Friday, July 15, 2011

Tsunami Watch: ECAC and Hockey East

The finale for our initial Tsunami Watch examination of the nation's teams brings us back home to the leagues RPI fans will find the most familiar - Hockey East, one of the nation's most powerful conferences, and the ECAC, RPI's home for the past 50 years.

These conferences are inextricably linked by the college hockey world's last major reorganization over a quarter-century ago, when Hockey East separated itself from the ECAC. Since then, the once powerful ECAC has been on a generally slow decline, though recent years have been much better for the nation's oldest conference.

We'll talk about both the ECAC and Hockey East in this edition, because when it comes to the teams of these conferences, there doesn't seem (at first) to be a great deal to talk about. Some variation in where they stand, but for the most part, the leagues on their face are not going to have to worry about seismic changes as western leagues are enduring.
Though, what there is to talk about is fairly similar all around.

Our very own ECAC is, perhaps, one of the most insulated from Big Ten inspired change in the nation given the "full" nature of the 12-team league (though that is subject to the opinion of the member schools - it's not like 12 is a firm limit) and the highly unlikely possibility that Notre Dame would consider the league, but there are possibilities out there.

Brown, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton and Yale: Collectively, of course, the Ivy League. They basically exist as a unit - that means Harvard isn't breaking off from the ECAC to join Hockey East, one of the idiotic suggestions that simply will not go away no matter how much it gets explained. If anyone ever suggests this, laugh at them.

There have been rumors since... well, since practically the beginning of time that the Ivies could break off and start their own league, most notably in the mid-1980s when the possibility was one of the factors that led to the creation of Hockey East's secession from the ECAC. Could it happen? Sure. Will it? If it hasn't happened yet, there's no reason to believe that the creation of the Big Ten or the NCHC "superconference" is going to foment it.

Unless it does.

How, you ask? Well, it could well come down to the matter of automatic bids to the NCAA tournament. Out west, you've got a six-team Big Ten and a (currently) six-team NCHC. Rumor has it that the WCHA will be taking on a sixth team relatively shortly, and the possibility exists that the CCHA will bring in enough teams to return to six as well. Those conferences would all get autobids, moving the west from two autobids to a possible four (and at least three), each dedicated to a relatively small number of teams.

Meanwhile, the ECAC is limited to one autobid for 12 teams. Would the Ivies, as unified as six teams could possibly be, consider breaking down the conference in order to snag a guaranteed autobid for themselves? Perhaps - but it's worth noting that Ivies have won the ECAC championship, and therefore the autobid, in nine of the last ten seasons. For them, it could be a solution without a problem.

Clarkson, RPI, St. Lawrence and Union: Collectively, the Liberty League teams, although RIT joins the D-III league in the next academic year. These schools are fairly interconnected with one another through their common bond as small schools (athletically) and the first three are charter members of the ECAC. It seems as though none of these schools will be seeking to leave the conference in order to start their own new thing despite one of the minor, unsubstantiated realignment rumors that have floated surrounding a D-I Liberty League conference with RIT and an unnamed sixth team. They've got no reason to leave the security of the ECAC for the instability of a smaller league with no (or only one) Division I schools.

Unless they do.

We did just mention the 9 Ivy champions in 10 years bit, which cuts two ways - one, it could be seen as an impediment to the national tournament, since there is one autobid for 12 members, or it could be seen as the Ivies strengthening their shot at an at-large, since each of these four schools has now earned an at-large NCAA bid in the last five seasons. If the Ivies are more powerful right now, it would make choosing to breakaway from them a risky proposition.

Colgate and Quinnipiac: The same goes for the two non-Ivy, non-D-III schools. Colgate is just fine where they are, given that Holy Cross and Army are the only two fellow Patriot League schools playing hockey, and the same holds true for Quinnipiac with Robert Morris and Sacred Heart the only NEC cohorts (say! All six together for the Northeast Patriot... no, that's not even funny as a joke). They could, of course, be part of a six (or seven) team league with the Liberty League squads.

Expansion?
As we said at the very beginning of Tsunami Watch, it is worth throwing out some of the preconceptions about how conferences come together - and the NCHC has already done that, throwing out some of the popular notions that schools will frequently consider the well-being of other programs before making decisions. In that same way, the preconception that the ECAC is "full" at 12 teams could potentially be up for being scrapped as well.

RIT: If the ECAC reopens for expansion, the Tigers will be first in line. As mentioned in the Atlantic Hockey examination, RIT covets a spot in the ECAC, which would offer them the best balance of competitiveness (given their lack of athletic scholarships, which is the same position reigning regular season champs Union are in) and academic profile. If expansion happens under any possible circumstance, there aren't too many scenarios out there where RIT would get left behind, because the ECAC doesn't have much of a reason not to embrace the Tigers if given the opportunity.

