Friday, July 29, 2011

Social Media - Helping RPI Students and Alumni Have A Social Life Since 2004

Just a quick and friendly reminder... if you're only following us here at the blog, you really aren't getting the full Without a Peer experience - social media plays a big role. Our Twitter and Facebook presence isn't just superfluous, but rather, it enhances our ability to get news out to you, our loyal readers, on a timely basis.

We try to update three times a week (Monday-Wednesday-Friday) during the offseason, at least, after the hangover from the previous season wears off sometime in June. We try to update at least once a day during the season.

However, when news breaks, we aren't going to quickly blog about it unless it's something worth going into detail about. That's why we've got Twitter and Facebook as integral parts of WaP.

Follow us on Twitter for the latest, most up-to-date news on RPI, the ECAC, and the college hockey world. If it's news and you're reading it here on the blog, chances are pretty good we may have mentioned it on the Twitter feed already. Tweets occur on an as-needed basis. During the offseason (if it ever starts), there could be weeks without tweets. During games, there will be regular updates on what's happening on the ice as we live tweet the action. Got a comment? Tweet to us! If it's something we can answer or is more than just snark or trash-talk, we'll probably tweet back.

Like us on Facebook (which you can do by clicking the "like" button over there on the right side of the page), and get updates when WaP has a new blog posting worth checking out, get (mostly) exclusive multimedia like video and pictures, and participate in poll questions about RPI hockey.

Then of course, there are the podcasts. We tried to bring on guests we thought you'd like to hear from once a week throughout the season. We'd hoped to be able to continue them through the summer on a monthly basis, but unfortunately the time required to put into them hasn't been readily available over what's been a very busy summer.

What are your feelings on the podcasts? Did you get anything out of them last year? Would you like them to continue or would you not miss them if you went away? They are a bit time consuming to put together, so if there's not much demand for continuing them, it might be a case where we could put our time to better use improving other parts of the site. Please, comment below.

Thanks again for your loyal readership through the summer and into the 2011-12 season... let's go Red!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Know Your Enemy: St. Lawrence

The North Country teams don't finish at the bottom of the table very frequently, so when it happens, it's a bit of a shocking experience. Clarkson did it in the 2009-10 season, and this week's team very nearly did it last year, narrowly avoiding the basement, which they haven't seen since 1980, but enduring a difficult season nonetheless.

St. Lawrence
Nickname: Saints
Location: Canton, NY
Founded: 1856
Conference: ECAC
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: 2007
Last Frozen Four: 2000
Coach: Joe Marsh (27th season)
2010-11 Record: 13-22-5 (6-15-1 ECAC, 11th place)
Series: SLU leads, 75-51-6
First Game: January 3, 1951 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: January 8, 2011 (Troy, NY)
Last SLU win: February 18, 2011 (Canton, NY)

2011-12 games: November 5, 2011 (Canton, NY); January 27, 2012 (Troy, NY)

Key players: D Peter Child, sr.; F Jacob Drewiske, sr.; D Jordan Dewey, jr.; F Kyle Flanagan, jr.; D George Hughes, jr.; D Justin Baker, so.; F Greg Carey, so.; F Kyle Essery, so.; D Pat Raley, so.; G Matt Weninger, so.; F Alex Hagen, fr.; F Gunnar Hughes, fr.

Key losses: F Aaron Bogosian, F Nick Pitsikoulis, F Sean Flanagan, F Jared Keller, D Matt Raley

Previous KYE installment:
Last year we predicted that St. Lawrence might have a rough year, and even the great Joe Marsh was unable to keep that from becoming the reality in Canton. With a freshman goaltender and a relatively young defensive corps, the Saints went winless in October while giving up a ton of goals. After a shocking sweep of Colgate and Cornell - shocking at the time, though Cornell got off to a very slow start themselves and Colgate ultimately kept SLU out of the cellar - the Saints struggled through the rest of the year, taking no more than two points on any given league weekend.

There were flashes of potential from the Saints late in the season, however, especially a game in Canton that the Engineers got to witness firsthand in February. RPI made a few mistakes against St. Lawrence in that tilt, but by and large, it was a game that was more won by St. Lawrence than lost by the Tute. Most notable in that contest was a pair of goals scored by rookie forward Greg Carey, who led the Saints in scoring with 23 goals and 40 points (and was WaP's choice for rookie of the year).

Weninger had some serious growing pains in net, but he did pick up three of his seven wins in March, helping backstop the Saints to a first-round upset of Princeton and a game one victory over the eventual ECAC champions, Yale. But for a St. Lawrence team that regularly gave up three or more goals - an eye-popping 26 times last year - the defense needs to be stronger. Matt Raley's departure won't make that easy, and Child is the only senior defenseman on the squad, which will have largely the same defensive corps as last year, just a year older.

Offensively, Carey does have some assistance with Kyle Flanagan and Drewiske, though they're going to be needed to pick up the slack left by the departure of Bogosian and Pitsikoulis, who combined for 25 goals last year. Essery may be ready for a solid second campaign as well.

In the end, Weninger's growth may dictate whether the Saints are able to make a run or whether they will largely resemble their rivals up Route 11, just with more offensive spark. Carey could be a legitimate star in this league in the years to come, and sometimes that's all you need to get a few goals and sneak out with wins like they did against the Engineers in February. If Weninger and his defense can be more consistent, St. Lawrence will be a dangerous team to play - they might not blow you away, but they'll certainly make you work.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Tsunami Watch: Western Redux

Now that everything we ever knew about college hockey is basically wrong, it's time to re-examine the moving parts out west again, since everything we discussed in previous editions of Tsunami Watch with regards to those teams has changed somewhat.

By the way, we've been talking like this is all going down right away... 2013 is when the actual shifting will all take place. So we've at least got two more seasons of relative calm as it pertains to the actual product on the ice.

Big Ten: The Big Ten is still pretty much hunky dory. There's not much out there that is going to change, given the league's status not just as an all-sports conference, but as one of the BCS conferences. It's worth mentioning, I suppose, that because of the Big Ten's status as a new hockey conference, the teams within will have to forego an automatic bid to the national tournament in 2014 and 2015 due to the NCAA's requirement that new conferences wait for two years before receiving an autobid.

