By Paul Hornstein
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, every single day!
No, not December 25th, I’m talking October 2nd & October 3rd! That’s the weekend that ASU hosts UMass-Lowell to open the 2021-22 hockey season. And if you read this space before, you know that I still feel that every season, every game, every social media post is like a long-standing Christmas present.
This is not hyperbole on my part. I really do feel that way. If you have listened to any of the podcasts, then you know. Last year’s season was a disaster, for all of the reasons we know. COVID forcing the team to play all of its games on the road to basically playing the second series that season v the F**king Gophers (that’s another blog post for another day) with barely enough players to dress, forget health players. Even with all of that, the mindset was still the same. My alma mater was playing NCAA D1 hockey & everything going on is just another obstacle on the way to winning that first national championship.
Now it is obviously too early to talk about what to expect for this season. There’s two months for that. This was however another crazy off season for college hockey. As I write this (August 18th) there are still schools that have not announced their full schedules. The B10 has not announced its conference schedule for whatever reason & you would think that would be the easiest part of the schedule to make, since teams make their own non-conference schedules around them. There are teams in the ECAC & Hockey East that still have blanks (TBAs) on their schedules.
At this time college hockey has three independent teams, three who are on hiatus and another that can’t figure out what level they want to play at, at least not publicly. And two trying to see if it is a goal worth accomplishing.
The administration at Alabama-Huntsville doesn’t want to say their team is done, because of the fact that money was raised or pledged to continue the program, but then said, no league, no play. The odds of that program ever seeing the light of day again are probably & sadly gone. It’s a shame that one of the best uniform sets will likely never see the ice again.
At Alaska Anchorage, theyarethisclose to reviving the program. They are about 400K short of the three million goal they set to fundraise for the team, and have about three more weeks until their board of regents has their next meeting. They remain cautiously optimistic about their situation. Should they come back, they will likely be an independent team for a while like their in-state rival in Fairbanks. People must be fairly confident in some circles. Over 20 people applied for that head coaching job, to take over for the recently departed Matt Curley. They would be essentially taking over an expansion team.
Side note: There are clearly behind the scenes politics involved (which I have been told, although out of respect, I did not ask what those issues were) that Fairbanks has never seemed to be in danger of losing their team).
As will whoever is named the head coach of both the men’s & women’s teams at Robert Morris. Of the three schools that have put their programs on hiatus, this is the one that has been the most curious. The one the has been more about personal likes & dislikes, because both teams were relative successful both on and off the ice. Hell, just before the programs were “dropped” there were on-going talks about how to put plans in motion for a new building. It seems to have come down to a major dollar big wig with influence hates hockey and wanted the school to be more basketball focused as its flagship program. They announced intentions of being back in the 22-23 season. It will be curious to see if the leagues they were in (Women in the CHA, men were in AH) take them right back or if they have to play as independents for a season or two. Personally, I’m pretty sure the CHA will take the women’s team back faster than AH takes back the men’s team…unless…
Unless, unlike this year, Atlantic Hockey decides to expand. In an interview given by league commissioner Robert Degregorio, at their conference championship game, he said that as many as three schools had applied for entrance into the league. I’m sorry, expressed interest in joining. Most of the scuttlebutt (and this was before RMU dropped their programs) had these being LIU & Alabama-Huntsville, plus a mystery team.
Which brings us to the independent teams…
ASU is easy. Their new “multi-purpose” HOCKEY arena is actually starting to take shape as something recognizable as an arena. It has come a long way since the shovels have hit the ground, and is supposedly about a month ahead of schedule for being completed. And while conference affiliation is still the one major remaining question surrounding the program, they don’t seem to be in any rush to do it.