Holy Cross, Mercyhurst and Niagara: These programs have to get mentioned next if only because they've tried to join the ECAC in the past. Niagara, for many of the same reasons they could be attractive to the CCHA, may be attractive to the ECAC, especially as a potential travel partner for RIT. The Crusaders and Lakers, as mentioned in the AHA profile, would continue to have some hurdles to clear, although Mercyhurst's powerful women's team could be a wildcard to the ECAC, which has that consideration that the CCHA would not. In the same vein, Holy Cross (in addition to needing new digs) would need to commit their women's team to Division I, which they still haven't done.

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Moving on to Hockey East. The only power conference untouched by the current shakeup, the strongest eastern league nonetheless has had at least a little bit of intrigue, in part due to the rumored potential expansion that could be coming down the line.

Boston College and Boston University: According to the Eagle Tribune's Mike McMahon, the schools that would eventually call themselves the NCHC offered BC and BU the opportunity to join the new "superconference." They declined that opportunity. What does that mean? Well, for starters, it means Hockey East's solidarity is practically unquestioned right now, but it also means BC and BU are unlikely to go anywhere. Where would they go? There'd be no real ability to start an analogous eastern superconference, since Hockey East is so clearly established as the top conference in the east. The only real option would be to kick other Hockey East teams to the curb in an even more baldfaced manner than the NCHC largely did to the WCHA.

Maine, New Hampshire, Northeastern, Providence, UMass, and Vermont: The fact that we can basically lump much of the league together in one group speaks volumes about the relative stability of Hockey East. None of these schools, the other D-I institutions of the league, will be looking to go anywhere anytime soon either.

Merrimack and UMass-Lowell: Hockey East's only two non D-I schools. They get split off only because with the rise of the NCHC, they are really two of the only Division II schools "playing up" that are in a secure position looking into the future, with Minnesota-Duluth the only other one that can honestly make that claim. It's highly, highly unlikely that the D-II uncertainty will affect these teams, however. Even in the doomsday scenario where multiple D-II schools drop down (perhaps even enough to motivate a return of the D-II championship), the Warriors and River Hawks are very secure where they are - a turn of the tables from just a few scant years ago where both schools had some questions about their futures floating about.

Expansion?
We've already talked about why UConn isn't coming to Hockey East, but there are teams out there that need to be discussed.

Notre Dame: The most obvious one. With Miami off to the superconference, there's no way the Irish can stay in the CCHA - it was highly unlikely before, and basically impossible now. With the gutting of the WCHA, that conference is now also highly unlikely. They do have a standing invite to the superconference, and Hockey East, it is now known, has also basically extended an invite as well. Which will it be? And for the purpose of this discussion, why would the Irish go to Hockey East?

Hockey East presents Notre Dame with the opportunity to be part of an established power conference, and puts their team more in the eastward-looking view that most of their athletic programs enjoy playing in the Big East (though Providence and UConn are the only Big East teams with a hockey program). It places the Irish in the same conference as Boston College, an institutional and traditional rival as the two most prominent Catholic schools in the United States.

The move would be a bit radical for Hockey East to be sure, given the present relatively compact nature of the conference (with Maine a bit of an outlier), but it would be a move that could potentially secure Hockey East's position against the two new upstart leagues in terms of power... if Notre Dame decides their future lies there.

Quinnipiac: If the Irish join Hockey East, the conference is likely (though not certain) to seek a 12th team to round out what would probably be an even schedule, possibly helping the league alleviate its notorious current issue of a small number of available non-conference games, and upon first glance, the Bobcats could be an attractive team. They have an almost brand spanking new facility. They're in New England. They're close to the largely untapped New York City market. They've pretty much been on the rise for the last decade plus since moving to Division I (though they're starting to plateau a bit). The women's team is improving steadily. What they lack is depth in terms of their program's history, alumni base, and fan interest outside of campus, but if Quinnipiac applied to Hockey East (and they almost certainly would), they wouldn't be turned down out of hand.

Holy Cross: Geographically, the Crusaders fit right into Hockey East's wheel well in Worcester, practically surrounded on all sides by other HEA schools. Institutionally, they'd be a great fit with Boston College (a fellow Jesuit school with which a traditional rivalry exists), not to mention Catholic schools in Providence and Merrimack, to which Notre Dame would be added to the mix as well. They have a leg up on UConn in that A) they at least have some hockey history, providing one of the bigger upsets ever in the NCAA tournament when they beat Minnesota in 2006 and B) have some displayed desire to offer more scholarships and improve the position of the program. However, they do have two of UConn's problems - a rink that's far too small and not enough community support. The latter could probably be handled if the team were to join Hockey East, but a facility is lacking. They could move to Worcester's DCU Center, but they'd never be able to fill the lower bowl, plus they'd have to share with the Worcester Sharks. Their women's team still plays in Division III, which is another problem.

RPI: Ohh no. We're not discussing this here. We can't. The concept of RPI leaving the ECAC and going to Hockey East is... too much to briefly discuss in a paragraph or two at Without a Peer. No, this is absolutely getting its own post. Suffice it to say for now that... the possibility exists, and could be very real.

Tease? Oh, yes. Ohhhhhh yes.

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