NCHC: The six teams that currently make up the NCHC are all set - North Dakota, Denver, Colorado College, Minnesota-Duluth, Nebraska-Omaha, and Miami. Chances are pretty solid that they'd like to bring in at least one or two more teams, and Notre Dame is number one on that list, no question. More on them (and the other candidates) later. Like the Big Ten, the NCHC will have to forego an autobid until 2016, though it would be beyond shocking if the league's members didn't earn an at-large or two at minimum.

WCHA: The five remaining schools - Alaska-Anchorage, Bemidji State, Michigan Tech, Minnesota State, and St. Cloud State, appear to be rallying around the WCHA flag. There's no doubt that this league will be signifcantly weaker than the one we have known, and the MnSCU institutions (Bemidji, Mankato, and St. Cloud) are poised to take a leading role in the future of the conference.

Northern Michigan: They're on their way back to the WCHA, which they played in from 1984 through 1997. This reunites the Wildcats with their rivals from Michigan Tech, and it puts the WCHA back on somewhat more secure footing as NMU becomes the sixth team. If nothing else, the WCHA will continue to have their automatic bid come 2013 - the question now is whether the league can stay strong enough to be able to produce an at-large bid as well.

Notre Dame: We started out with Notre Dame as the pivot, but the NCHC clearly wasn't willing to wait to see what the Irish would do and took the second step themselves. Now we've got a third step with NMU moving to the WCHA and we could see other teams reacting to the Big Ten/NCHC combination, but no future step will be as big as where Notre Dame ends up. There are really only two options here - either the NCHC or Hockey East. The WCHA is no longer a viable option following the NCHC split since it doesn't offer the Irish anything they wouldn't get out of staying in the CCHA, which is now even less of an option as teams continue to bail. Word has it that the hockey staff prefers the NCHC, while the administration - i.e. the ones who will more than likely be making the final decision - are said to prefer Hockey East. What remains to be seen is whether the hockey people can influence the administration enough to get what they'd like.

We've already discussed the ins and outs of Notre Dame to Hockey East, what about the NCHC? From the administration's perspective, the NCHC is, like the CCHA following the Big Ten split, full of programs that may be hockey powers, but aren't among giants in other sports. The hockey people are certainly drawn to the regional hockey power aspect of the NCHC.

Western Michigan: Of the programs that make up "the rest," WMU actually seems to have the most options on the table. It's reported that they have a standing offer to join the NCHC. They could instead choose to follow NMU to the WCHA. They could hang with some of their CCHA conference mates and try to form the nucleus of a new CCHA. There are even rumors out there that WMU might be welcome in Hockey East if Notre Dame chooses that route, given the proximity of Kalamazoo to South Bend.

The last one is kind of a longshot - there's not much need for a team right near Notre Dame unless Hockey East decides to move to an ECAC-esque travel partner system, which doesn't make a great deal of sense. Right now, the most likely move appears to be a move into the NCHC to follow their Mid-American Conference brethren from Miami. The NCHC isn't doling out invitations on the cheap, and once WMU settles in with a new coach, they could well become the seventh team in the NCHC, though life would certainly not be easy for them there - they'd be a minnow among giants, at least at first.

Alaska: The Nanooks are in a tight spot. We've touched on why it's a bad idea for both Alaska schools to be in the same conference, and yet, when it comes to their survival, it might just end up happening anyway. Rumor has it that Alaska will apply for WCHA membership, which would put them with their rivals from Anchorage in what would then be an eight-team conference. That would almost certainly necessitate yearly trips to Alaska for the entire WCHA and require both UAF and UAA to get creative with non-conference games, but with the CCHA's existence in question, the Nanooks (and the Seawolves, who do depend on UAF for some games) probably feel that it's in their best interest to get themselves into an existing league.

Bowling Green: The Falcons, like their MAC colleagues from Western Michigan, also have options, but theirs are a little hazier. They could try for the WCHA, but they're a little far away from the rest of the conference and they'd be the only Division I program unless WMU decides on that path. They could stick around in the CCHA, especially if WMU chooses that path. NCHC or Hockey East bids would both be longshots.

Lake Superior State and Ferris State: These schools are absolutely stuck in limbo until something else happens. Neither are appealing to the WCHA or the NCHC due to the size of the schools and their geographic locations - which means they could well be dependent on the eventual survival of the CCHA in order to have a conference in 2013. They'll need to be proactive in recruiting new members, because it's going to require more than a few, and they're almost certainly going to come from Atlantic Hockey and the independent ranks (of which, there is only one, who we're getting to). That is a very difficult position to be in. They could forseeably try for WCHA membership, but remember, that conference is now completely comprised of smaller schools with smaller budgets and still involves a school from Alaska, if not two. The footprint can't grow by much more.

Niagara, Robert Morris, Mercyhurst, and Canisius: Recent reports have these four programs, known to be interested in moving up in the world, in discussions with the CCHA about joining that conference. The biggest problem right now? It's hard to know exactly what teams are concerned with the makeup of the CCHA in 2013. It seems that there's at most four - LSSU, Ferris, and maybe BGSU and/or WMU. That's a tough place to start from. One thing that is generally agreed upon here is that these four schools are almost certainly going to want to come into an Alaska-free CCHA. The inclusion of these four institutions would move the CCHA's footprint east, but it would guarantee the conference a minimum of six programs, even if four of them were new to the conference.

Air Force: If the above four teams leave Atlantic Hockey, it puts some additional pressure on Air Force to consider the new-look WCHA since it would leave AHA basically with Air Force, RIT, Holy Cross, and an assortment of low-budget or low-attention programs. The difficulty now, though, is that a WCHA comprised entirely of Minnesota, Alaska, and Upper Peninsula schools may not be terribly keen on bringing in a Colorado school, especially when both Alaska schools are involved.

