If not Atlantic, then who?

Last week, I suggested that Atlantic Hockey split into two conferences to provide homes to the new and independent programs in Division I and to get UAH back into the game.

I’m not the first to pose an idea like this. It was just the latest proposal accounting for the recent developments of new Division I programs at Lindenwood and Stonehill and the expected addition of Utica.

Ed Trefzger, a writer and podcaster for USCHO and the voice of RIT, asked why whenever new programs show up that people expect Atlantic Hockey to accommodate them.

It’s a very valid question, and one I asked myself when I wrote last week’s column. So, I thought I would try to answer it.

It probably isn’t fair for the burden to fall on Atlantic Hockey, but the problem involves a number of these programs being in the east and how college hockey has elected to structure itself over the past decade.

First, let’s clarify that Atlantic Hockey isn’t the only conference expected to do anything to help the independent programs. With Augustana and Lindenwood in the West, the CCHA is being looked at as the likely conference to bring one or both on — not the NCHC or Big Ten.

It’s the same situation in the East, where Long Island, Stonehill, and Utica will need conferences. No one is looking at any of these schools and immediately saying “that’s a Hockey East school” or “that’s an ECAC school.”

Power conferences want power schools, and until more power schools join Division I hockey, the power conferences won’t do anything, and they won’t be expected to.

Let’s see what the six current conferences could do in this round of realignment.

Big Ten

The Big Ten is currently the smallest conference with seven teams (six regular Big Ten members plus Notre Dame as a hockey-only affiliate). Obviously, any new hockey programs in the Big Ten would go here, with Illinois likely being the eighth if and when it decides to start up.

The Big Ten could consider others to be hockey-only members like Notre Dame. Arizona State, which played nothing but road games against Big Ten teams in the 2020-21 season, might fit the bill as it’s the only Power 5 school looking for a conference. ASU is also finally building its new arena.

NCHC

The most powerful conference in the West has been eight teams since it began play in 2013. The NCHC has not announced any plans for expansion, or be any hurry to whatsoever, so the following is just idle theory.

If the NCHC did decide to expand, there are not many schools within or near its footprint that could match the high-end attributes the league would be looking for. With its aforementioned new arena and Power 5 status, Arizona State could be attractive.

Otherwise, the NCHC could look at current CCHA teams. Minnesota State was denied entry in 2016 but could get another look as it has maintained being a national power under coach Mike Hastings. Or perhaps Bowling Green, one of only two full Division I schools in the CCHA that would unite with fellow MAC members Miami and Western Michigan.

CCHA

The CCHA just finished its first season with eight teams, seven from the old WCHA and St. Thomas. Last year, the CCHA seemed content with its size and told UAH it was not interested. Since then, two new Division I programs have emerged relatively nearby: Augustana and Lindenwood.

Augustana would be the most likely addition, as Sioux Falls, S.D. is just over 150 miles away from Minnesota State (Mankato) and is building an arena. The Vikings plan to begin play in 2023.

Lindenwood formally announced it’s men’s hockey program going Division I last month, starting play this fall. Its St. Charles, Mo., location makes it a geographical fit.

There’s also the chance it considers UAH again, but based on recent history, that seems like a longshot.

Hockey East

The East’s most powerful league has 11 members, so it has room for an even 12th. But like the NCHC, it would want a program with particular qualities. The last time the men’s league expanded was 2014 with the addition of UConn from Atlantic Hockey, which put Hockey East at 12 teams until Notre Dame left for the Big Ten in 2017.

Perhaps if a new men’s program from a Power 5 school in the east emerges (like a Syracuse, for example), maybe Hockey East will make a move, but there’s nothing to suggest it will happen anytime soon.

ECAC

The ECAC is Division I hockey’s largest conference by membership with 12 teams, so whether there’s room for growth is a matter of opinion. It last expanded in 2005 with the addition of Quinnipiac from Atlantic Hockey.

