October 11, 2012

From NEHJ: Atlantic Hockey's come a long way in 10 years

By Allen Lessels

The Rochester Institute of Technology took on the likes of New England College in Henniker, N.H., and Williams College in Massachusetts while playing its hockey in the ECAC’s Division 3 at the time. 

UConn coach Bruce Marshall has been in the league since its founding, but the Huskies are headed to Hockey East. (Photo: UConn Athletics)

Air Force Academy was matching up against Alabama-Huntsville and Wayne State and others in College Hockey America, a relatively new Div. 1 league.

Meanwhile, representatives of the University of Connecticut and the College of the Holy Cross and several other schools that had been competing for several years in Div. 1, had their own ideas and envisioned a new league.

Thus, the Atlantic Hockey Association was born, and next April it will close out the 2012-13 season with its 10th birthday party and the league championships at the Blue Cross Arena in Rochester, N.Y.

“I think it’s been great,” said UConn coach Bruce Marshall (West Boylston, Mass.), who has been in the league since its beginning. “If you had told anyone who sat in those meetings that Atlantic Hockey would have a team like RIT in the Frozen Four in a few years, I don’t know what they would have thought. You always think you can get it done, but you never know until you get in the trenches.”

Atlantic Hockey got into the trenches and one of the high-water marks to date has been RIT’s eye-opening run to the Frozen Four in 2010. 

The league started with nine teams — AIC, Army, Bentley, Canisius, UConn, Holy Cross, Mercyhurst, Quinnipiac and Sacred Heart — for the 2003-04 season and has adjusted and evolved in the decade since.

UConn is on the clock now.

The Huskies announced this offseason they are leaving after two more years in Atlantic Hockey. Starting with the 2014-15 season, UConn will be in Hockey East.

“They’ve been a great partner,” said Atlantic Hockey commissioner Bob DeGregorio (Wintrhop, Mass.), the league’s boss since the start. “We hate to see them go. But it’s understandable.”

DeGregorio, the former athletics director at Merrimack College and a former commissioner of Hockey East, signed a three-year contract extension before the 2012-13 season began, and one of his primary responsibilities is finding a replacement for UConn to keep the league at its present 12 members.

“We’d really like to have a team come in ready for 2014-15 when UConn leaves,” DeGregorio said. “But if that doesn’t happen, we have an 11-team schedule ready just in case.”

Penn State’s move from being a club team to an intercollegiate team, and the formation of a Big Ten hockey conference as a result, precipitated a major shuffling in college hockey’s conference alignments.

Other club teams have expressed varying degrees of an interest in doing the same, the Naval Academy and the University of Rhode Island among them, but DeGregorio said it appears neither will be likely to make the change in time for Atlantic Hockey’s needs.

He’s been in discussion with another school but said he was not yet at liberty to identify it.

In the meantime, Atlantic Hockey has a birthday and a collection of shining moments in its first 10 years to celebrate and a season to play.

Perhaps the most noteworthy moment came with the arrival of RIT and Air Force for the 2006-07 season.

“They intensified the competition in the league and made the league stronger,” DeGregorio said. “They really helped project us on to the national scene. You look at what they’ve done in the national tournament in a short period of time and the success they’ve had there.”

The league made its mark earlier in the NCAA tournament, too. Holy Cross was the first league champion and lost its first NCAA game to North Dakota, 3-0. The next year, Boston College edged Atlantic Hockey champ Mercyhurst, 5-4.  In Year 3, Holy Cross, the No. 4 seed in the West Regional, stunned No. 1 Minnesota, 4-3 in overtime. 

In ensuing years, Air Force lost by a goal to Minnesota and in overtime to Miami.

Then came RIT and 2010.

The Tigers, as usual the No. 4 seed, took out No. 1 Denver, 2-1, in their first game and No. 3 New Hampshire, 6-2, in the East Regional final to advance to the league’s first Frozen Four.

“RIT had been in the league four years and had two big wins to get there,” DeGregorio said. “They weren’t flukes. Our league was 7 years old and put a team in the Frozen Four. That’s pretty good.”

The success created a thirst for more, of course. For RIT. For Air Force. And for all the rest in Atlantic Hockey.

Last season, RIT tied for third with Holy Cross and Mercyhurst, two points behind regular-season champion Air Force, one behind Niagara and one in front of sixth-place Bentley.

“I’ve never seen that many teams contend for home ice,” RIT coach Wayne Wilson said. “It was incredible.”

DeGregorio loves the balance and loves what Atlantic Hockey has accomplished in its first decade, and is excited about what’s to come in the next.

He’s working to nail down that 12th team and says the league is looking at increasing, slowly, its current limit on 12 scholarships. He rattles off some of the visiting teams that are coming to play at Atlantic Hockey schools — Bowling Green is coming to Niagara this season, and Michigan will play RIT in downtown Rochester next season — as signs the league is growing, too.

“In 10 years, I’d like to be at 12 schools and I’d like to see the league have two NCAA qualifiers to help the leagues and I’d like to see our national ranking and strength right in the middle with the other leagues,” he said. “We’ve got to do that by winning nonleague games. I’d love to see a national champion, without question, but more than that I’d like to see one of our teams go to the Frozen Four at least every other year.”

This article originally appeared in the October 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal

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