Alabama-Huntsville: If the Big Ten was the best thing that could happen for UAH given the log-jam created by four full conferences and an 11-team CCHA unwilling to bring the Chargers on, the formation of the NCHC is probably one of the worst. It puts the power teams of the west, the ones with the most money and therefore most willing to bring in a team that requires more travel than the average program, into elite segments that UAH cannot hope to break into. That leaves the Chargers with two options - a CCHA largely comprised of teams that did not support their inclusion in the past, or an Atlantic Hockey that has lost some of its current programs. As with the Atlantic Hockey teams looking at the CCHA, UAH would almost certainly require Alaska to move out of the conference before they would be considered, but for the opposite reason: the existing schools of the CCHA would not be willing to deal with both UAH and UAF in the same conference, but might be more willing to stomach the Chargers without also having the Nanooks around.

MSU-Moorhead: WHO? Oh, you don't know the Dragons? That's probably because they don't have a varsity program. And yes, I said I wasn't going to engage in rampant speculation over schools without programs, but Moorhead has gone beyond speculation, announcing a fundraising drive last week for what they hope will be a new program in the near future. As a MnSCU school - the "MSU" stands for Minnesota State University - the Dragons would fit perfectly into the WCHA, given its new outlook. Let's not count them in quite yet, but they're hoping to be able to make an announcement of a new program in the coming months, so they're worth keeping an eye on.

So that's about where we stand right now. Waiting to see who the WCHA's new suitors are, what Notre Dame is going to do, and who WMU (and Northeastern, by the by) chooses as their new coach. Join us next time for another exciting edition of "As the Tsunami Turns."

Friday, July 22, 2011

Your 2011-12 (and beyond) RPI Engineers

OK, we've waited long enough.

Usually, the Institute drops its press release on incoming recruits in late May or early June, which essentially confirms the roster for the coming season. That still hasn't happened, mostly because of Allen York's departure necessitating a third goaltender and the long unsure nature of just which goaltender we'd see on campus this fall - Jason Kasdorf (who was selected by his hometown Winnipeg Jets in this year's draft) had been scheduled to replace York in 2012 and Scott Diebold (who committed after York's departure) had been noted in several places as a 2012 arrival as well. It is now known that Diebold will be arriving on campus.

We've got a pretty good idea at this point what the class will look like, so without further ado, let's take a look at the 2011-12 RPI Engineers.

Gone: Chase Polacek, Tyler Helfrich, Bryan Brutlag, Scott Halpern and Kevin Beauregard.

Returning: Brock Higgs, C.J. Lee, Joel Malchuk, Marty O'Grady, Josh Rabbani, Alex Angers-Goulet, Patrick Cullen, Greg Burgdoerfer, Johnny Rogic, Matt Tinordi and Justin Smith.

Arriving: Jacob Laliberté, Matt Neal, Ryan Haggerty, Mark McGowan and Zach Schroeder.

It's never easy replacing a two-time Hobey Baker finalist, but the Engineers do have some guys returning and arriving that can pick up the slack a little. Polacek and Helfrich led the team in goals by a solid amount, and Brutlag was also a very solid contributor on both ends of the ice. Of the returning forwards, Higgs, Lee and O'Grady seem poised to lead offensively, and the Engineer faithful continue to hope for a return to form from Cullen, who just hasn't put up the same numbers he did as a freshman in the last two years (though the same was true of Tyler Helfrich last year, and he came out with a terrific senior season). Rogic may also be more of an offensive factor this year, while Malchuk and Rabbani will almost certainly be reliable as the grinders we've come to know and love. Throw in one of the best defensive forwards in the ECAC in Angers-Goulet and you've got a well rounded group of forwards coming back, even if the ones who got the headlines last year aren't.

Five very talented incoming forwards will almost certainly have a significant role as well, though it's always tough to know exactly what you'll get out of freshmen. Laliberté and Neal are, without a doubt, future leaders on this team and they could well be very big contributors right out of the gate, similar to Jerry D'Amigo and Brandon Pirri (though, both undrafted, they should have longer careers in Troy). Haggerty, of course, comes from the elite US Under-18 team and should see lots of ice time, Schroeder was one of the top high school players in Minnesota last year, and McGowan had strong numbers in Ontario as well. It's going to be exciting to find out exactly what these guys will bring to the table once the games get underway - especially Laliberté, who RPI fans have been waiting for with bated breath for years.

Gone: John Kennedy and Jeff Foss.

Returning: Nick Bailen, Mike Bergin, Pat Koudys, Guy Leboeuf and Bo Dolan.

Arriving: Luke Curadi, Curtis Leonard, and a player to be named later.

Obviously, a pair of leaders like Kennedy and Foss will be missed, but the core of the defensemen that helped make RPI successful last year will be returning, and a pair of very solid, very big recruits will be filling those skates. Curadi is simply enormous, and though scouting reports say he's not as fleet of skate as he could be, his size alone is going to make opposing forwards think twice about getting near him and his toughness is unquestioned. Bradley isn't quite as big as Curadi, but he's got the skating and stickhandling needed to be a force.

Together with Koudys, Leboeuf and Bergin, they make for an intimidating D-corps. Koudys is poised for a breakout season as he continues to blend into the college game (even as a sophomore, he's still only 18 until November), and don't forget returning All-American Nick Bailen's solid two-way ability - he's the leading overall returning scorer.

That "player to be named later?" That'll be the eighth defenseman, which Appert has said will be a walk-on determined by tryout. The early favorite would seem to be sophomore Bruce Statton, who tried out last year for the team and even played in the Cherry and White game. Statton led the club team in goals last season as a defenseman. Senior Ryan O'Neill, who was a regional all-star could also be in contention, or perhaps an unknown freshman candidate will appear. At any rate, the eighth defenseman probably won't get much ice time - he'll mostly be an emergency option if the blueliners are suffering more than one injury, the way Kevin Beauregard and Bryan Brutlag were kept in potential reserve for emergency d-man duty last year.

Gone: Allen York.

Returning: Bryce Merriam and Jeremy Coupal.

Arriving: Scott Diebold.

The situation in net is usually pretty easy to break down since you're usually only talking about one or two guys. Regardless of whether Kasdorf or Diebold come to Troy in August (or an unknown third party), the starting job belongs to Merriam. Appert has said repeatedly that Merriam was recruited to be a starter, and with York gone, it is his time to shine. He's been in York's shadow for two years, but when called upon last year after York suffered an injury, he showed that while he wasn't quite York, he was a perfectly capable Division I goaltender in his own right. Now that it's his time, we should be fine with Merriam, the definition of a lunchpail goalie, in the crease.

