Sunday, September 2, 2012

Five Things To Watch In ACHA D1

For long-time Penn State hockey fans, this season will certainly be exciting, but also a little awkward because, as hard as it may be to believe, the ACHA will continue to march forward without the Icers.

Maybe it's just the fact that old habits die hard or maybe it's a sincere desire to see an organization PSU helped initiate do well, but despite our finally achieving the long-dreamt-of NCAA status and despite no longer having a dog in the hunt, I'm still going to keep tabs on ACHA D1. Men's D1, not the women - for the latter it's pure schadenfreude across the board after how the Lady Icers ended their run by being shafted out of nationals twice in a row.

(Men's and women's D2, of course, are a different story with the Ice Lions and the new women's team maintaining Penn State's ACHA presence.)

Naturally, I'll keep an eye on Ohio, Arizona State and Oklahoma due to their being 2012-2013 opponents, and I'll also keep crushing Jimmy John's in the hope that Let's Play Hockey's bold speculation concerning Illinois is more than a rumor. But let's go a little deeper and look at five other things I'll be tracking in the ACHA this season.

Senior captain Brian Slugocki was a key figure in Arizona's transition. His jersey now features fewer cacti, but more official logos.

1. Arizona

The Wildcats - yes, Wildcats - are entering the second year of a drastic and long overdue reorganization. That, of course, entailed the ouster of program founder Leo Golembiewski and his private company (Icecat Hockey LLC) that actually ran the team independently of the university for 32 years. While there's nothing inherently wrong with that setup, and the Icecats certainly enjoyed a lot of success in their day, it became increasingly clear in the last decade of Golembiewski's reign that Arizona wasn't built to compete in the modern ACHA. Perhaps most insulting of all has been archrival Arizona State's concurrent rise to become the alpha program of the southwest.

I wrote a post about the Icecats/Wildcats transition last April, which surprisingly was quoted in the Arizona Daily Wildcat a few days ago. The Daily Wildcat piece is good reading that sort of illustrates the present state of things. Sean Hogan, who was the video coordinator at Western Michigan (NCAA version) during their turnaround under Jeff Blashill (now the head coach of the AHL's Grand Rapids Griffins after assisting with the Detroit Red Wings last year), was an impressive hire as the new coach last summer. In his second year in charge, he'll attempt to navigate a daunting schedule worthy of the Icecats' glory days with an roster that, on paper anyway, won't give up much to their opponents.

Undoing a decade of damage isn't something accomplished overnight, but monitoring the progress of the program, and hoping they finally take Arizona State down a peg or several - the Icecats/Wildcats are winless in their last 24 against ASU - will definitely draw some of my attention this season.

2. Delaware

I have no problem admitting that I like Delaware, partially for the completely selfish reason that their players and coaches noticed this blog before even most of the Penn State community. But more significantly, I think it's fair to say that the Fightin' Blue Hens represent everything top-level ACHA hockey is supposed to be: perpetually great talent on the roster, top coaches, a packed Fred Rust for home games. And now, finally, the hardware to go with it.

UD loses some great players for their title defense, including Icer alumnus John Conte's brother David and Andre Menard, who is now playing professionally in France for second-division side Courbevoie. Still, the Hens will have a stacked roster that should still be considered a Murdoch Cup favorite, and it's easy to envision them stringing together a run like Lindenwood's four straight championship game appearances between 2008 and 2011.

A bonus reason to follow Delaware is the fact that it was none other than Josh Brandwene who first led the program out of second-tier status with a surprise run to the 2001 ACHA championship game. He was assisted by former Icers teammate John O'Connor - who is still in Newark and set to begin his 16th season on staff, which includes one year as head coach following Brandwene's departure for Michigan-Dearborn in 2003.

Oakland's Jordan MacDonald had a lot to do with last year's Icers falling short of the title...but no hard feelings.

3. Oakland

Everything I just said about Delaware also applies to Oakland, the team UD beat for their first-ever ACHA national championship in the spring. Considering all aspects, from promotions and marketing to fan support to public service to the on-ice product, the Grizzlies are about as close as you'll find to a model ACHA program in the post-Icers world and deserve support for it.

