October 23, 2011

From NEHJ: In Atlantic Hockey, it's all hands on deck

By Allen Lessels

The Atlantic Hockey Association survived the Summer Shakeout of 2011, and commissioner Robert DeGregorio does not expect a lot of speed bumps to come as the league steers toward 2013 and a summer of massive change in college hockey. 

UConn coach Bruce Marshall, whose school was considering changes, says Atlantic Hockey�s nucleus remains strong. (photo: Steve Slade/UConn Athletics)

UConn coach Bruce Marshall, whose school was considering changes, says Atlantic Hockey's nucleus remains strong. (photo: Steve Slade/UConn Athletics)

And if the road ahead does get a little rough and Atlantic Hockey takes a hit with a couple of its 12 teams, or more, looking to change leagues?

Not a problem. The league will adjust as it has in the past, DeGregorio said as the 2011-12 season got under way.

“I think we have a really good chance of retaining the teams we have now, I really do,” DeGregorio said. “But you know what? If we lose two teams, we’ll develop a 10-team schedule pretty quickly. And if we lose four teams, we’ll develop an eight-team schedule.”

But DeGregorio (Winthrop, Mass.) has received no official word — or heard unofficial rumblings — that anyone is leaving, nor does he expect he will.
College hockey’s summer upheaval, at the moment at least, appears to have left Atlantic Hockey, along with Hockey East and ECAC Hockey, unscathed.

It didn’t always look like that was going to be the case.

The shuffling started when Penn State said it was adding Division 1 hockey, and soon after a Big Ten hockey conference, to begin play in 2013-2014, was announced.

That set off a chain of events that continued up to the beginning of the season and may not be over yet.

Central Collegiate Hockey Association teams Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State made plans to join Minnesota, Wisconsin and Penn State in the Big Ten. Colorado, Denver, North Dakota and Miami were among the schools breaking off to form another new league, the National Collegiate Hockey Conference.

Along the way, representatives of teams that still remained in the crumbling CCHA got together with the folks from four Atlantic Hockey Schools — Niagara, Robert Morris, Canisius and Mercyhurst — in late July.

“They contacted us to see if we were interested, and at the end of the day, the marriage didn’t work,” Robert Morris coach Derek Schooley said. “We’re very excited to be here and stay here.”

Niagara coach Dave Burkholder echoed those thoughts.

“We didn’t go looking, but I know a couple of different leagues approached our athletic director,” he said. “We were not out there looking for a place to play. We’re very happy in Atlantic Hockey.”

After the meeting with the Atlantic Hockey schools, several CCHA schools later joined forces with teams that were still in the WCHA. All the league changes are due to take effect for the 2013-14 season.

With his group intact, DeGregorio felt good going into his league’s ninth season, and going forward.

“If you go back to when we started to where we are now, membership-wise and competitively, we’ve grown incredibly and we’re getting stronger,” DeGregorio said.

The coaches of the two teams that have led the league in recent years, Air Force and RIT, were among the coaches who concurred and gave their stamps of approval to the direction Atlantic Hockey is headed.

“There’s a lot of scuttle out there, and you see all these programs in football and hockey changing conferences like they change their underwear,” Air Force coach Frank Serratore said at the league’s annual media day. “I’d like to go on record that Air Force is a proud member of Atlantic Hockey. This is our league. It’s where we are, and we are not looking anywhere. We love being in the league.”

Wayne Wilson, whose RIT team has won four of the past five regular-season championships, agreed.

“I think our league has only gotten better every year,” he said. “We’re very comfortable in Atlantic Hockey and where we fit into the big picture. We’re flattered and sometimes you get caught up in it when there have been inquiries, but we’re very happy where we’re at and it’s not always better at another spot.”

Burkholder likes the fit for his Niagara team, which has been in the league only a year, and appreciates the new rivalries the Purple Eagles are developing as well as the spicing up of an old one.

“Canisius is our crosstown rival in 16 other sports on campus and now we’re finally in a league with them,” Burkholder said. “Our playoff matchup with them last year added to it as well. . . . Bob DeGregorio and his staff have done a great job, and the league continues to get better year by year in lots of areas.”

The league’s other teams appear to feel that Atlantic Hockey fits them, too.
DeGregorio isn’t sure how all the league changes will work out, but figures college hockey could have done without its wild summer.

“I know some people doubt whether having Penn State play hockey is a good thing and forming a Big Ten is a good thing, but I disagree,” the commissioner said. “I think Penn State is great for the sport and having movement in the leagues is part of it. But I hoped everyone instead of panicking and going bananas and making rash changes would sit back and see how it panned out.”

Instead, change was the order of the summer and the league landscape of college hockey will look dramatically different come the 2013-14 season.

Who knows, DeGregorio said, more changes could come along, in a variety of forms, at any time. But the nucleus, said UConn coach Bruce Marshall, remains strong.

“Most of these schools have been together 10-15 years,” said Marshall, whose school was considering major conference changes based on football and basketball as the season began. “Most of them want to stay together. So I wasn’t sitting on a beach on Cape Cod this summer thinking, ‘Oh my God, the league is going to blow up.’”

This article originally appeared in the October 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal. Allen Lessels can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com.