Coupal is a great guy with a great personality (and hard-working, too, given all the work he's done for club hockey at the Institute), but his role is as the practice goaltender and the emergency third goalie. The Engineers need a more solid option directly behind Merriam, and that's where Diebold comes in. He had an impressive rookie season with Tri-City of the USHL last season, and while he probably could have used an extra year in juniors to hone his game, RPI needs another goaltender. Will he be able to adjust to the rigors of college hockey? His 2.12 GAA in a very difficult league suggests he might, but fortunately the weight of the team won't fall on his shoulders next year - he'll be afforded the opportunity to ease himself into college hockey.

When Jason Kasdorf arrives in 2012, the Engineers will have three regular game-able goaltenders for the first time since 2004, when Nate Marsters, Kevin Kurk, and Andrew Martin were together.

And speaking of 2012, here's a quick look at the current recruiting situation for future seasons as it stands right now.

Looking ahead
Graduating forwards: Angers-Goulet, Cullen, Malchuk, Rabbani and Smith
Arriving forwards: Mike Zalewski, Mark Miller, more to come
Graduating defensemen: Bergin (maybe, he does potentially have a medical redshirt year to use)
Arriving defensemen: Chris Bradley
Graduating goaltenders: Coupal
Arriving goaltenders: Kasdorf

Graduating forwards: Burgdoerfer, Lee and O'Grady
Arriving forwards: Jake Wood, possibly Drew Melanson
Graduating defensemen: Bailen (Bergin if he uses the redshirt)
Graduating goaltenders: Merriam

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Know Your Enemy: Clarkson

It's an enemy as old as time itself, at least as far as the Engineers are concerned, for our first ECAC foe of the Know Your Enemy series. The very first league weekend of the season features a trip to the North Country (previously known as the "dreaded North Country trip"), a road weekend that is always good to get out of the way as soon as possible for a number of reasons, not the least of which includes not having to trek through the heart of the Adirondacks in the middle of winter.

Nickname: Golden Knights
Location: Potsdam, NY
Founded: 1896
Conference: ECAC
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: 2008
Last Frozen Four: 1991
Coach: Casey Jones (1st season)
2010-11 Record: 15-19-2 (9-12-1 ECAC, 7th place)
Series: Clarkson leads, 81-44-8
First Game: January 24, 1925 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: February 19, 2011 (Potsdam, NY)
Last CU win: January 7, 2011 (Troy, NY)

2011-12 games: November 4, 2011 (Potsdam, NY); January 28, 2012 (Troy, NY)

Key players: F Julian Cayer, sr.; G Paul Karpowich, sr.; F Jake Morley, sr.; F Louke Oakley, sr.; F Corey Tamblyn, sr.; F Nick Tremblay, sr.; D Nik Pokulok, jr.; D Alex Boak, so.; F Allan McPherson, so.; D David Pratt, so.; F Ben Sexton, so.; F Matt Zarbo, so.; D Kevin Tansey, fr.; F Joe Zarbo, fr.; F Mitch Zion, fr.

Key losses: F Brandon DeFazio, D Mark Borowiecki, F Scott Freeman, D Bryan Rufenach

Previous KYE installment:
Obviously, the biggest change in Potsdam is behind the bench - in 2008, George Roll had Clarkson on the doorstep of the Frozen Four, but three losing seasons since now has him in Rochester as D-III Nazareth's first head coach. His replacement is former Clarkson assistant and longtime Ohio State and Cornell assistant Casey Jones.

When a new coach comes to town, it's hard to know exactly what to expect. Sometimes, it's a slow build to respectability, such as has happened with Seth Appert. Sometimes, it's an immediate splash, as happened with Seth's college roommate, Jeff Blashill at Western Michigan (which landed him an assistant coaching gig with the Red Wings right away). Will Jones play Cornell hockey at Clarkson (we hope not, zzzzzzz)? Will he try to tinker with and improve upon Roll's methods? Will we get something completely different from either of those? It's hard to know.

What we can look at are the players, their numbers, and what they're losing and bringing in. What they lose are their top two goalscorers in DeFazio and Freeman, and their top defensemen in Rufenach and Borowiecki, the latter of which left with a year of eligibility remaining to sign with Ottawa.

What's left isn't exactly nothing, though Clarkson surely wants to get more production out of Tremblay, a Boston Bruins draftee who has just 16 goals for his career (which actually makes him Clarkson's active leader). A healthy season out of Sexton would probably go a long way, McPherson could be poised for a solid second campaign, and with both Zarbo brothers now in place, the Knights could get some good production from their younger players.

Defensively, Clarkson is going to be very young. Pokulok and Andrew Himelson, both juniors, are the Knights' most experienced blueliners, and they'll be in front of Karpowich, whose numbers in his first three years in Potsdam leave much to be desired. The defense took another hit when highly touted defensive recruit Luke Juha decided - possibly in part because of Roll's departure - that he would not come to Clarkson, preferring to wait a year and then join Penn State's program in its first varsity campaign.

The defensive issues, it would seem, might be enough to lead Jones to consider Cornell's methods - Pokulok's brother Sasha fit well into Schafer's scheme in Ithaca, but beyond the 6'5" junior, there's not a great deal of size back there.

Again, the coaching change is a wildcard, because you never quite know exactly what a coach is going to do with the players he inherits, but when it comes to wildcards, Jones is a pretty solid ace in the hole. His name has come up as a candidate for practically every eastern D-I opening in the last decade or so (including RPI's in the middle part of it), and that doesn't happen without having the bonafides to be a solid head coach - especially in the recruiting aspect, although that'll take a few seasons to blossom.

On paper, Clarkson seems to be in for another difficult season that'll probably be full of high-scoring affairs. But if Jones makes a system work for the players that he has as Blashill did last year in Kalamazoo, anything could happen.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Wagons East?

On Friday, we dropped a bit of a bomb - and steered our site back towards its main focus, which we haven't been able to touch on in a few weeks thanks to all of the explosions going on in the world of college hockey (we figured, hey, another bomb probably wouldn't even be picked up on in this atmosphere).

RPI, a Hockey East school?

