Monday, March 19, 2018


I was asked at the last home game this season whether RPI was "in danger of becoming irrelevant," with Lake Superior State and Dartmouth offered as examples of "irrelevant."

Sorry in advance to any Laker or Big Green fans who may have stumbled upon this. It wasn't my example - but I did have a hard time arguing the logic.

Lake State had a dynasty in the 1990s with three national championships among nine straight NCAA appearances with four CCHA titles in that stretch. They haven't won a lick of hardware since 1996 and have had just five winning seasons since then. Dartmouth had a couple of moments of national prominence, in the late 1940s and the late 1970s. Otherwise - not a whole lot. The Big Green were awful in the 1980s and 1990s, and while they've been much better under Bob Gaudet since the turn of the millennium, there's still not a whole lot of "there" there. A shared ECAC regular season title in 2006 and a shared Ivy League title in 2007, and that's about it. No ECAC title games, no NCAA tournament appearances despite coming close on both fronts a number of times.

So that got me thinking. What makes a team "relevant?" Winning is really what it comes down to, and there are several great benchmarks to tell you if a team is winning. Let's explore. (TL;DR - If you want to skip the nitty-gritty, just scroll down to the final bold line near the bottom.)

National championships. It's an elite club - only 21 out of 60 programs have even won one, and RPI can count itself among just 14 of those with more than one to their name. So there's a historical aspect here of which the program can be rightly proud.

So when I say that RPI's title drought (now the longest in school history, as 1985 is farther from 2018 than it is from 1954) is the fifth longest in the country among schools with a title, that's really nothing. There are almost 40 schools out there, including some historically heavy hitters like Clarkson and New Hampshire, who don't even have one. This one's not something that should weigh heavily on our minds.

Frozen Fours. I'll skip the honor of even reaching the national championship game, even though we've now had to watch half of the ECAC reach that level (including three champions) since RPI's last one in 1985. Let's just cut to the entire last weekend of the season. The creme de la creme. The top dogs. A party that unites the college hockey world. If you've ever been to a Frozen Four, you know you can see practically every sweater in the country in the stands (and checking them off is a fun pastime there).

21 schools have never been, so again, this isn't a whole lot to quibble over. But since the Engineers were last there, 33 different programs have had this honor. That's more than half of all teams in the country. 22 different schools have been to the Frozen Four just in the last decade.

Since RPI's last turn in 1985, we've watched Clarkson (1991), Colgate (1990), Cornell (2003), Harvard (1989, 1994, 2017), Quinnipiac (2013, 2016), St. Lawrence (1988, 2000), Union (shoot me), Vermont (1996), and Yale (2013) reach the promised land. That's 9 out of 14 ECAC schools, 14 times. The balance? Army, Brown, Dartmouth, Princeton... and RPI.

The Engineers just haven't been close ever since hoisting that national championship in 1985. Not even a single NCAA tournament win since then. Not even a goal, but let's explore that further.

The NCAA tournament. Just making it into the tournament field in any sport is a great achievement. Watching those last few days of the conference tournament tick down, keeping an eye on the Pairwise, it's all great fun. We've done it occasionally here at WaP, and the Engineers even snuck into the tournament once during this blog's tenure, backing in for the 2011 edition, where RPI were thoroughly destroyed by North Dakota. That was RPI's first NCAA appearance in 16 years, and it's now been a further 7 years without a bid.

Division I hockey actually has a fairly large tournament for its size - 16 teams out of 60 makes for over a quarter of programs in any given year playing a tournament in which four wins makes you a national champion. Consider that in that other sport that gets all the attention in March for some reason, 68 teams make the tournament out of 351 - 19.3% as opposed to college hockey's 26.7%.

So it's not terribly surprising that since 2012, 38 different programs have earned NCAA bids - nearly two-thirds of the nation has been dancing since RPI last had the opportunity. Only St. Lawrence (2007), Brown (1993), and Dartmouth (1980) have gone longer in the ECAC without a bid (to be very fair, Princeton and Clarkson in 2018 are both on their first bids since RPI's last turn).

