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Assessing the state of the game in Division I

by Bob Snow /
Last month, the six NCAA Division I commissioners took a significant step forward toward dealing with one of their major challenges by hiring Paul Kelly, former executive director of the National Hockey League Players' Association, as the director of the new College Hockey, Inc.

Two weeks before Kelly's hiring, solicited input from each commissioner with five questions about their short- and long-range goals, a wish list of rules changes, and the current state of Division I college hockey.

That fifth question was directed to the major challenge facing Division I, and would be connected to the mission of College Hockey, Inc: to sell college hockey's advantages to parents and younger players now choosing junior programs.

"Junior hockey is aggressively competing for some of the best talent on both sides of the border," Hockey East Commissioner Joe Bertagna said. "We need to do a better job marketing our game and I believe we are about to embark on a new initiative, nationally, to do just that."

"The biggest challenge facing D-1 hockey," echoed College Hockey America Commissioner Ed McLaughlin, "is the recruiting battle against Major Junior. If we continue to lose good American players, the quality of our product will drop."

Said WCHA Commissioner Bruce McLeod: "We also continue to face challenges in Canada with junior hockey and recruiting potential student-athletes."

"Continue to help do our part in helping the sport of NCAA hockey increase its profile throughout North America," said CCHA Commissioner Tom Anastos.

The other important challenge relates to the number of schools that have dropped D-1 hockey, and the dissolution of the four-team CHA after this season. Beginning in 2010, Bemidji State will join the WCHA; Robert Morris University and Niagara University will join Atlantic Hockey. Alabama-Huntsville remains without a home league next year.

"Retaining the current members, not losing any more D-1 programs," said Atlantic Commissioner Bob DeGregorio.

"Maintaining the stability of the sport in terms of number of programs," reiterated ECACHL Commissioner Steve Hagwell. "Given the significant financial issues facing all institutions, and the cost of maintaining a Division I hockey program, the sport will be faced with some challenges."

"The demise of College Hockey America," said McLeod, "is affecting all of us, but we want to continue to work at making our product the best we can and improve the health and viability of our programs and leagues by finding ways to encourage new programs into Division I hockey."

Here are their responses to the other four questions.

What is your league's major short-range major goal for the current season?

"Our goal is to provide the student-athletes of the last four CHA teams with a quality experience throughout the season and a memorable CHA Tournament," McLaughlin about his league's final season. "We want to celebrate the history of the conference and make sure our student-athletes see the last season of the CHA as the best."

"Carry the success of a league beyond the quarterfinals of the NCAA," said Atlantic's DeGregorio. "To get more recognition for our league; we need to get a team to the Frozen Four [for the first time]."

"To have a team in our league win the national championship," said ECACHL's Hagwell. "It is what each of our teams strive for each season.  Aside from that primary objective, to market/promote our league to the benefit of our members, maintain fiscal viability and integrity, and continue to improve/enhance our on-ice officiating."

Harvard is the last ECAC team to win it all in 1989.

"Two things," said WCHA's McLeod. "Keep finding ways to improve the experience for the student-athletes and fans in our championship rounds and make the Final Five weekend even better. Secondly, we will have new league members in Bemidji State and Nebraska-Omaha (transferring from the CCHA) and those new buildings as well as a new facility in Duluth. We will work with them and try to help set the table for them to be as successful as possible."

"Our goal remains consistent," said CCHA's Anastos. "To provide a highly competitive conference and maximize the number of teams who will complete for our league championship and qualify for the NCAA Tournament."

Ditto for Hockey East's Bertagna: "It is always, and in no particular order, to have a good regular-season race, with everyone engaged in a battle for the championship, home ice, or that last playoff spot. To have a winning record outside of the league and to win a national championship. It is a tough trisect, but we currently hold a two-year streak of meeting all these goals."

Boston College and Boston University won the 2008 and 2009 national championships, respectively. They will meet a week after the 2010 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic on Jan. 8, also at Fenway Park for the first outdoor college game in the modern era.

What is your league's major 2-3-year goal?

"Continue to improve our competitiveness outside our league," said DeGregorio.

"Enhance our league's financial situation to the benefit of our members," Hagwell said. "And ensure a smooth and successful transition to our new championship site in Atlantic City, New Jersey, (beginning in 2011.)"