It sounds weird to say it. Sounds weird to think it, at first. Even once you've been over the rationales, it'll still seem bizarre. Regular games against Boston College and Maine? Regular trips to Notre Dame, even? Playing Vermont every seas... well, maybe not too bizarre. Those games against Providence and UNH won't be over the top strange either for long-time fans who remember when those teams were among the beasts of the ECAC, but given the way the last quarter-century or so has played out, the concept does seem very foreign.

First, a little background. Hockey East's split with the ECAC came in 1984, when the Engineers were just about to climb to the top of the college hockey world for the second time. The impetus for the split was, in part, a response to a rumored Ivy League breakoff. That never happened, but the eastern schools still left anyway, and had an invitation to RPI (as well as Clarkson and St. Lawrence) to join the new conference, but they chose to stay in the ECAC - much to the chagrin of head coach Mike Addesa. The invitation was extended again in the mid-1990s, but the school again chose to turn down the offer.

As mentioned last week, Hockey East expansion almost certainly revolves around Notre Dame choosing the conference. They're doing just fine at ten, but would surely love to grab the Irish and 12 certainly works better than 11 - ask the CCHA.

But why RPI? What would we get out of it? What would they get out of it? What are the risks and obstacles?

There are two ways one would need to look at this question - from RPI's perspective, and from Hockey East's perspective. Presuming a Notre Dame move to Hockey East, this is what the sides would see.

RPI's perspective

In Favor

Competition: The bottom line is that Hockey East is one of the elite leagues of the nation, and the ECAC just isn't anymore - it hasn't been for a good 20 years. A move to Hockey East would immediately provide RPI with a more difficult strength of schedule, making a solid team more likely to be competing for an NCAA bid at the end of the season - 9 of the league's 10 teams have been to the NCAA tournament in the last 10 years. A tougher schedule means having to play better hockey to win on a more regular basis, which is what top teams need in order to play for a national championship. For the Engineers, who won't be getting an NCHC invitation anytime soon (nor would they necessarily be looking for one), Hockey East represents the most elite conference that they could potentially have access to. Life in Hockey East wouldn't be a picnic by any stretch of the imagination - but it would provide the means and the opportunity to shoot for the stars that the ECAC just can't provide anymore.

Recruiting: It's been a fact of life for quite some time now in the college hockey world - recruits are frequently well aware of what conferences are among the best in the nation and which programs offer them the best hope not only for growth but for attention from scouts. Hockey East is the most scouted eastern league out there, which means top players and solid talents looking to attract attention are most likely to choose Hockey East programs to ply their trade. RPI already competes with many Hockey East teams for recruits, but stands at a competitive disadvantage for the very best recruits because they compete in an inferior league.

Exposure: Along with the better competition and increased attention from the professional ranks, being associated with Hockey East would provide the program and the school with an increased amount of regional exposure through the conference's television deal, and national exposure through association with a power conference.

Alumni base: For the purposes of increasing fan interest in the program, it's always best to give those who would have a natural interest the most opportunities to see the team in action, and the Boston metropolitan area is one of the largest RPI alumni bases out there, certainly the strongest with a vibrant college hockey scene.

Consider the Engineers' 2011-12 schedule - they will be in the Boston area precisely one time this season, when they play at Harvard in February (two if you count the game at Brown in January). Now, that's actually a bit abnormal, since they usually get a non-conference game or two at BU, Northeastern, UNH, Lowell, Providence, etc. to throw in there. Now consider the possible effect of the Engineers playing all of those teams in a single season, every season. Those alums will be able to come out all season, drawing a much closer connection with the program than a single game in a year's time could possibly create.

Increased attendance: Even if RPI fans are unenthused by a newer, stronger conference - and we don't think that would be terribly likely to happen - Hockey East has more teams with solid, traveling fanbases than the ECAC can claim, and that fact alone would likely lead to more ticket sales on an average night where a league game was on the docket.

Tournament: The ECAC has had issues with its tournament location for well over a decade, and for good reason - with a weaker overall profile than Hockey East, interest among the general public in the east for the ECAC has waned somewhat. Throw in the paltry number of teams that travel well - it's always Cornell, Clarkson and RPI when you ask the question - and the tournament becomes a dicey proposition no matter where it's held if you can't get those teams there, which has been the case for quite some time now. We still believe Albany is probably the best place for the ECAC tournament to be from a logistical and central standpoint, but there's nowhere the ECAC could choose to hold the tournament that would be a fair comparison to the Hockey East tournament in Boston. The excitement of the final three games of the tournament at TD Garden is currently matched only by the WCHA's Final Five in St. Paul. It's not a reason on its own, but it does sweeten the attraction.

Women's hockey: While the men's team would relish the opportunity to grow in a stronger atmosphere, a move to Hockey East would potentially bear fruit for the women's team as well. The women's game is seeking and increase in the amount of parity - and top to bottom, there may not be a conference that has more parity than Hockey East. In the ECAC, there are some exceptional teams, and there are some extremely bad teams. In Hockey East, you still have the dominant programs and the dormant ones, but the extremes are not nearly as great. It creates a more competitive atmosphere - not to mention that there are fewer teams in Hockey East than there are in the ECAC. RPI would still have to tangle with BC, BU, and UNH as opposed to Cornell, Harvard, and Dartmouth, but the autobid would be more of a possibility in the smaller league.

Small school security: One of the more startling elements of the western splitting going on is the stark manner in which the "small schools," defined as those institutions who are not full Division I members, have been treated. Each western D-I school with the exception of Western Michigan and Bowling Green is now a member of one of the two new power conferences (and Notre Dame, of course, but they're a special case since they're going to end up somewhere secure). Every small school, with the exception of Duluth and Colorado College, are among the "leftovers." It's entirely possible that, generally, small schools are going to need to fight to be in a position to compete with Division I schools, and this would be a step in that direction - security for the future.


Traditional rivalries: RPI has played in a league of some sort with Clarkson and St. Lawrence for over 60 years. That's not something you easily walk away from, especially when one is a long-time rival. Throw in the budding rivalry with Union, and it's very clear that RPI has some deep roots in the ECAC. That said, leaving these teams behind isn't completely saying goodbye. Union and RPI already sacrifice a non-conference game every year to play each other a third time, there's no reason that game couldn't continue. And just as much as the Engineers have certain teams outside the conference that they play on a regular basis, there's no reason why regular games with Clarkson and St. Lawrence couldn't be part of the mix.