The problem here, too, is that even if the ECAC was open to expansion beyond 12, it’s doubtful that it would consider the three new, would-be, and independent programs in the Northeast (Long Island, Stonehill, and Utica).

Could the Ivy League make an official split from the ECAC, which could allow the ECAC room to take programs like a Sacred Heart from Atlantic Hockey, perhaps making Atlantic more flexible in taking the new programs? They could, but it’s unlikely the Ivies would get any benefit from it.

So that leaves…

Atlantic Hockey

Atlantic Hockey is will be back at 11 teams by 2023 with the official reinstatement of Robert Morris. They could take Long Island, which has been trying to get in since they started. They could take Stonehill, which just announced it was moving up to Division I. They could take Lindenwood, who’s women’s team is in College Hockey America, which shares three teams and administration. When it becomes official, they could take Utica, which led Division III in attendance.

They could also take UAH. They could also do nothing. You know what I think they should do.

Anyone else?

I haven’t even mentioned Alaska Anchorage and Alaska Fairbanks. Before the realignment of 2013, Anchorage was in the old WCHA and Fairbanks was in the old CCHA. Now there is no WCHA and the new CCHA was formed in part to get away from Alaska in the first place, so there’s no reason to think any of the current conferences will consider them.

They’re stuck until more programs start up west of the Rockies. Washington? Oregon? Simon Fraser? These plus the Alaskas and Arizona State could put something together. That would be ideal.

In the end, no conference has to do anything regarding new members. The reason many think Atlantic Hockey (and the CCHA) could — and should — do something to help new and independent programs is because we know the others won’t. It’s why UAH identified Atlantic and CCHA to be the only two possibilities in it’s attempts to join a conference.

Is it fair? No, but what else is there? It may not have always been this way, but men’s hockey has elected to structure itself like every major sport in Division I, where resources and pedigree mean just as much if not more than your geographical location. If you haven’t garnered the resources and pedigree, the options of where you can be accepted are limited. The days where a Ferris State can be in the same league as Michigan are gone.

So, Atlantic Hockey and CCHA, what will you do?

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Atlantic split necessary for UAH, new programs

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.

MACHAHA
CanisiusAIC
MercyhurstAir Force
NiagaraArmy
RITBentley
Robert MorrisHoly Cross
UAH*Sacred Heart
Lindenwood*Long Island*
Utica*Stonehill*
* Added teams.

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."
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Atlantic Hockey votes no on expansion

UAH will not be joining Atlantic Hockey, either.

Atlantic Hockey has notified UAH that its members have unanimously voted against conference expansion, denying the Chargers’ chance at membership. No date was set for the discussion of potential future expansion.

UAH athletics director Dr. Cade Smith said next steps have not yet been decided. Taso Sofikitis of the UAH hockey advisory board said more information will be available at the appropriate time as they work with UAH and the University of Alabama System.

If Atlantic Hockey had chosen to expand, it would have looked at UAH, Long Island University and a third unnamed school that also expressed interest, according to AHA commissioner Robert DeGregorio Jr. back in March. LIU’s men’s program began play this past season with a scheduling alliance with the AHA because of the pandemic but was not made a full member.

UAH suspended operations for the hockey program in May while it continued to pursue Atlantic Hockey, which currently stands at 10 schools. UAH officials and the alumni group spearheading efforts to keep the program going have said that conference affiliation is vital.

The other conference that UAH had targeted was the rebooted CCHA, which rejected UAH’s proposal in March. The CCHA begins play this fall with seven teams that broke away from the WCHA, leaving UAH, Alaska Anchorage, and Alaska Fairbanks. The WCHA officially dissolved on July 1.

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After a ‘foundation’ year, UAH eyes Atlantic for the future

The Chargers got the season in. This spring will determine if there will be more.

Ten months after the UAH hockey program was canceled and subsequently saved, the Chargers finished the 2020-21 season. They had only three wins, but the fact they played 22 games was a victory in itself.

