Monday, July 11, 2011

Tsunami Watch: Atlantic Hockey

Trying to step around the nuclear bomb that is the now confirmed "superconference" in the west, we now cast our gaze to the east (or mostly east, hello there Air Force). The most intriguing conference on our end of the map is Atlantic Hockey - not entirely because of the Big Ten, mind you, although the ripple effect of the tsunami could well have its own effect on the AHA.

One of the subplots to the suspected conference carousel comes straight out of the nation's
weakest overall conference. In May, the league voted on a proposal to increase the number of allowed athletic scholarships from 12 to 13 (all other conferences allow 18). A supermajority was needed to pass the measure, it failed by one, with 7 in favor and 5 against. According to College Hockey News, a number of those teams voting in favor of increasing scholarships may well be interested in increasing significantly.

The "superconference" may sack the possibility of some of these teams leaving for greener pastures - because there may not really be any green pastures available. The WCHA is too far out for any of these schools (save Air Force), while the CCHA's remnants may seek to jump aboard with the WCHA rather than admit western AHA teams. But the scholarship vote pretty clearly shows that like those other two leagues, there are teams in Atlantic Hockey that have different visions of the future, and that could well have ramifications down the road.

Niagara and Robert Morris: The CHA refugees. They're using the cost-contained Atlantic Hockey as a virtual lifeboat, though they both would rather be able to give out a full 18 scholarships as they had before. That's why both, before the superconference arose, were almost certainly eyeing the depleted CCHA as a possible option. Depending on what the remaining CCHA teams decide to do, these schools could certainly bring a bit more stability. Both are Division I programs and both certainly have their eyes on improving their position in the college hockey world.

Niagara has flirted with the CCHA practically since the establishment of their program, but will they still be interested minus the geographic connection that Michigan, Ohio State, and Miami could have offered? Spurned for years, the tables appear to have turned significantly. They do have trump cards, however - the media markets of Buffalo and Pittsburgh, both with solid hockey bonafides.

RMU has a small facility that they don't sell out every night, but they do at least have a displayed commitment to hockey that would be attractive to the CCHA.

Mercyhurst and Holy Cross: Two Atlantic Hockey schools that, in the past, have been known to harbor plans for bigger and better things, as both were applicants to the ECAC in the mid-2000s after Vermont left the conference and created an opening. Mercyhurst's western location may make them another attractive addition to the CCHA, but not nearly as much as Niagara or RMU since they're a Division II school with only fair facilities.

Holy Cross, meanwhile, has other issues that it needs to wrestle with before they can go anywhere - they may have even been one of the teams that voted against the scholarship increase, but no real improvement has been done on their facilities since they were a major stumbling block to their hoped for accession to the ECAC, either.

RIT: The Tigers are in an interesting position. A D-III school that moved to D-I after the Prop 65-1 grandfather rule that RPI fans know so well, they can't offer athletic scholarships, and yet they've been one of the most dominant teams in Atlantic Hockey since their move to D-I. This is in part because of the institutional support and commitment to hockey, and in part because Wayne Wilson has proven to be an outstanding recruiter.

In all likelihood, they voted to increase scholarships despite their inability to offer them. Why? Because they're clearly in need of a bigger challenge - they have been in Atlantic Hockey for five seasons and have claimed four regular season crowns. Despite that, they've only reached the NCAA tournament once because they still have to win the AHA tournament to play on, and one bad night can end your chances of winning that tournament.

It's fairly obvious that RIT would love to join the ECAC, but right now, there's really not much room for them unless the conference decides to ditch the travel partner system and/or bring two new teams into the mix. A minor rumor floated that RIT, a newly minted member of the D-III Liberty League, would be a member of a D-I hockey version of the Liberty League with the other hockey-playing members (RPI, Union, Clarkson, and St. Lawrence) and Colgate, but this makes zero sense for anyone but RIT, especially for Colgate but certainly for RPI and the other three as well.

Could RIT be interested in the CCHA instead? Maybe. It would be a step up, especially if they go with Niagara and RMU to bring stability, and the CCHA, if they don't merge with the WCHA, is going to be interested in bringing in anyone they can. We'll have to wait and see with the Tigers.

Canisius: The Griffins are stuck in neutral, although they do have designs on improving their station. First and foremost, however, they need a new building, which has been the main stumbling block for years as they've been forced to play second fiddle to D-III Buffalo State at the Bengals' home rink on the Buff State campus. If you don't even have your own place, you're not going anywhere, but beyond that the program is making strides in recruiting and would love to be able to offer additional scholarships to assist in making those strides. But until they've got a place of their own and can boost attendance at that place, they're not going to be leaving Atlantic Hockey.

UConn: The Huskies are frequently brought up as the next Hockey East program for two reasons - first and foremost, they're a New England state school, which puts them along the same lines as UVM, UNH, Maine, and UMass. Second, their women's team plays in Hockey East. But neither of these is really sufficient for UConn to join. Why? Well, it's very simple.

The women's team playing in Hockey East is a matter of convenience for both the school and the league, given that the UMass schools and Merrimack don't have women's hockey teams and, at the time UConn joined, UVM was in the ECAC and BU didn't have a varsity team. They were necessary as the sixth team so the conference could have an automatic bid, and Atlantic Hockey didn't (and still doesn't) have a women's league to boot.

As for the men's team, they have a small building that they're lucky to fill halfway, have no real history, and practically no institutional support as partially evidenced by their lack of athletic scholarships. This is not attractive to Hockey East. UConn's not going anywhere.

Air Force and Army: The service academies. Technically, neither of these schools offer scholarships, since cadets are essentially getting a free education in return for expected military service after graduation. Air Force, however, may have been in the same position as RIT as far as being interested in more scholarships for Atlantic Hockey if only to boost their prospects in a league they've dominated since their arrival.

Army is satisfied with where they are, for a lot of the reasons we discussed in last week's edition of "Know Your Enemy." They're finally in a place where they can compete in Division I and have a shot at playing in the national tournament if they can succeed in March. More scholarships would only make things harder for them.

Air Force, on the other hand, would love to be in a position where they could possibly reach the national tournament without being required to win the AHA championship. To determine the Falcons' aims, you have to figure out just what's important to them. After all, they're a geographical anomaly in Atlantic Hockey, being that they're in Colorado and the next farthest west team is in Pennsylvania. They did set off the last, much smaller realignment when they left College Hockey America. The move made sense in two ways - it paired them with Army, a natural rival, and ensured that they'd have a confirmed spot outside of the always tenuous CHA.

But does the link with Army override all? If not, the Falcons could be taking a serious look at the new look WCHA, which won't be anywhere near as strong as it used to be and therefore could be more attractive to Air Force, boosting their place in the college hockey world and requiring a lot fewer cross-country trips to play games in front of 100 to 900 people.

American International, Bentley, and Sacred Heart: Look, uh... they're not going anywhere anytime soon. That's the blunt of it for three teams generally struggling to amount to much even in the AHA as it currently is. Bentley and Sacred Heart, to their credit, at least seem to try to be competitive within the conference as it is, but at they end of the day they have a lot of UConn's problems without the big name to go with it. AIC... well, you'll read more on AIC on Wednesday.

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