Saturday, November 27, 2010

How Good, How Soon? (Part I)

With the weekend off for the Icers, I figured it would be a good time for this post and the one that follows tomorrow.

In case you didn't hear, I had my first spat with a fellow college hockey blogger a couple weeks ago. This is a guy whose gears are clearly being grinded by Penn State's very existence in his little fact, he had this to say in comment to an article on a different blog.
"I can't wait to watch PSU get their asses handed to them in college hockey week after week. I think it's funny how some in the PSU fan base seem to think that they are just going to start a hockey program and start competing with the big boys of the college hockey, these are the same in the sport that have had programs for a very long time. PSU is going to be hard pressed to beat RMU."
Oh noes, not the BIG BOYS! I'm quaking. Just like Nebraska-Omaha (established 1997) was clearly quaking against the Sioux last weekend. I mean how could they ever expect to compete against that 1980 national championship banner...but more on that in a minute. Also, I guess he wasn't one of the 555 in attendance when the Icers knocked off Robert Morris' NCAA team in 2005. Exhibition? Yes. But still evidence that he's delusional about our prospects.

So much irrational hate, and all because we have the audacity to be excited about current events instead of worrying about whether we can hang with Bobby Mo in our lifetimes (and forget about staying within 5 of anyone outside Atlantic Hockey). It's a shame, because I have tremendous respect for his North Dakota program, in my opinion the envy of every other, thanks to their remarkable consistency that transcends players and even coaches.

This post isn't really meant as a direct response to that or his uninformed take on my opinion in his blog. I'm all for some verbal jousting when it comes to my favorite sport and my alma mater, but at the same time, I'm an adult who understands that there are some fundamental differences in opinion that will prevent us from ever seeing eye to eye on this one. So rather than go point for point with him and make it completely personal (that portion of the post is over, I promise), this is more about addressing one of the issues behind that disagreement, specifically, how good will Penn State's NCAA team be, and how quickly can we expect to get there? Inspiration for posts comes from unexpected places sometimes, to say the least.

As an added bonus, this is my first two-part post ever. You're witnessing history in the making.

First, a clarification: I frequently say that I believe PSU will compete at the highest levels of college hockey because, well, that's what I believe. I believe in the people who made this a reality and will be building the program. I believe in the potential energy that exists at the school and within the state. What I do NOT believe is that this will all be evident from puck drop in 2012. We're still going to be playing in the same tiny, dumpy rink we play in right now, and we're probably going to have something less than a full complement of scholarship players, with the possibility of a few Icers making the transition. In short, we're probably going to get stomped out of the gate. It may take 5 to 10 or even 15 years to get going, but once we do, I feel like we'll be there to stay.

I'm a data guy at heart, so hey, let's look at some data on this. We're not the first school to start a Division I hockey program, so here are the last five to do so. Not included: programs playing in minor conferences, programs that spent years or even decades at a lower NCAA division (hi, Bemidji State), or the pretty unusual Notre Dame situation. Those aren't analogous to me, we want zero to major DI conference. Please don't take this to mean that I'm calling the Icers "zero," it's just that the category of "highly successful ACHA to major NCAA Division I" doesn't really exist.

First season: 1997-1998
Joined major conference: 1999-2000 (year 3)
First-season record: 12-18-3
First winning record: 2000-2001 (year 4)
First conference championship: None (now in year 14)
First NCAA tournament appearance: 2005-2006 (year 9)
First national championship: None

UNO stands out to me for a few reasons. First off, they're the only truly recent addition, with the restrictions I put in place. They're a school with which few would be familiar without their hockey team. They're in a decidedly non-traditional hockey area (yes, I'm aware of the USHL's footprint). While I wouldn't call the program wildly successful by any stretch of the imagination, given their situation they've had some relative successes, and second-year coach Dean Blais has them poised to explode on the national scene, as evidenced by their current No. 4 ranking. Alumni include NHLers Dan Ellis, Scott Parse and Greg Zanon.

First season: 1979-1980
Joined major conference: 1993-1994 (year 15)
First-season record: 17-14-0
First winning record: 1979-1980 (year 1)
First conference championship: None (now in year 31)
First NCAA tournament appearance: 1989-1990 (year 11)
First national championship: None

First season: 1978-1979
Joined major conference: 1980-1981 (year 3)
First-season record: 22-14-1
First winning record: 1978-1979 (year 1)
First conference championship: 2005-2006 (year 28)
First NCAA tournament appearance: 1992-1993 (year 15)
First national championship: None (now in year 33)

First season: 1977-1978
Joined major conference: 1984-1985 (year 8)
First-season record: 15-12-0
First winning record: 1977-1978 (year 1)
First conference championship: 1987-1988 (year 11)
First NCAA tournament appearance: 1986-1987 (year 10)
First national championship: 1992-1993 (year 16)

Northern Michigan
First season: 1976-1977
Joined major conference: 1977-1978 (year 2)
First-season record: 19-13-1
First winning record: 1976-1977 (year 1)
First conference championship: 1979-1980 (year 4)
First NCAA tournament appearance: 1979-1980 (year 4)
First national championship: 1990-1991 (year 15)

I decided to cut it off here, because the next batch of applicable programs started in the 1960s, and it seems a little ridiculous to go back that far. Yet at the same time, if you keep moving backwards, one can't help but wonder how Denver has managed seven national championships despite starting their program 50 years after some. Or even Minnesota and Michigan - they're neophytes compared to the Ivies - however did they manage?

Getting off that tangent, what universal truths exist with the five newest?
  • First off, and maybe most significantly, every single one of these programs made the NCAA tournament in the first 15 years.
  • Surprisingly, four of the five were able to put up a winning record in the first year - with an asterisk for the fact that each was playing an independent schedule that probably didn't include Michigan and Minnesota.
  • Two of the five won national championships within 16 years. Miami came insanely close to one in 2009.
  • Go a little deeper and you'll see that the coaching hire is crucial. NMU had relatively quick success with now-legendary Rick Comley behind the bench from day one. Miami took longer, largely because of the Bill Davidge hire in between program-builder Steve Cady and corner-turner George Gwozdecky. Maine with Shawn Walsh and UNO with Dean Blais (possibly) hit it big on coach number two.
Generally speaking, and sliding away from a fact-based argument for a second, Maine and Miami are accepted as national powers, although Miami's definitely a newcomer to that club. Northern Michigan is a generally solid program. UNO doesn't have a tremendous history but looks to be on an upward trajectory. Alaska-Anchorage is the only one that stands out as a bad program.

So where does Penn State fit on this scale? Feel free to decide for yourself. My answer's coming in part II.

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