Ivy League connections: There's little doubt that the RPI administration cherishes the fact that Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Brown, and Cornell come to campus once a year. It's a little something extra to trumpet when you're talking about athletics and the association with the Ivy League, as tentative as it might be, is pretty obviously something that the powers that be enjoy - it's long been held as one of the reasons they prefer to call the school "Rensselaer," that single name being indicative of an elite status.

Academic profile: The ECAC consists of 12 very elite, mostly very selective schools. If nothing else, the league and its members pride themselves on that fact. Leaving the ECAC would mean moving to a conference in which half of its current members are public schools, and even some of the private schools of the conference have a much higher enrollment than RPI.

Glass ceiling: The glass ceiling in this case isn't gender based, but power based. In 26 years, there have been a grand total of four teams that have finished the regular season in first place in Hockey East - they are known as the "Big Four," and Maine hasn't done it since 1995. Notre Dame may threaten to crash that party, but RPI probably wouldn't in the near future. The conference tournament isn't really that much better - Providence in 1985 and 1996, and Northeastern in 1988 are the only tournament champions outside the "Big Four."

Hockey East's perspective

In Favor

History: No other potential Hockey East program out there, even Notre Dame, can claim a national championship - RPI claims two, as well as a history that dates back over 100 years. The Engineers carry with them that bit of gravitas over other prospective candidates, for whatever that's worth; roots that can be pointed to as part of a long-standing commitment to the sport. There may be questions about the future of hockey at a number of smaller schools, but hockey is an integral part of the identity of the Institute, perhaps more so than any other candidate out there.

Traditional connection: There's been a pretty firm connection between RPI and the majority of Hockey East. Not only were the Engineers former league-mates with many of the teams in the conference, they also play many of them on a regular basis. In fact, the Engineers have played every team in the conference at least once since 2006, and have faced all but Merrimack, Providence, and UMass-Lowell in the last four seasons. Rare is the season where an RPI-BU game is not on the schedule (though that will happen in this coming year, there is supposed to be a game in 2012-13), and Northeastern and UNH are both common opponents. This compares positively with Quinnipiac, who have only played half of the league (and none of the power programs) in the same time frame.

Facilities: Houston Field House isn't the newest building on the block, but then again, it wouldn't be the oldest in the league, not when Northeastern has the oldest indoor hockey rink on the planet - something they are quite proud of, so it's not like having an old building is an automatic hindrance anyway. HFH, as we've well noted here, is undergoing a very solid facelift, with a lot of the elements already in place like a new scoreboard and new locker room facilities. Capacity-wise, it has ample space to welcome the larger fanbases when their team comes into town, reaching about midway on Hockey East's current list of rinks by how many spectators can be squeezed in.

Resurgence: Ask around in the college hockey world, and people will tell you that RPI is a program in the midst of a renaissance under the leadership of Seth Appert and James Knowlton. You only need to talk to either man for a short time to understand that both are driven for success. Even the attitude of the RPI administration seems to have turned more toward support for the program as well. Combined with the program's history, this aspect certainly is something that would not be overlooked - just look at Western Michigan, which apparently has a standing invite to the NCHC. Just a year ago, it's unlikely the Broncos would have even been in the discussion, but a strong campaign from the WMU administration to redouble support for hockey, combined with an outstanding season last year, has Western drawing attention. The same could well be said for RPI.


Geography: This isn't an overly huge concern, especially since we're talking about a situation in which the conference is accepting a team from Indiana of all places, but Hockey East has defined itself in the past as a conference of New England teams. Now, RPI is the closest program to New England - you can be there in about 25 to 30 minutes if you hustle - but there are other options out there that wouldn't require the conference to step further outside of niche. Most notable among these options are Holy Cross and Quinnipiac, the latter of which would establish a foothold in the state of Connecticut, the only New England state where Hockey East doesn't have a men's team.

Quinnipiac would also offer access to the elusive New York City market, although the degree they can actually deliver any tangible benefits of that untapped area is highly questionable. RPI being in the Albany market doesn't exactly add a gold star to the resume, but it is what it is.

Small school: Hockey East is burgeoning with Division I programs - of the current five conferences, none boast more fully D-I schools than Hockey East at 80% of its present membership (AHA and ECAC 66%, CCHA 64%, WCHA 33%). Though that will change when the Big Ten gets underway, the formation of the two new western leagues that are largely filled with big schools may put RPI at a disadvantage when it comes to marketing itself to a power conference as opposed to a D-I school like Quinnipiac or Holy Cross. That said, there's clearly room for small schools in these power conferences, especially those with an established history of excellence, as Minnesota-Duluth and Colorado College were invited to join the NCHC.

Compact conferences: With all of this new horse-trading going on out west, the trend is now on smaller conferences - only six in the Big Ten and the NCHC, and likely a similarly limited number in the WCHA and CCHA if those leagues are able to draw in/hold in enough teams to stay solvent. The eastern leagues now look packed by comparison, and while there could now be four conferences with autobids in the west with a limited number of teams fighting for each of those autobids, there are only three in the east, all chock full.


It's likely that the first feelers on membership may already have been put out by one side or the other (or both), especially given the swirling cloud of reorganization that hover over all of college hockey. The time is now for RPI to evaluate its position in the college hockey world, what it wants to achieve, and the best methods for achieving those goals.

The ECAC has been our home for 50 seasons. It is a great league that has provided great memories. The creation of even greater memories, however, will likely require a change, and we believe that Hockey East could very well be the change that would be needed to chase the dream of a third national championship.

If the situation presents itself, we believe our school should give very serious consideration to a move to Hockey East, given the potential benefits to both sides, which truly seem to outweigh the negatives.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Tsunami Watch: Rise of the Superconference?

We interrupt our look around the nation Tsunami Watch to bring you this important update. It appears the west may just be getting a bit wilder.

