fantasy: Canisius and Niagara leave Atlantic Hockey, which has 12 teams but only one automatic bid. Ivy League schools band together, as they do in other sports. Toss Canisius, Niagara, RIT, UB, Mercyhurst, St. Lawrence, Clarkson and perhaps Syracuse, if it also wakes up, into a new conference.

It seems like a natural.

(headdesk) (headdesk) (headdesk)

First things first. "Atlantic Hockey has 12 teams but only one automatic bid?" NO WAY! So does the ECAC! So did the CCHA for the last 10 years! So will the WCHA (by the numbers, the best top-to-bottom league in the nation) next season when they expand to 12 teams! Hockey East's only got 10 teams but hey, they've only got one automatic bid, TOO!

People playing "create your own conference" is such a pet peeve of mine, especially when its done haphazardly and especially when you toss in teams without existing programs, like you could point your finger and say, "hey, you. Start a program, NOW." We've already gone over why that's silly. It's something of a running joke on the USCHO.com message board that uninformed newbies start trying to split Harvard off from the rest of the Ivies and put them into Hockey East, or put both Alaska schools in the same conference (they're split for a reason), or... you know, create other mash-up conferences that revolve around nothing but geography and disregard everything else, including traditional rivalries and associations. Clarkson and RPI were rumored back in the 1980s to be part of the Hockey East split, but they stayed put to maintain their associations with the Ivies. Why would Clarkson leave Cornell and Harvard behind for... Canisius, Buffalo, and Mercyhurst?

By the way, Syracuse "if it wakes up" isn't starting a men's program any time soon. They got a generous donation with a mandate to start a hockey team, and they cut a bunch of programs in order to start... a women's team. And where's Robert Morris, while you're at it? They've got a rink on campus, they've got an association with a professional team, and they fit geographically. I'd think they'd be the kings of that league, right?

Bucky, is this new league of yours going to get more than one automatic bid? If so, I'd like to know why. I mean, is it purely on the awesome factor? Help me out here.

Here's the long and the short of it. Bucky's right about Buffalo having all kinds of potential for college hockey, but the enthusiasm needs to be a little more muted, because none of the reasons he gave for the potential or the speed with which that potential can be reached are in any way reasonable.

And come on, Bucky! Where's the mention that the Frozen Four was in Buffalo in 2003. Where's the mention that Buffalo had an unsuccessful bid for the 2013/2014 Frozen Fours? The many Division III programs in Western New York? Come on!

Homework. Please, writers, do your homework before you start talking about something on this kind of scale.

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