The Engineers didn't score an NCAA tournament goal in 2011 (6-0 losers against the Fighting Sioux). Nor did they score in their 1995 appearance (1-0 to Minnesota). Nor in 1994 (2-0 to New Hampshire). In fact, in a stat that will undoubtedly crop up should the Engineers ever reach the tournament again, RPI has gone over 10 and a half NCAA tournament periods without scoring a goal, reaching back to George Servinis' unassisted, short-handed (and, yes, offsides) goal at 3:49 of the second period in the 1985 title game. That's a stretch of 216:11 of tournament play over the last 36 years without scoring even a goal.

So I went and checked. Literally every program that has played in the NCAA tournament since 1986 has scored at least one goal. That makes Dartmouth (1980) the only school in the country with a longer drought by total years since their last NCAA goal, and only seven teams have never made the NCAA tournament, of which Army is the only one that doesn't have the excuse of not having had a D-I varsity program in 1985.

And when it comes to NCAA wins in general - only Michigan Tech (1981), Dartmouth (1980, or 1949 if you don't count the defunct third-place game), and Brown (1976, or 1951 discounting third-place games) have gone longer since winning their last NCAA game. 14 D-I programs have never won an NCAA tournament game, and of those only Alaska, Army, Princeton, and Western Michigan lack the longevity excuse. (And, of course, Michigan Tech and Princeton have the opportunity to remove their names this year.)

League championships. For most programs, just being the top dog in your own conference can sometimes be bragging rights enough to signal a very successful season - Princeton's title this year certainly qualifies as being plenty for them this go round, with the NCAA tournament very much an opportunity to play with house money.

There are only 18 programs that have not won a league championship since the Engineers last enjoyed one nearly a quarter-century ago. 11 of these have never won one (although, to be fair to Arizona State, they've never had an actual opportunity to compete for one). Four are in Atlantic Hockey, which doesn't have a history as long as RPI's current drought. Two more are Omaha and Penn State, who also doesn't have a history that long.

Taking them out, we're left with Lake Superior (1995, along side RPI), Northern Michigan (1992), Colgate (1990), Alaska and Bowling Green (1998),  Alaska-Anchorage (1987), and Colorado College (1978) among teams that have won league titles in the past, and Brown, Dartmouth, Merrimack, UMass, and Vermont among those who haven't.

That means there are only three other ECAC programs that haven't won it all since the Engineers were last on top in the league: Brown, Colgate, and Dartmouth. Four if you want to include Vermont's 10 chances during that time.

League championship game. Just the opportunity to play for a title is enough to send thrills through the spines of supporters around the country. The Engineers last had this chance in 2000, when they fell 2-0 to St. Lawrence in the ECAC championship game in Lake Placid.

2000 was also the last time Omaha (falling 6-0 to Michigan State) and UConn (beating Iona 6-1) played for a league title - titles which no longer exist with the CCHA and MAAC now being defunct (along with Iona). Lake State last appeared in the CCHA title game in 1996 (losing 4-3 to Michigan), while Dartmouth's last hurrah playing for hardware was way back in 1980, a 5-1 loss to Cornell.

AIC, Arizona State, and the two Alaska schools are the only ones that have never appeared in a conference tournament championship game.

Every other school in the nation has had that thrill of seeing their team 60 minutes away from being crowned kings of their conference since 2000. With the notable exception of St. Lawrence (2001), every other team in the ECAC besides the Engineers, Saints, and Big Green have had that experience in the past eight years.

League semifinals. Now we're really lowering the bar - but even just the opportunity to reach what is frequently a neutral-site celebration of the league in general is a chance for fans to hitch up the wagon and go watch their team play as one of the conference elite with a title within reach. This is, as we've seen, sometimes an easy bar to clear, to the point where failing to reach this level can be seen by itself as a total failure for a season. RPI was more or less at this level of expectations when they last reached the semifinals in 2002, their 7th such visit in 10 years, and 9th in 15 years.