Thirty-five hundred miles north of Tempe…full kudos to the in Fairbanks, Alaska. When they (Anchorage & Huntsville as well) were bagged by the rest of the WCHA, despite every chance they had to drop their program, they have not. They have marched on and will play this year as an independent. Their presence as an independent team, as well as LIU & ASU makes it easier to schedule games at the end of the season for all three of these teams. Especially if any of them have a chance to play in the NCAA tournament. Those teams can play each other while the conference tournaments are taking place. Their season will be an interesting one to watch, with the travel and not having played in two years.While they have got teams like Clarkson & UNO to play them at home, they will have a very tough schedule & a very young team. They will be making trips to Minnesota-Duluth, spend a week in upstate NY (v Clarkson & Cornell) I hope that the fans in Fairbanks appreciate what the folks there have done to keep the program going. It would have been just as easy to fold the program between being left hanging by their former conference mates & the pandemic, but they did not. And there must be some connection, somewhere, but kudos to RPI for agreeing to spend a week there and play four times.
A mere 2,500 miles east of Tempe (about 50 from me, although if I left my house at the right time, would be about the same amount of travel time) is second year program LIU. I don’t even know where to go here. First and foremost, I love the fact that they started a program. Long Island needed a division one program, but as you may have heard me say at some point, this was not the school anyone expected it to be. They started in a pandemic year and managed to get about 18 games in though Atlantic Hockey. Before Robert Morris “cut” their program, the general consensus was that they would bring in LIU as a 12th team. They did not.
So, they start year two as an independent, although I would say that this might be the year they expected to go through last year before the pandemic changed everything. Their schedule is a hybrid one. They play ten home games, only four of which are against D1 opponents. The other six are against D3 teams that their women’s team conference mates. Why? No idea. If there was a reason for it, that’s cool. Unless that reason is schools did not want to play at LIU, other than the three that will be doing so. That being said, and this is not a knock. I swear it’s not…it’s just a personal oddity…they are not playing Army. If you’re not aware, LIU head coach, Brett Riley’s father & grandfather coached at West Point for over 55 years. The Riley names gives the program a lot of credibility. They are and will be an interesting case study in building a program. Even more so that how Arizona State is doing it.
That brings us to the last group. I mentioned earlier that they are three schools that have decided to kick the tires of playing NCAA D1 hockey. One of them Is Tennessee State. No…NOT Tennessee, Tennessee State. Located in Nashville, in conjunction with the NHL Predators, the school announced that it is studying the possibility of becoming the first HBCU to play D1 hockey. Does that mean it is going to happen? No, but it does show the importance of administrative support. The university president’s children played hockey & she is a supporter of the game. We know publicly that they have had at least one board meeting about it. It generated a lot of positive buzz both in and out of the hockey world.
While not generating the kind of social & cultural buzz that Tennessee State did, Augustana University in South Dakota also generated a lot of positive vibes when it was divulged that they are looking to upgrade their athletics to the division one level & add men’s & women’s hockey. There is a lot of good & well supported junior hockey in the Dakota’s which has always made me scratch my head as to why there is only one D1 team in that area. We are rooting hard for them as well.
Finally, there is the worst kept “secret” in college hockey. Or is it? Our friends over at Lindenwood University. The St. Louis area school is trying to thread a needle that has never been threaded before. They are the hosts of this year’s ACHA National Championships. This means that they are automatically in the national tournament at the end of the season. And while the school itself has not announced its intention to join the NCAA D1 ranks like its women’s team is, they have had players publicly announced that they have committed to the school as NCAA players. So, which is it guys? ACHA teams cannot give scholarships, and it is the feeling that they are trying to figure out a way around that rule. Are they? Will they? Who knows? They have not announced their schedule, even though we know they are playing exhibition games v ASU and actually hosting Air Force in two more. This is not an accident, obviously. Especially since we know the stance of Air Force coach Frank Serratore about doing everything possible to nurture new programs. So, which is it Lindenwood? And honestly, while I prefer one answer over the other, say SOMETHING. It would have been fine had the earlier statements of we are trying to get there been stand alone, but when you make those statements & you have kids committing to a program that “doesn’t exist”, that’s a completely different story.
Well, it’s almost Christmas. Thankfully. As I sit here typing this out, I realize, that actual games might be easier to write about.
Welcome to the start of the 21-22 season, whatever it turns out to be.