“It was important for us to get through the season any way we could to play,” UAH head coach Lance West said. “We made so many road trips. We went to states with schools who wouldn’t travel here. Our university did everything it could to play the games, one, because we wanted to, and two, because of all the work that so many had put in and contributions so many people made to keep this program going. It’s about rebuilding the foundation of our program and I think our guys started to do that.”

UAH had a 2-5-1 start before being unable to play for about a month while having to deal with COVID-19, including a 10-day pause in activities. The Chargers, which had 14 freshmen on the roster, lost 13 of their last 14 games, but West said the pause was not the reason.

“Most of the teams we played finished in the top 20,” West said. “The level went up. We hung in there, but in most of those games we didn’t make the plays we needed to make.

“We were so young, but I was proud of the guys. They never quit in any game. Did we want more wins? Yes. Do we wish it finished differently? Yes. But they did a whole lot of great things and built the foundation and helped us at least move forward.”

The Chargers had some bright spots, such as goaltender David Fessenden becoming “Big Save Dave” to keep the team in games and Tyrone Bronte making the WCHA all-rookie team by leading UAH in scoring as a freshman. They also rewarded the UAH faithful with two thrilling wins over Ferris State in their first series back at the VBC.

UAH athletics director Cade Smith said he kept telling the athletics department, “Every time we got a chance to play, it was a win.”

“If you had told me back in October that our winter sports, including basketball, indoor track, and hockey, that they would make it all the way through the way that they did, I would have said, ‘I’ll take it.’,” Smith said. “I’m really proud of everything that we were able to get done as a department and each individual athletic team. Our training staff has been invaluable and unbelievable in what they have been able to do to get us through. We already knew that we had good people, and I think that was magnified through everything we had to go through.”

UAH had seven home games in Propst Arena at the Von Braun Center, limited to 30 percent capacity, and continued to work with the Huntsville Havoc on providing an engaging in-game experience.

“The Havoc were good, like last year, and took a huge burden off of us trying to get things done, because a lot of those people we would have had to hire independently,” Smith said.

Now the program turns to another uncertain offseason. With the WCHA era over, UAH is still working on securing a conference home so the program can secure that long-term stability. If UAH fails to join a conference, the hockey program will fold for good, as there are no plans to compete as an independent in the long term.

The new incarnation of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, which will comprise of seven other WCHA schools and St. Thomas starting this fall, has told UAH it will not be considered. The only feasible option for the Chargers is the Atlantic Hockey Association.

As part of its pitch to join the Atlantic Hockey, UAH is offering $25,000 per series for each team that travels down to Huntsville over 10 years.

Atlantic Hockey will discuss expansion at its June meetings. If the conference votes to expand, seven of the 11 members would have to agree on inviting an institution as a member. Should UAH be accepted, it could be up to two years before the Chargers can begin conference play.

Long Island University, which just finished its first season of men’s varsity hockey with a scheduling agreement with the Atlantic Hockey, is also looking to become a full-time member.

On the broadcast of the conference’s championship game on Saturday, Atlantic Hockey commissioner Robert DeGregorio Jr. said expansion “is on the agenda for the directors meeting in the spring. We also have a third school that we’re talking with. We’ll see what progress is going to be made. The directors have to look at a lot of things, not just the candidates.”

The third school DeGregorio referred to could be Navy, which has been rumored to upgrade hockey to varsity status soon and would join fellow service academies and rivals Army and Air Force.

DeGregorio said Atlantic Hockey would like to get back to 12 teams, but 14 teams is on the table for discussion. “They have a lot of things to talk about regards to expansion, nothing that’s been predetermined,” he said.

“I sent letters out to two of the schools, letting them know that it will be on the agenda for the directors in the spring. We’ve got to update our protocols for what we use for membership, which I’m in the process of doing for the executive committee as well as the rest of the directors. Hopefully, everything is going to be reviewed favorably and the discussions will determine the direction we go.”

