Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Know Your Enemy: American International

The final non-conference Know Your Enemy of the offseason is a program that gets practically no respect in the college hockey world, but it's not difficult to see why this is the case. Perpetual doormats, they frequently do not fill their full non-conference schedule and haven't even hosted a non-conference game since the early days of 2008, leaving the impression that they're not much more than a punching bag. Through much of their Division I history, that's basically been the case.

American International
Nickname: Yellow Jackets
Location: Springfield, MA
Founded: 1885
Conference: Atlantic Hockey
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: None
Coach: Gary Wright (28th season)
2010-11 Record: 8-24-1 (7-19-1, 12th place)
Series: RPI leads, 20-1-1
First Game: February 23, 1952 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: October 24, 2009 (Troy, NY)
Last AIC win: February 5, 1966 (Troy, NY)

2011-12 game: January 10, 2012 (Troy, NY)

Key players: F Nielsson Arcibal, sr.; F Michael Penny, sr.; D Chris Markiewicz, jr.; G Ben Meisner, jr.; F Adam Pleskach, jr.; F Jon Puskar, so.; D Jake Williams, fr.

A few teams can manage to win 50 games in two years. More can do it in three years. Many can do it in four, practically all can put together 50 wins in five seasons, since that's only 10 a year. American International has 49 wins over the last eight years. That puts a bit of an exclamation point on the state of hockey at AIC. If that's not enough, playing in what is the consensus weakest conference in the nation, the Yellow Jackets have finished in last place each of those last eight years.

It's hard not to sound flip or crass when discussing AIC's history: they don't really have much of a history unless you're paraphrasing Hoover from Animal House - the Yellow Jackets have a long history of existence to its members and the community at large. They have had a program continuously since 1949, but that fact is about the most impressive thing about the team.

AIC was one of the 28 inaugural members of the ECAC, but went 10-37-0 in three seasons before the league split in two with the Yellow Jackets playing in the lower, Division II league which would later undergo additional splits along geographic lines.

The Yellow Jackets actually did fairly well in the immediate aftermath, rattling off four straight winning seasons in the mid 1960s to end a nine-year streak of losing campaigns, but they followed up with another five losing years in a row.

The heyday, if AIC ever really had one, was in the mid-to-late 1970s and into the early 1980s in Division II. From 1975 to 1981, the team experienced seven consecutive seasons at .500 or better.

Current head coach Gary Wright joined the team in 1984, and the team had some decent success under him while competing in Division II. 21 wins in 1988 and 24 in 1989 remain the benchmark for wins in school history, the only two 20-win campaigns the Yellow Jackets have had. The team's last winning season was a 14-12-0 year in 1994.

Since then, things have been beyond dismal for AIC. 17 consecutive losing seasons have overlapped with the team's return to Division I given the demise of the NCAA's Division II championship. They were an inaugural member of the MAAC, and their .438 winning percentage in the league's first year has been their best of the last 17 - Wright was the conference's first coach of the year. They have lost at least 20 games in each season since then.

Really, the most press AIC has ever received in the hockey world came this past December when former goaltender Tom Fenton was given a one-day contract to serve as the emergency backup goaltender for the Phoenix Coyotes when the team's starter came down with the flu before a game in New York against the Rangers. Fenton just happened to be in the area, as an operations coordinator for D-III Manhattanville. He didn't play, but he did wear his AIC helmet in warmups. And that's about it.

The incredibly lopsided all-time series record between RPI and AIC is another underline. The scores of the first games between the Engineers and Yellow Jackets in the 1950s were 6-2, 9-0, 12-0, 7-2, 13-2, 11-1, and 15-2. The early 1960s brought 17-0 and 17-2 victories. The lone loss to AIC came in what is arguably RPI's worst ever season, 1965-66. The only tie came in another horrible year, 2007-08, a 1-1 RPI Tournament game that the Engineers won in a shootout. That tie came while the Engineers were actually nationally ranked (they wouldn't be for much longer), and is trumpeted as a major accomplishment in the AIC history books. When one of your greatest ever games was a tie...

The point has been driven home by this juncture - this game has to be a victory for RPI, or it's practically doomsday. There's only really one name the Engineers are going to need to contend with in this game, and it's Adam Pleskach. The junior forward has led AIC in scoring the past two years and put a scare into RPI two seasons ago when he scored two goals - one late in the second, one early in the third - to tie the game, forcing a late Jerry D'Amigo power play goal to give the Engineers the unsatisfying and lackluster victory. He also managed AIC's lone goal in an 8-1 drubbing against Union in Schenectady last season, one of only three non-conference games the team played.

To be quite honest, the lateness of this game - coming in January, when the team should be hitting on all cylinders as the meat of the ECAC schedule begins - means RPI needs to put together a solid win in this one or it could be a bad omen of things to come.

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