Multiple sources are now reporting that a number of teams from the WCHA and CCHA, seemingly led by the University of North Dakota, are in advanced talks to create what will essentially be a second breakaway conference from those leagues following the lead of the Big Ten. The schools that have been named as a party to those talks are UND, Denver, Minnesota-Duluth, Colorado College, Nebraska-Omaha, Notre Dame, Miami, and Western Michigan.

That list, by and large, comprises the heavy hitters of both of those leagues, as we mentioned in our previous editions of Tsunami Watch. If such a league were to form, it would surely mean the death knell for both the WCHA and the CCHA. There would be five teams remaining in both leagues.

When news first broke about this new "superconference" earlier this week, one of the theories was that it was a power play by some of the bigger schools of the WCHA to force the conference to go hard for Notre Dame and Miami. It now appears to have been somewhat more than just a power play.

What does this mean for college hockey? In the west, it almost certainly means a stratification of the sport - and potentially, the loss of some programs. The remaining schools of the WCHA and CCHA are going to have no practical alternative than to band together for survival, and the result is not pretty:

Bemidji State
Bowling Green
Ferris State
Lake Superior State
Michigan Tech
Minnesota State
Northern Michigan
St. Cloud State

There's all of ONE Division I school in that conference, and it's a program that has been struggling mightily of late. There are a lot of problems with this group, not the least of which that the Alaskan schools have been forced together, and we've already underlined why that is a problem not just for those schools but for the rest of any conference that would include both.

But even further than that, this is a conference that is going to be hurting for attention against the Big Ten and the so-called "superconference." It's going to be the "have nots" in college hockey, a league that won't even be able to boast the overall academic profile of the ECAC, cast aside by the powers on the Island of Misfit Toys.

Unfortunately, you can't control what schools and programs are going to do when it comes to self-interest.

Consider Bemidji State, which spent $35 million on a brand new facility in the hope of joining the WCHA, a dream they realized last season but could now be completely dashed. Their sister school, St. Cloud State, which has plans for a $30 million renovation to their facility. Lake Superior State, home of three national championships and a daunting dynasty in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Michigan Tech, a school with three national championships of its own and a rabid fanbase undeterred by a bevy of disappointing seasons in recent times.

These schools are not just the refuse of college hockey. They are vibrant, integral parts of the landscape, vivid reminders that college hockey is a world where Bemidji State can take on Notre Dame... and win.

SCSU alum Mike Doyle points out that a superconference would likely put five Minnesota schools playing in three different conferences. That's a further stratification of the State of Hockey itself, where the Gophers were already top dog, but now it's almost a confirmation that the rest of the state doesn't matter. The charm of schools large and small playing on a somewhat even keel may be coming to an end, and if you're a fan of a Division II or Division III school, that has to be at least somewhat troubling.

That's 11 schools - don't forget about Alabama-Huntsville - that, as our friend Bruce Ciskie tweeted yesterday, have a decision to make about how important hockey is to them. 10 of those schools are D-II institutions.

There are underlying concerns here, mostly involving the CCHA components of this affair. Notre Dame, reportedly, is not yet committed to this arrangement, and they still hold some pretty solid weight, possibly weighing an invite from Hockey East. If they were to decide on that route, what exactly makes this superconference so eminently superior to a WCHA that brought Miami and Western Michigan (or another CCHA school) on board? Is UND then merely hot to throw smaller schools under the bus?

News has also come down that Western Michigan head coach Jeff Blashill may become an assistant coach for the Detroit Red Wings. If that happens, where does that leave the Broncos, a program that this time last year had some serious questions floating about how committed the school was to success?

It's hard to blame all of the schools potentially involved in this affair, however. If this conference is created, every single member of the WCHA and CCHA are going to want a place at the table, and that's absolutely understandable. Unfortunately, there aren't enough chairs for everyone, and the end result could be nothing short of disaster - and a net regression for college hockey, especially if some schools decide that they're not interested in competing for scraps.

Consider the state of the NCAA tournament. When Penn State begins play in 2012, there will be 59 Division I programs. With a 16 team tournament, that means 27.1% of programs get to play for the national championship every year, up from 27.6% now. That's better than 1 in 4. Compare that to basketball - only 19.7% of men's teams reach the big dance every year. Is the NCAA going to allow the tournament to remain at 16 teams if more programs fade away?

Just something to mull about as the superconference rumors fly.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Know Your Enemy: Army

For almost a decade, today's profiled program was the only Atlantic Hockey team that the Engineers were willing to travel to - in part because of the relative closeness, but also in part because of the history of the program. Although the United States Military Academy doesn't exactly have a trophy case that's overflowing with glories on the ice, they're a program that long ago has earned the respect of the college hockey world for turning out professionals who keep our country free.

Nickname: Black Knights
Location: West Point, NY
Founded: 1802
Conference: Atlantic Hockey
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: None
Last Frozen Four: None
Coach: Brian Riley (8th season)
2010-11 Record: 11-20-4 (10-13-4 AHA, 9th place)
Series: RPI leads 31-15-2
First Game: February 9, 1907 (West Point, NY)
Last RPI win: October 19, 2007 (West Point, NY)
Last USMA win: October 31, 2009 (Troy, NY)

2011-12 game: December 30, 2011 (Storrs, CT) - potential

Key players: D Marcel Alvarez, sr.; F Danny Colvin, sr.; D Mark Dube, sr.; F Mike Hull, sr.; F Bryant Skarda, sr.; G Ryan Leets, jr.; F Andy Starczewski, jr.; D Cheyne Rocha, jr.; F Mike Santee, jr.; D Dax Lauwers, so.; F Zak Zaremba, fr.

One quick note on the key players: the juniors and sophomores are frequently subject to change, as there is a certain amount of attrition at the service academies due to a number of personal reasons, frequently a reluctance to assume the military service responsibility incurred upon the start of the third year - the military life isn't for everyone, even those who believed when they arrived that it was what they want. For instance, RPI's Greg Burgdoerfer left Air Force after one year to transfer.

Organized sports have practically always been a part of the educational regimen at West Point, given the need for cadets to be physically fit to prepare for the rigors of battle. Hockey at the Academy dates back almost as far as it does at RPI, with the first games taking place on a flooded field known as "The Plain" in 1904, just a couple of years removed from the Engineers' first games in Cohoes and Albany. The difference in West Point, however, is that the Black Knights have competed on the ice in every single year since without a break in the program's history, even through both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, and through today's conflicts, Army hockey has continued its traditions.