Smith said he received the letter from DeGregorio last week. UAH hopes to have an answer on joining Atlantic Hockey as soon as possible, so that the program and the student-athletes can prepare for either result.

We could know by the end of spring whether the Chargers can truly build upon their new foundation.

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UAH readying pitch for new league membership

Note: UAH interim athletic director Cade Smith was interviewed on March 11, before concerns about the COVID-19 coronavirus had shut down the college hockey season and essentially the whole sports world. On March 19, Smith revealed that he tested positive for the virus but is recovering.

The UAH hockey program heads into the offseason with about as much uncertainty as it has ever faced.

What likely will be the WCHA’s final season is next season, and UAH is again looking to join a conference in 2021.

The Chargers had a dreadful 2019-20 season with a record of 2-26-6, matching the school record for fewest wins.

“We’re disappointed in not being able to win more games,” UAH interim athletics director Dr. Cade Smith said. “And we’re disappointed in where we are as far as a league affiliation. We’ve got to figure some stuff out.”

That makes this offseason absolutely critical. UAH will likely not go the independent route again as it did from 2010-12, when finding home games was a struggle.

The primary target is CCHA 2.0. The seven schools that are leaving the WCHA to form a new conference in 2021 announced on February 18 that they are resurrecting the Central Collegiate Hockey Association name.

From a distance perspective, the CCHA makes the most sense for UAH. The trick will be getting the CCHA to agree to accept a school that it was leaving behind in the first place.

“First off, we have to get an audience with them to some degree,” Smith said. “We’ve been working with Collegiate Consulting, who is working with different teams in that league. The information I’m getting from our consultant is that probably nothing is happening as far as getting an audience until the commissioner is named for that new conference.”

Collegiate Consulting is an Atlanta-based company that has worked on a feasibility study to bring varsity hockey to the University of Illinois.

On February 25, the league announced it was starting its search for a commissioner. It might be a few months before UAH can even get to make its pitch. It’s also unknown how the concerns of COVID-19 will affect the timeline.

UAH is also close to figuring out who would lead that pitch. Smith is a finalist to become the permanent athletics director at UAH. A decision on the hire could be soon.

Smith has not conferred with the consultants about what would UAH’s pitch would be, but he said there are some selling points.

“(The CCHA) is already somewhat set to have a bus league, so that’s probably a knock on us. But I really actually think that most of those teams like coming down here to play. They do play in a nice arena down here. I think we’re in a really good city that has somewhat of a market that some of them do not have. It’s easy to get to Huntsville to play.

“We invested some money (in the in-game experience) and I think it was better. Did it bring more fans? It has not brought more fans yet, but I would think that just the casual observer would have seen a difference this year than in previous years.

“As far as commitment to other resources, we’re already towards the middle of the pack on the way we spend money on hockey compared to the rest of them anyway.

“We bring a lot of smart student-athletes into a conference. The type of graduates that we produce I think would be attractive to them.”

Smith said the Executive Plaza multi-use facility, which would be the new on-campus home for the hockey team, should not be considered a factor. The project is still too much of an idea rather than a definitive plan.

One other option is the Atlantic Hockey Association. The AHA currently has 11 teams, 10 in Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, and one in Colorado (Air Force).

The closest school to Huntsville would be Robert Morris in the Pittsburgh area. RMU, along with Niagara and Army, were former members of College Hockey America along with UAH.

The AHA was cold to the idea of UAH joining in the last round of realignment in 2013, but may be willing to listen this time. However, the AHA might wait for Navy, which would have to upgrade their club team to varsity, to have all three service academies.

That’s not to say AHA wouldn’t consider expanding to 13 teams with UAH and Navy. And it would be intriguing with Huntsville’s military background having the service academies visiting regularly again.

Meanwhile, the WCHA is exhausting any option it has to stay alive.

“We’re still in communication with the two Alaska schools and the (WCHA) office,” Smith said. “They’re updating us on what they’re attempting to do, but there just aren’t many options.”