April 5, 2012

Hockey East Journal: Adding UConn has its pros and cons

By Andrew Merritt

The first thing people asked after Hockey East announced the addition of Notre Dame as its 11th member last fall was, “OK, but who’s No. 12?”

It seems we just may finally have an answer. 

Junior goalie Garrett Bartus had an impressive .923 save percentage for the Huskies this season. (Photo courtesy of UConn Athletics)

After months of speculation, prognostication and, well, maybe a little exasperation, reports began to surface at the end of March that UConn was not only considering jumping from Atlantic Hockey to Hockey East, but even applying for league membership.

The Hartford Courant reported on March 29 that league officials visited UConn to evaluate the school and the hockey program. An invitation to the league may be in the offing sometime very soon – and in fact, a Connecticut television station reported April 4 that the deal was already done, although tweets by Eagle-Tribune writer Mike McMahon refuted that report. Regardless, it seems like the league and the program are zeroing in on making it happen.

There are some possible stumbling blocks. The largest one, as always, is money, but its manifested in different ways. First, UConn doesn’t offer scholarships, and would have to add 18 to meet Hockey East requirements – an estimated cost of $2 million, according to the Courant. Even if that’s accomplished, there’s the inevitable Title IX highwire act that would come with it, as the athletic program would need to figure out how to provide equivalent dollars for women’s sports.

Then there’s the matter of the arena. The Huskies currently play in the Freitas Ice Forum, which has a capacity of 2,000. That’s only half the number required by Hockey East, which also mandates between 20 and 30 percent seatbacks. The rumored solution is to have the Huskies play at the nearby XL Center, and while the former home of the Hartford Whalers (and current home of the AHL’s Whale) will meet Hockey East’s guidelines, it’s not on campus, and at nearly 16,000 seats, it would be a cavernous place for college games – the next largest Hockey East arena would be UMass’ Mullins Center, whose 8,389 seats are rarely full even for big-time matchups.

On the flip side, there are reasons UConn is attractive – particularly compared to some of the other schools that have been batted around as possible 12th members, such as RPI and Quinnipiac. The Huskies’ women’s program is a part of the league already, and the alignment would certainly be attractive to both the league and program. UConn is also a Division I school across the board, which commissioner Joe Bertagna alluded to being a desired quality when he spoke with the Hockey Journal back in October about Notre Dame’s addition.

“There probably are within the league some athletic directors who don’t feel philosophically that a small Division III school should be competing in Division I,” Bertagna said. “That’s kind of the way the NCAA has gone in the last 20 years.”

UConn is also effectively a pro team in Connecticut, with arguably the largest fanbase in the state – albeit one driven mostly by basketball. Bringing those crowds into the fold potentially bolsters Hockey East’s ability to recruit and attract TV dollars, and it also nicely rounds out the league’s footprint on New England, which currently has the other five states covered.

Still, the challenges are hard to ignore. UConn has finished with a sub-.500 record every year for the last 12, including all nine since Atlantic Hockey was formed in 2003-04. To go from also-ran status in Atlantic Hockey to playing in one of the elite leagues in the country will be hard enough, and since it’s almost guaranteed that the Hockey East schedule would go from 27 league games to something like 22, the Huskies would need to find some serious non-league competition as well.

It would also be a non-power entering a league full of them, where longtime members like UMass, Providence and UMass-Lowell already struggle to woo recruits away from the traditional titans like BC, BU and Maine – not to mention the newly added Irish.

That’s a discussion for another day, ultimately. What comes first is UConn and Hockey East agreeing that the Huskies should be league member No. 12. If that happens, it finally brings the college hockey carousel to an end after two years of jockeying and uncertainty.

And that’s when the fun really starts.

Games of the Week

Frozen Four – Tampa, Fla. (All games on ESPN2)

Thursday

Thursday, April 5
Union vs. Ferris State, 4:30 p.m.
Boston College vs. Minnesota, 8 p.m.

Saturday, April 7
Union/Ferris State winner vs. BC/Minnesota winner, 7 p.m.

Hockey East power rankings

1. Boston College (31-10-1, 19-7-1 HEA) – Not to take the focus away from the Eagles’ possible title run, but the New York Post’s Larry Brooks reported Tuesday that because they put him on their reserve list ahead of the Feb. 27 trade deadline, the Rangers will be able to use BC’s Chris Kreider (Boxford, Mass.) in the playoffs if he signs a contract after the season ends, which is what many, including Rangers GM Glen Sather, expect.

2. Maine (23-14-3, 15-10-2 HEA) – The good news: Maine’s Spencer Abbott, who led Hockey East in scoring, is in the “Hobey Hat Trick” group of three finalists for the Hobey Baker Award, making it possible for Abbott to be the first Hockey East player to win the Hobey since BU’s Matt Gilroy in 2009. The not-so-good news: Junior swingman Matt Mangene signed with Philadelphia, forfeiting his final year in Orono.

3. UMass-Lowell (24-13-1, 17-9-1 HEA) – Coach Norm Bazin was a runner-up for the Spencer Penrose Award, given by the American Hockey Coaches Association to the best coach in the country. After taking the River Hawks from worst to first in his first season behind the bench, one could make the case that Bazin was more deserving than Ferris State coach Bob Daniels, though Daniels’ Bulldogs did reach the Frozen Four.

4. Boston University (23-15-1, 17-9-1 HEA) – An up-and-down year finally came to an end for BU, which gave up two empty-netters in a 7-3 loss to Minnesota in the West Regional semifinals. A few days later, forward Alex Chiasson opted out of his final year of eligibility, signing with the Dallas Stars organization.

5. Merrimack (18-12-7, 13-9-5 HEA) – Defenseman Karl Stollery (Lake Erie), Ryan Flanigan (Hamilton) and Jesse Todd (Hamilton) all signed contracts with AHL teams following their senior season, joining new Vancouver goaltender Joe Cannata (Wakefield, Mass.) in the pro ranks.

6. New Hampshire (15-19-3, 11-14-2 HEA)Stevie Moses (Leominster, Mass.) signed with the AHL’s Connecticut Whale following his stellar senior season, and Damon Kipp went south to the South Carolina Stingrays of the ECHL.

7. Providence (14-20-4, 10-14-3 HEA) - Think head coach Nate Leaman might be regretting leaving Union? Providence should be proud of the strides they made this season in Leaman's first year at the helm, but the coach's former squad is headed to the Frozen Four. 

8. UMass (13-18-5, 9-14-4 HEA) – Senior defenseman Michael Marcou signed an amateur tryout agreement with the AHL’s Oklahoma City Barons on March 29.

9. Northeastern (13-16-5, 9-14-4 HEA) – A tough year has already given way to a difficult offseason for the Huskies. South Portland, Maine, native Jon Gillies asked to be released from his letter of intent for next season after the Indiana Ice goaltender found out NU’s Chris Rawlings will return for his senior season. The worse news is the departure of defenseman Anthony Bitetto, a hard-charging blueliner who opted out of his final two years on Huntington Avenue in favor of a pro contract with Nashville.

10. Vermont (6-27-1, 3-23-1 HEA) – Just as Gutterson Fieldhouse prepares to host the IIHF Women’s World Championship, which starts Saturday, the school is eyeing a piece of its capital campaign to replace the 49-year-old arena, according to a report by the Vermont Cynic.

Andrew Merritt can be reached at MerrittNEHJ@gmail.com.