Generally speaking, this blog keeps me emotionally detached. That's not forced "no cheering in the press box" neutrality, as I make no apologies for my allegiances. It's just the fact of the matter that I've sacrificed many of the fun things about being a fan to do this and don't really get to truly enjoy most things - for example, while most of you are on your feet after a PSU goal, I'm making sure I caught who started the play on the other end and hurriedly typing about it into a Cover It Live.

I mention that because there's been but one exception so far: the ACHA national championships last year. That was the one time I let it all hit me. I desperately wanted that one last championship that I felt was birthright on our way up and out. Then Oakland showed up, outworked and out-executed the Icers, and ripped it away. And yes, it got a little dusty in Strongsville, OH's Hoover Arena as the clock wound down and the outcome became clear. One would think that I would hate the Grizzlies for it, but I don't. In fact, I respect them tremendously and wish them nothing but continued success.

4. The Continued Evolution of Program Types

Back in those days of yore when it appeared hopeless that Penn State would ever have NCAA hockey, a friend asked me what it would take for the ACHA to supersede the NCAA as the primary sanctioning organization for college hockey. The obvious answer to that desperate question is "shut up." I could spend all day discussing why that's a ridiculous notion, although I am starting to come around to hoping that one of the mega-$$$ sports paves the way in challenging the NCAA's hegemony in the world of college athletics, for reasons any Penn Stater can probably list at this point. Certainly if things were drastically shaken up and each sport had its own sanctioning organization, that would put a lot of different outcomes into play. But realistically, based on present, stop it.

I indulged my friend with sort of an indirect answer, by saying that the keys to the ACHA's continued growth are the large-school programs in the south and west, for a few reasons:
  1. Those are rapidly growing hockey areas that will likely be underserved by the NCAA for the foreseeable future.
  2. The schools in question - Arizona, ASU, Oklahoma, others in lower ACHA divisions at schools whose varsity teams are generally members of the SEC and Pac-12 - have large student bodies and alumni bases who tend to like sports. A well-marketed and competitive team could be a big deal at those schools.
  3. Large schools are positioned to challenge NCAA Division III schools for recruits, and therefore competitively, because what they have to offer is virtually at the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of name recognition, things to do, atmosphere, educational opportunities, alumni networks, you name it. I'm admittedly biased as an alumnus of a large, public school, but I really don't understand why anyone would choose to play in DIII over the ACHA. The NCAA status, at that level, is almost a technicality and (in my opinion) doesn't outweigh a true college experience at a place more populated than a large high school. Players aren't on the fast track to the show in either location, and the hockey's about equal between an average DIII team and a top ACHA D1 team.
If all of that sounds vaguely familiar to you, minus the geography, feel free to refer to it as the Penn State model. Few people would argue that more Penn States in the ACHA is good for business. And a whole bunch of Penn States playing in regions where NCAA hockey, effectively, doesn't exist? Use your imagination.

Recently though, those ideas have been challenged by schools like Lindenwood and Davenport, smaller schools in more traditional hockey areas that place hockey front and center, treating their ACHA teams almost as varsity programs - including, some allege, with financial aid creatively disbursed to work around the rules. Which program type will win out over the long haul? It's impossible to say right now, which is precisely why it's so interesting.

In the future, will UK hockey be known for more than schedule posters?

5. The Crossover Games

I just discussed the ACHA's place in the universe relative to NCAA DIII, which is a nice transition to the final thing I'll be watching: the ACHA's games against teams outside of the ACHA. In following the Icers, those games were always circled on the schedule as an opportunity to prove that non-varsity hockey done right is, in fact, pretty good.

One notable crossover this season is a holiday tournament involving two of Penn State's three ACHA opponents. On December 28th and 29th, while the Nittany Lions are at the Pittsburgh College Hockey Invitational, Oklahoma and Arizona State will be in Burnaby, BC to play in a showcase involving the CIS' University of British Columbia and Canadian non-varsity power Simon Fraser. UBC is frequent exhibition fodder for NCAA DI teams, losing 4-1 to UNO, 3-0 to Minnesota and 3-1 to Minnesota State last season, so the Thunderbirds will certainly present a measuring stick opportunity for the ACHAers.

Of course, there's also the matter of those six crossover games scheduled to be played at the Ice Pavilion. You'll have to forgive me for not supporting the ACHA on those occasions.

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