Tuesday, December 18, 2012

What If: Eastern Promises

* July 1983: Five schools plan leave the ECAC to start Hockey East, RPI stays put

Michael Jackson - Beat It

The ECAC unified eastern college hockey under a single banner since its formation in the early 1960s, but it had always been a strange brew. The Ivy League, its own conference in every other sport, made up a healthy chunk of the group. The other teams based in the east of the region were typically Division I schools with a strong pedigree in hockey, while the other teams based in the west part of the region were mainly relics of a bygone era, when small schools and large schools were lumped into one, but their hockey histories made them equals.

The league has always been a precarious combination, and when concerns over the Ivy League's potential departure from the alliance, or their stringent academic requirements becoming paramount within the ECAC, it created a rift that ultimately led to the creation of one power conference and the slow decline of the former eastern power.

In July 1983, Boston College, Boston University, New Hampshire, Northeastern, and Providence decided upon a preemptive strike to protect their programs from an Ivy split. They announced the formation of a new conference, the Hockey East Association. Maine, the lone holdout from the ECAC's Eastern Division joined in soon thereafter, along with Division II power UMass-Lowell, giving the nascent conference seven members. There were certainly room for more.

The Division III schools of the ECAC, RPI, Clarkson, and St. Lawrence, were invited to become a part of the new grouping in part thanks to their strong hockey reputations. Clarkson was the program with the highest winning percentage in college hockey history, St. Lawrence a traditionally strong program, and RPI was on the rise to what would eventually become a national championship.

The remaining schools had a conundrum. Would they abandon the Ivy League ties, with its prestigious links to outstanding education, or would they pass up the opportunity to join what was sure to be one of the new power conferences of college hockey? Ultimately, all three schools chose to maintain their connection to the ECAC, and when the Ivy League elected to remain in the ECAC, a new 12-team conference was born, minus many of its top tier programs.

RPI was offered another opportunity to join Hockey East in the 1990s, but the school again turned down the invitation, citing a satisfaction with their position in the ECAC given that the program was among the league's top teams at the time. Recent flirtations between RPI and Hockey East went nowhere after UConn chose to improve their program with scholarships and a new arena in order to become the league's 12th team.

So the Engineers have had more than their fair share of opportunities to join Hockey East - besides the usual suspects of UConn and the University of Rhode Island (as the only prominent state schools in New England not currently in the conference), the Engineers may be the program most frequently linked with Hockey East accession. With the latest development of the Huskies joining the conference, it seems to be a road now closed to RPI, at least until the next conference upheaval, if and when it happens.

But what if RPI had done what BC and BU did in 1983, and freaked out at the possibility of the Ivies striking out on their own - a scenario which continues to pop up in rumors from time to time? What if they'd chosen to accept the invitation?

Hockey East's first season was also the season RPI won the national championship, the 1984-85 campaign. Given that Hockey East played an intriguing interlocking schedule with the WCHA that season (in which games were scheduled between the conferences, to count in each conference's standings), it's likely the Engineers would have played a much more difficult regular-season schedule than they actually did. While they could have certainly finished atop the new conference, it would not have been as easy as it was in the ECAC.

RPI certainly would not have faced Providence in the national championship if they had left, as Providence was a Cinderella team in the NCAA tournament. Had the Engineers duplicated their feat of winning the ECAC regular season and tournament in the new conference, the Friars would likely have been stuck at home. That could have jumbled the entire tournament up, and seen RPI facing the likes of Minnesota-Duluth, Boston College, or Michigan State in the finals instead - the latter of which would have been a tough draw in Detroit for sure. It's hard to say exactly what would have happened - perhaps Providence's Cinderella run would have derailed RPI completely.

Further out, though, the Engineers' prospects in Hockey East as charter members are likely closer to that of the Friars than to the power quartet that has traded the regular season crown since the conference's creation. The ECAC, for all of its problems, has been a conference with a great deal of parity from year to year, but in Hockey East, it's all about the Big Four, and the rest have traditionally fought for the scraps. NCAA bids for teams outside the Big Four have been few and far between - Providence in 1985, 1989, 1991, 1996, and 2001; Northeastern in 1988, 1994, and 2009; Lowell in 1988, 1994, 1996, and 2011; UMass in 2007, Vermont in 2009 and 2010, and Merrimack in 2011. That's just 16 bids over 28 years, compared with 19 for Boston College alone and 72 between all of the Big Four schools.

RPI has as many NCAA tournament appearances (four - 1985, 1994, 1995, 2011) as any non-Big Four Hockey East school with the exception of Providence during Hockey East's existence (Vermont too, if you count their three trips while they were in the ECAC). It has been argued that RPI's recruiting would improve if it were in Hockey East, but would it improve enough for them to be able to compete more frequently than Providence does? It's tough to make that assertion.

The major difference would be in October every year - RPI would be playing league games in its first month if it were in Hockey East today, and although its chances at competing for hardware would be diminished, they probably would be able to draw better non-conference opponents to play at Houston Field House as a Hockey East member, and by extension it's likely that the RPI Holiday Tournament would still exist. Non-conference games with Union, Clarkson, and St. Lawrence would be commonplace. Yearly home contests with the major schools of Hockey East would likely raise the local profile of the program.

All in all, many of the difference are things we discussed last year when the possibility of becoming the 12th team in Hockey East was thrown around. The move could have had murky effects on the 1985 championship, but all told it's hard to say for sure it would have been a net positive experience for the program. If any existed, it would likely be only incremental.

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