Sunday, May 19, 2013

Growth Coming to the CHA?

Rhode Island, apparently not sick of being scored on by Tommy Olczyk, is eyeballing DI

Following the massive conference upheaval in men's Division I hockey - started by Penn State, of course - over the last couple offseasons, this summer promises to be relatively quiet.

Hockey East adds Notre Dame this coming season and Connecticut next season, and will then be at 12 teams with no obvious candidate for expansion out there. The WCHA, after being gutted, absorbing the CCHA's remnants and adding Alabama-Huntsville, is at ten. The NCHC has eight teams and a demonstrated a lack of interest in anyone else available within their footprint. The ECAC, the only conference not really affected by any of this, remains at 12. The Big Ten, of course, has six teams and won't expand unless a school already in the conference for other sports starts a varsity hockey program.

It's probably a reach to compare these conferences to noble gases (as we've learned across different sports, conference stability is almost always an illusion), but things are about as settled as they can be. Everyone is on an even number and there are no obvious poaching candidates or independent teams. Essentially, a school adding a new program is the only foreseeable way to throw things back into flux.

Then there's Atlantic Hockey. Considered NCAA Division I's only mid-major conference thanks to its self-imposed scholarship limit of 12 (two-thirds of the NCAA maximum, although the league will be working its way up to 14 over the next few years) and therefore the low man in the pecking order, the AHA is where the big boys go to grab a team to get back to an even number, as Hockey East did with UConn after scoring Notre Dame. That transaction left the league at 11 teams and, as it turns out, hungry for more.
[Commissioner Bob DeGregorio] said the league plans to return to 12 teams and expects to add one of two schools that have shown major interest. Sacred Heart athletic director Don Cook will chair the expansion initiative.

The league would not name the interested schools because they have not yet formally applied. Last November, DeGregorio told USCHO that he was in contact with four schools — St. Anselm, Rhode Island, Navy and Alabama-Huntsville — about joining Atlantic Hockey. Alabama-Huntsville has since joined the WCHA.

“We expect [applications] soon,” DeGregorio said.
Shortly after that story went up, the Boston Herald broke the news that both St. Anselm and Rhode Island plan on applying to join Atlantic Hockey. The Herald quoted an optimistic-sounding URI camp:
“We’re very strong contenders. The issue, right now, is really the money. I see it really as something that’s going to happen,” said Roberta Blute, who is heading up the private Blue Line Commission, comprised of URI alumni and faculty, which is seeking to raise nearly $5 million to fund the upgrade of the men’s hockey program from club to varsity status. “We’re being aggressive on this. It’s going to take time and money.”
Money's usually the thing, ain't it?

While many varsity programs started as "informal" teams that later gained university recognition, Penn State and Alabama-Huntsville are the only DI teams that can truly be said to have evolved from club roots in the modern era. Rhode Island, apparently, is trying pretty hard to make it three. The former ESCHL rival of the Icers, which also defeated PSU for the 2006 ACHA national championship, would certainly be an intriguing DI add and one that makes a lot of sense, given that they're the only public flagship school of a New England state not already in the show. If nothing else, the first time PSU and URI meet as DI opponents would be fun for re-kindling what was a pretty solid rivalry over the last decade of Penn State's time in ACHA Division 1 and for observing how one side's sports information department claims no series history while the other's claims lots of history.

Could St. Anselm be in the CHA by the time rising sophomore Alex Kazmer's career is over?

With all due respect to Rhody - and their attempt at making the jump has TYT's full support - they're actually not the more intriguing option from our perspective. Let's jump back to USCHO's Chris Lerch to see what he has to say about St. Anselm.
St. Anselm has a nice facility and is 10 miles from the AHA offices. This would open the door to the school taking its women’s team to College Hockey America, which could lead to Holy Cross and Sacred Heart joining. Both have not despite the natural CHA-AHA alignment because of travel expenses – most of the of CHA is in NY and PA. It’s not clear if URI would field a varsity women’s program, but that could work as well in terms of Sacred Heart and Holy Cross being enticed to upgrade their women’s programs.
Soooo.... St. Anselm winning the vacant Atlantic Hockey spot over Rhode Island could lead to not one, but three new rivals for the Nittany Lion women in College Hockey America (which, as Lerch mentions, shares an administration with Atlantic Hockey, making it common for AHA schools to place their women's programs in CHA).

While Rhode Island could also, in theory, upgrade their ACHA women's program to comply with Title IX, that's certainly not the least expensive option for a school already scrambling to afford things (unlike a PSU, which has an athletic department covering just about every sport except rugby and quidditch and therefore had few options for Title IX beyond women's hockey, URI only sponsors nine women's sports). St. Anselm, which already competes in NCAA Division II for both men's and women's hockey, has to be said to have an edge in that regard.

Holy Cross, notable for Nittany Lions assistant coach Casey McCullion's career as a standout goaltender there, is in DIII for women's hockey and is a natural candidate to elevate to DI for symmetry with the school's men's program, which is in Atlantic Hockey. Sacred Heart, also in Atlantic Hockey on the men's side, is DI's only women's independent, but has been rumored to join the CHA off and on in the past. Penn State already has a bit of history with the Pioneers, as the Nittany Lions took three of four games this past season, while the ACHA Lady Icers split a series in Fairfield, CT in 2011-2012.

While we're still a few rather large steps away from a nine-team CHA materializing, any addition at all would certainly be welcome for the league that - thanks mostly to Findlay, Niagara and Wayne State dropping their teams out of the blue at different points over the last decade - has struggled to maintain the six teams necessary for an autobid to the NCAA Tournament. While Penn State, Mercyhurst, Robert Morris, Syracuse, Lindenwood and RIT all seem in it for the long haul (and if they are, that autobid should finally be coming around 2015-2016), insurance never hurts.

The major drawback? It's a 1,200-mile drive from Manchester, NH (St. Anselm) to St. Charles, MO (Lindenwood), and a geographic spread beyond the wherewithal of the membership is often cited as a factor in the demise of the CHA's men's league, which folded in 2010 after 11 seasons. That inconvenience may lead to the resurrection of another popular rumor, one that has Lindenwood and Ohio State trading conferences. The Buckeyes are in the WCHA for women's hockey, and actually considered moving to the CHA in 2004, then thought better of it when Findlay folded.

As one seismic shift winds down, another may be just beginning. Such is the reality of college athletics in 2013.

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