A whole college hockey season has happened since our last post, mainly because nothing has happened since last summer in regards to the UAH hockey program. It remains suspended without a conference affiliation. The situations at Atlantic Hockey and CCHA haven’t changed.
Things may be coming to a head, however. More realignment could be on the horizon, and UAH will need to pay attention if it wants to get back into the game.
The focus right now appears to be on Atlantic Hockey, which closed a door on UAH last June when it voted not to expand. Back then, UAH, Long Island, and an unnamed third school had expressed interest in joining that league.
That third school may have been Utica University. Utica currently plays hockey at the Division III level, but the whole athletic department is planning a move up to Division II (which will be voted on by the Division II body at the NCAA convention next February). The Pioneers, which have led all of Division III in attendance with over 3,000 per game this last two seasons, would have to make a decision for hockey: Play at the Division II level, which has only six other schools, or play up to Division I, which they can do because there is no Division II championship.
If Utica plays up, Atlantic Hockey would be their target. According to Atlantic Hockey commissioner Bob Degregorio, the league and Utica have been talking informally for several months. The conference had this season’s tournament at the Utica Memorial Auditorium last month.
It may be a while before Utica’s move is official, but one school announced a change last week. Stonehill College, one of those few remaining hockey programs playing at the Division II level, is moving its entire athletic program to Division I and joining the Northeast Conference as its primary league. Hockey will play as an independent starting this fall.
And then there’s Long Island University in Brooklyn, which just completed its second season in men’s hockey. The Sharks had a scheduling agreement with Atlantic Hockey during the pandemic-shortened 2020-21 season.
Atlantic Hockey’s athletic directors voted last week to reinstate Robert Morris University when the Colonials return to the ice in 2023. The presidents of the league are expected to make it official in the summer, which would put the conference back at 11 teams.
If Atlantic wanted to bring in Stonehill, Long Island, and Utica, it would have 14.
These potential and newly-announced Division I programs are fits for Atlantic Hockey from geographical and financial perspectives, but the conference may be hesitant to take them all. Aside from the lack of uniform scheduling that would come with a conference that big, that’s a lot of competition for the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, which is usually its only bid to the NCAA tournament.
It would be best from a competitive standpoint if Atlantic Hockey split into two leagues. In fact, Atlantic Hockey splitting may be the only way these new programs can get into a conference at all. According to sources telling Mike McMahon in College Hockey Insider, Atlantic is very split on Utica joining.
What would the two conferences look like? Let’s start by geographically splitting the current Atlantic Hockey into west and east, separated by the Catskills, and then putting Air Force along with Army because apparently the service academies are joined at the hip. Since this new league primarily includes schools in New York and Pennsylvania, I’ll call it Mid-Atlantic College Hockey (MACH) and let someone else come up with a better name.*
Then, to the original AHA, add Long Island and Stonehill. In the MACH, add Utica and a certain school in Alabama.
Next, consider Lindenwood University, which announced in March that it’s men’s team is going varsity and Division I this fall. Lindenwood’s women’s team is in College Hockey America, which has Mercyhurst, RIT, and Robert Morris, so the men’s program can join those same schools in the MACH.
The result: Two conferences of eight. Four new programs have homes, and we get our hockey team back.
|Robert Morris||Holy Cross|
A couple of things could trip this up. Utica could somehow not be approved to move to Division II, meaning its hockey program would have to stay at Division III. It’s possible Lindenwood could join the CCHA, making that conference 10 members if it brings in it and Augustana, whose program is planning a Division I start in fall of 2023. (It’s theoretically possible that the CCHA looks at UAH as that tenth team, which would be great, but I’m pessimistic about that.)
As for timing, it would be fabulous if the split was announced this summer, allowing for this dream timeline:
- Summer 2022: The announcement of the new league featuring Canisius, Lindenwood, Mercyhurst, Niagara, RIT, and Robert Morris, with the aim of adding two more, to begin play in the 2024-25 season. Two years was the same amount of time the seven teams who broke away from the WCHA took to start up the new CCHA.
- Late summer 2022: UAH soon applies to join the new league and is accepted. UAH immediately announces it will bring back the hockey program, playing an independent schedule in 2023-24 to get back into the swing of things and then MACH play in 2024-25.
- 2022-23 season: Lindenwood and Stonehill begin Division I play as independents, with Long Island starting its third season as an independent.
- February 2023: Utica is officially approved to join Division II at the NCAA Convention. Utica soon announces its men’s hockey program will play at Division I as an independent in the 2023-24 season. Utica then applies to join the new league and is approved to play starting in 2024-25.
- By summer 2023: Long Island and Stonehill are accepted to join Atlantic Hockey beginning in the 2024-25 season.
- 2023-24 season: Robert Morris plays in Atlantic Hockey one last time (or because they’re leaving for the MACH anyway, RMU plays as an independent to get ready, just like UAH). Utica is now a Division I independent. UAH, Lindenwood, RMU, and Utica could even schedule each other in sort of a MACH preview.
- 2024-25 season: Let’s play MACH hockey.
Somebody with the power please make this happen.
I hope that if any split takes place, it’s done transparently and amicably among all members of Atlantic Hockey and its staff. The idea is not to tear down Atlantic Hockey but giving new programs into Division I but giving them a fair chance to succeed, while opening up an extra slice of the NCAA tournament pie for these teams to shoot for.
Realignment has been speculated for a while, but it really is a necessity at this point. Unless you’re a school from a Power 5 conference like Arizona State, being an independent is a serious disadvantage, with added difficulty of securing home games and not having a championship and NCAA automatic bid to play for. While it’s great that these new programs are starting, if they do not find conferences to play in, they will likely be non-factors competitively.
I suspect more programs would start up if they knew they had a conference home to go to. UAH being in a conference with openings would make that feasibility study at Tennessee State look better, for example.
If you’re a UAH supporter, it’s understandable if you’re skeptical about the university even trying to find a conference and resurrect the program after all that’s happened. The upside is that there hasn’t been any indication that the advisory board has given up, which I think is important in making sure that UAH, as stated in the press release announcing the suspension of the program, continues “to advocate for conference membership” and “to promptly reinstate its hockey program” once membership is secured.
A lack of opportunities is what put things to a halt over the last year. There’s no guarantee an opportunity will appear this offseason, but if college hockey is going to grow like this, realignment isn’t just expected, it’s necessary. UAH must be ready to make that call.
* The inclination I've seen for this hypothetical conference is to call it "College Hockey America." That could happen, but I'd want a new league to have a fresh start (much like UAH itself) and not tie itself to a league that, on the men's side, never was stable enough or lasted long enough to develop a history or tradition to attach your identity (unlike what the new CCHA did). "MACH" would be interesting though. I'd think aerospace-centered UAH would love to be in a league whose tagline is "Hockey at MACH speed" and could colloquially be called "The MACH 8."