"For the league to get into a routine with the increase from 10 to 12 teams and get our postseason playoff system worked out well," McLeod said. "We have some options with our championship, both for the first round at campus sites and also for the WCHA Final Five in St. Paul."

Anastos rattled off three CCHA longer-range goals: "We want to continue to make our CCHA Championship one of the premiere events in college hockey. Continue to increase our league's exposure through television and new media. Continue to help do our part in helping the sport of NCAA hockey increase its profile throughout North America."

Bertagna took a technology theme aligned with marketing.

"We would like to keep up with changing technology," he said. "We have added video features to our Web site, we are reaching people through their mobile devices and we want to expand television and streaming. This keeps us in front of people, people who will want to come out and buy tickets to see us live and young people who will continue to want to play for Hockey East schools."

If you could uniformly institute or amend one rule, what would it be?

"I am opposed to the shootout concept," DeGregorio said. "I think that if ties are not broken under the current system [and] you want to add excitement, play a 10-minute overtime, 4-on-4; it opens the ice."

Bertagna agreed. "I'd continue to call the game tight to open up offense and I would approve a 4 on 4 overtime."

Only the CCHA uses the shootout to determine a winner of its league games ending in a tie after the NCAA's overtime format of a 5-minute and 5-on-5.

"Try to find a way to create more space in the offensive zone," Anastos said, "and create meaningful scoring changes; modify protective equipment for the goaltenders [and] all skaters. Find a way to eliminate the 'trap.'"

"I would make fighting/throwing a punch an automatic ejection," said McLaughlin, "and a five-game suspension. Though fans claim that fighting is part of hockey, I have never read it in a rule book, and fighting is not acceptable for any other NCAA sport. Heavier punishment would change the culture quickly."

The current NCAA penalty for first-time fighting and other major infractions such as spearing is a "Game Disqualification" or "DQ." This brings ejection the rest of the game in which it occurs and the next game; subsequent DQ's increase game suspensions to two, three, etc.

McLaughlin is also concerned about head injuries.

"Hits to the head and those circumstances where players are in vulnerable positions are of concern," he said. "All of us have worked hard at getting a better handle on checking from behind in recent years and hopefully that can provide us a template for dealing with these other on-going issues and instilling in all of our players a sense of responsibility that comes with their actions on the ice."

What is the current state of Division I hockey?

"Challenged," said DeGregorio, "because of the economy, hindering growth and expansion of the sport."

"Division I hockey is at a crossroads," McLaughlin said. "We have lost 10 programs in the last 20 years, but our championships attendance and television coverage is better than ever. We have to sustain our programs and grow our sport into emerging hockey markets across the United States."

"In a little bit of flux right now," said McLeod, "with the demise of the CHA and the movement of teams to different leagues. We must make sure we take care both of our own programs and leagues as well as all of collegiate ice hockey."

"The arenas are still filling up," Bertagna said. "The game is exciting. We just need to continue to expand the talent pool from which all our coaches draw. And we need to also expand in the sense of convincing some of the healthier club programs to consider becoming a varsity."

"Overall, Hagwell said, "the game is in a good state, but there certainly are issues and challenges that need to be addressed. The on-ice product is very good as evidenced by the tremendous student-athletes who are competing in the game. Off the ice, there are a number of areas such as recruiting and education, promotion of the sport, etc., where we can elevate our efforts."

Anastos concurred. "Overall Division I hockey is as strong as ever. Attendance is strong; our television coverage across the country has never been better. We have more players moving onto NHL careers than ever, and the NCAA Frozen Four is one of the premiere events in the country each year. The exciting part is that while the sport remains strong, we think there is a great deal of opportunity to get even better."

On Campus Clips -- sends condolences to the family and friends of Bud Cooper, former athlete, coach and director of athletics at Lake Superior State, who passed away last week after a long battle with cancer. ... With a win Saturday night, 4-0, and a win Friday, 1-0, against Notre Dame, the Miami RedHawks recorded back-to-back shutouts for just the fourth time in school history and first time ever on the same weekend or against the same opponent. ... Bemidji State remains the only team with a perfect league record of 8-0-0 in CHA play. ... The top-10 national rank the past two weeks of both Bemidji and Quinnipiac University are the highest in respective program history. ... Key games this weekend include Quinnipiac at Holy Cross, Mercyhurst at Air Force, Notre Dame at Michigan, and Denver at Minnesota-Duluth.

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