At worst, in 12 team leagues like the ECAC, 1/3 of the conference can be among the final four, which is still a significant chunk. It's even "easier" in places like the Big Ten, where the last four comes out to being more than half of a seven team league.

RPI's long-running drought of failing to reach Albany, then Atlantic City, and now Lake Placid again are well known and painful to what can now be termed RPI's long-suffering fans. 2002 was the last hurrah, marking the beginning of what is now a 16-year drought. Only one team that has ever been to a league semifinal currently has a longer ongoing drought - Omaha, who last appeared in a league semifinal (in the CCHA - two leagues ago) during the 2001 season.

This is where I point out that the Mavericks have been to three NCAA tournaments during that stretch, including a Frozen Four appearance in 2015. I'd trade our experience in the last 17 years with theirs in a heartbeat. (They'd probably ask for our prior 50 in return, so no deal.)

Only two other programs haven't been in that timeframe - Arizona State, who again, doesn't have a league semifinal to reach and have only completed their third Division I season, and American International, who came within a win this year of doing it for the first time.

Regular season titles. These mean absolutely nothing anymore, but they're at least good indicators of a great season over the course of four months of league play.

Let's cut right to the chase. RPI hasn't done this since the national championship in 1985, and every other ECAC team has won at least a share of what they apparently call the Cleary Cup since except for Brown and Princeton (and Army).

12 teams nationally have never won even a share of a regular season title (again, this includes Arizona State, who have never been able to), but of the ones who have, only Providence (1983 in the ECAC) and Ohio State (1972 in the CCHA) have gone longer without accomplishing the feat.

Is RPI irrelevant?

I don't know. I don't have a very good vantage point because the team is relevant to me and it probably always will be.

But there are a whole lot of gaps in the line when it comes to benchmarks of success, benchmarks of relevancy. Some of the same teams of comparison keep popping up when you take a hard look at them, and Lake Superior State and Dartmouth do seem to be frequent cohorts. The other ones that are coming up often are Brown and Army - and I will leave it to other observers to determine whether all that adds up to "irrelevant." I don't personally see Lake State and Dartmouth as being irrelevant - especially considering that the Big Green are the conference opponent that RPI has gone the longest without beating at present - but I can see how others might feel that way.

What I can say is that, more immediately, the program has just endured its worst back-to-back seasons in modern history by winning percentage. This can't be pinned on any one person, especially since there were different head coaches in both seasons and a great deal of turmoil with the roster between seasons in part because of that change. So if you're looking for me to point fingers at Seth Appert or Dave Smith, you'll be waiting for quite a while.

It's not a question of whether I or any other observers think RPI is irrelevant. It's a question of whether players think RPI is irrelevant. According to Chris Heisenberg's master sheet, at least 24 programs (including RPI) have at least one committed recruit who wasn't even born yet the last time the Engineers made it to the ECAC semifinals - and the longer it keeps up, the bigger that number will get until it maxes out at every program. There are only five players slated to be on next year's RPI roster who were alive the last time RPI won the ECAC title.

No college hockey player in over a decade was alive the last time the Engineers scored a goal in the NCAA tournament.

It is the players who will decide whether RPI is irrelevant - and if that's the decision they are starting to make, there is not a whole lot of time left to make some of these droughts referenced above start to disappear.

But there is hope. After all, Union was irrelevant for decades before they finally started breaking through and climbed all the way to the top. Michigan Tech needed a shakeup of conferences to help clear their path back to relevance and the NCAA tournament, but that alone can't account for the fact that the Huskies were ranked #1 in the country for a week in 2014. Even if we've found irrelevancy, anything is possible.

We've been searching for rock bottom for a very long time. Let's hope we've found it.