One of those traditions has usually included a yearly game with the Royal Military College of Canada, the first games of which were in part organized by famed General Douglas MacArthur while he was superintendent of West Point in the early 1920s. The two military academies met on the ice every year from 1923, but have not played each other since 2006.

But more than anything, there is one name that stands out in West Point as being synonymous with Army Hockey: Riley. This will be the 61st consecutive season that a Riley has been behind the Black Knights' bench, and it all began in 1951 with the legendary Jack Riley. Jack would stay in West Point until 1986, amassing what was at the time the second most victories in the history of college hockey. He amassed eight 20-win seasons during that stretch, which included a pair of stints in the ECAC. Perhaps most notably, Riley was the head coach for the 1960 U.S. Olympic team, which won the country's first gold medal at the Squaw Valley Olympics and perhaps setting some motivation for the 1980 gold medal when he made 1980 head coach Herb Brooks his last cut from the 1960 team.

Army was a charter member of the original ECAC, tying with the Engineers for the fifth best winning percentage in the inaugural 1961-62 season, and finishing second overall behind Providence in 1964, going 17-4 against other ECAC teams in a 29-team league, the largest the conference would ever be. They fell to St. Lawrence at home in the one-and-done quarterfinals, however. The Cadets, as they were then known, hung around in the ECAC until 1972, when they left the conference to become independent after a pair of last place finishes, though they had typically been somewhere in the middle of the pack for much of their first tenure.

As an independent, the Cadets primarily played a schedule that consisted of Division III programs, and while records were frequently solid, the team didn't get NCAA looks because of that schedule quality. By the early 1980s, Army was regularly beating up on its opponents, as Jack Riley led the team to three consecutive 25-win seasons from 1982 to 1984.

Following the Hockey East split, the Cadets returned to the ECAC as the conference's 12th program, but they were in for a rude awakening as they eased back into a full Division I schedule. They played under a special arrangement that saw them play each conference foe only once (while every other team played home-and-home, as they do today), but in the first two seasons, Army went 2-20-0 in league play, including a 0-11-0 record in 1985 despite a winning overall record in both of those years. During a seven year stretch in the ECAC, the Cadets finished in last place or near last place, and the team left to become an independent again in 1991, their mantle as ECAC cellar dwellers taken for some time by Union, who replaced them.

Jack Riley left West Point in 1986 and was replaced by his son, Rob. As the team returned to the independent ranks, the schedule also lightened significantly as the Cadets played games against a wide variety of teams from D-I through D-III. It was part of a continuing cycle for Army - not strong enough to compete regularly in a Division I conference, which at the time were the "Big Four" of relatively equal strength, but fairly dominant over smaller schools in D-II and D-III.

In the late 1990s, that cycle was broken with the creation of the MAAC and the CHA through the demise of Division II. Army joined the CHA as a charter member in 1999, though they left after just one season for the MAAC in order to compete with teams closer to home.

The rise of the minor conferences allowed Army to have a full Division I schedule with other teams that struggled against the bigger conferences, but the Cadets - who became the Black Knights in 2001 - still had a tough time reaching the top in the MAAC and its successor conference, Atlantic Hockey. After five seasons in conference play, Rob Riley left to take a professional position, and he was replaced by his brother, Brian.

Under Brian Riley, the Black Knights slowly rose through the ranks of Atlantic Hockey, culminating in the team's first conference championship of any sort in 2008 when Army claimed the regular season championship with a 17-8-3 season in conference, just nudging out RIT - the only time the Tigers have not finished atop the AHA standings since they joined the conference. All eyes were on West Point as they appeared well positioned to fight for their first ever NCAA bid, potentially coming in an all-service academy final as they reached the semifinals alongside Air Force, but Mercyhurst pulled off a 4-2 upset to end the Black Knights' national tournament dreams. The team hasn't won an AHA playoff game since.

There's no denying that it's difficult to recruit at Army - top players will certainly shy away from the school because it includes the assumption of a difficult responsibility if one makes a college career there. They also are limited almost entirely to American players; although international cadets do study and train at West Point, they are limited in number. Those two items make it difficult for Army to succeed on the ice, but they've had their share of success stories. Dan Hinote played two years for Army, expecting to eventually join the FBI but recommitting to hockey after his play for the Cadets got him noticed by the NHL. He was the first Cadet ever drafted and won a Stanley Cup in 2001.

And, of course, there are heroes off the ice as well. Frederick and Joseph Tate were brothers who played for West Point, both giving their lives for their country in World War II, and their name adorns the school's ice arena, Tate Rink. Derek Hines was captain of the Black Knights in 2003, as a first lieutenant in Afghanistan, he also laid down his life for his nation. The NCAA now honors Hines with a national award - one of only three for players - given to the "unsung hero." These men gave the ultimate sacrifice, but each and every man who goes through four years of hockey at West Point, especially today in a time of war, serves their country with distinction as well.

Army doesn't always have the most talented team, but with the Rileys, you know you're going to get a hard-nosed, physical game. Thanks in part to the rigorous physical training regimen expected of all cadets, the Black Knights never have a problem playing 60 minutes of tough hockey and if you let up even for a few moments (as the Engineers found in their last game against the Academy) they'll make you pay. However, a talented team which plays hard usually should be able to pick up a win.

They don't score a lot of goals - Dube returns as the top goal scorer with just 13 last year, one of only two to reach 10. Colvin, Hull, Alvarez, and Skarda are also top scorers, all five will be seniors, giving the team a solid core of scoring leadership. In net, Leets is the presumptive starter after playing a second-choice role last season but putting up generally better numbers than graduated senior Jay Clark in the time he did see.

It's always fun to see what becomes of a game against Army. The usual obnoxious rhetoric from the RPI faithful is pretty much always toned down a bit in home games out of respect (although the band frequently plays a few bars from "Anchors Aweigh" and shouts "warm up the tanks"), and it's also one of the lesser RPI rivalries that goes back over 100 years as the two sides have met fairly frequently despite being in different conferences for much of their collective history. Whenever Army's on the schedule, a fun game is certainly in store no matter when or where the game's going to be.