There’s less than three weeks until college hockey season officially kicks off. For all the drama and all the craziness of the past two years, for all the changing of landscapes and affiliations, we all can get back to the business that matters most – winning games on the ice. But as Opening Night fast approaches for 59 programs across the Continental United States and Alaska, there are questions aplenty.
The most glaring issue will be how programs respond to the coming realignment. It’ll be an uneasy season at best for rivalries and matchups with whole conferences preparing to collapse. All except for 12 teams will face a change after the 2012-2013 season. The CCHA, which moved its conference championship game to Selection Sunday this past week, will cease to exist. Two new conferences will form. And the Alaska schools will compete in the same program since a failed league in the 1980s.
Boston University announced on Wednesday that it is forming two new varsity sports teams as part of the Terriers athletic department brand. For the first time in its history, the Terriers will field intercollegiate athletics teams in the disciplines of men’s lacrosse and women’s lightweight rowing. The programs, which will join the Terrier fold next season with rowing and in two years for lacrosse, will be combined with a $24 million investment for a new sports field and parking garage in Allston, bringing BU’s total number of varsity teams to 25 while also creating a new on-campus facility for state-of-the-art use.
The current BU complex will also get a facelift with the addition of the new field, which will be next to Nickerson Field and sit adjacent to the Massachusetts Turnpike on the West Campus. It’ll be another step in the campus’s redesign, which began with the construction of the John Hancock Student Village and Agganis Arena. New Balance Field will serve primarily as the home of the Terriers’ field hockey program while also providing up to 350 parking spaces in a subterranean garage. The lot, currently a parking lot for Nickerson Field, sits on Babcock Street at the corner Babcock and Ashford Street.
In a statement from the university’s athletics website, athletic director Mike Lynch stated, “This is another giant step forward for our program, with strategic investments in programs that are vital to the continued development of our department and the enhanced national visibility of the BU Athletics’ brand.”
New Balance Field will provide seating for 1,000 spectators while having ample press box space as it abuts Nickerson Field. The longtime home of the soccer programs, Nickerson Field is itself on the site of the old Braves Field, the former home of the National League’s Boston Braves before their move to Milwaukee in the 1950s (the current-day Atlanta Braves). Nickerson has long been a multi-purpose site for several sports, including the Boston (now New England) Patriots of the American Football League (now recognized as the AFC in the National Football League), the Boston Breakers of the now-defunct WUSA, and the Boston Cannons of Major League Lacrosse. It served as the home of BU football until the program’s termination in 1997, and it is the current home of the club lacrosse team.
Men’s lacrosse is currently operating as a club status as a member school in Division I of the Pioneer Collegiate Lacrosse League. They compete with a number of New England-area schools that do not sponsor the sport at the varsity level, including the University of Connecticut, Northeastern University, and Boston College. The team has never won a PCLL Division I championship but finished as runners up twice, most recently in 2008 when they lost to BC.
The question now begins as to where the Terriers will fit in the lacrosse landscape. The America East Conference, of which BU is a member, sponsors lacrosse, so BU will join that league when it elevates during the 2013-2014 season. But it’s an ultra-competitive conference, featuring some of the better teams of Division I. Stony Brook finished last season with an undefeated record and 11 wins overall, but Hartford won the conference tournament and advanced to the national tournament. The league also features teams like Vermont, Albany, Maryland-Baltimore County and Binghamton. Unlike some of the other leagues, America East is one of the few that features nearly a full complement, with Maine now becoming the only school to not compete in men’s lax. There are rumors that the Black Bears will begin the exploration, but they are a Division II team within the PCLL as opposed to D-I, which BU currently stands at. That means Maine is currently competing with schools that are of the Division II and Division III caliber, including Stonehill, Bridgewater State, the Coast Guard Academy, and Briarcliffe College (which isn’t even a member school of the NCAA).
BU now steps into a largely-untapped lacrosse market. In Massachusetts, there were two teams ranked in the top 25 nationally in 2011 – Deerfield Academy, which is prep private, and Duxbury, which is a public high school. That doesn’t include the historic powers like Governor’s Academy, Billerica Public High School, or the Catholic Conference schools like St. John’s Prep (Danvers), BC High, or historic power Malden Catholic. Since many lacrosse players are also hockey players in the state, it’s likely that the association with Boston University, with the new facilities playing in the shadow of the sterling Agganis Arena, coupled with the Terrier resources and brand identification, will provide a strong recruiting base for these athletes who recognize the familiar red and white.
It also opens the door for other teams which are currently not at the Division I level. Boston College currently sponsors women’s lacrosse, but elevating their men’s team would place them squarely in the crosshairs of the nation’s absolutely premier conference in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The ACC currently has four of the best programs around in Maryland, North Carolina, Duke, and Virginia, and the addition of Syracuse makes them a virtually unstoppable league. Northeastern has a multi-purpose site at Parsons Field, but they recently cancelled their football program in part but not because of the cost of upkeep on the stadium.
While BU will still have to compete for recruits and publicity against teams like Holy Cross, Harvard, Brown, Dartmouth, and UMass, they can draw off the success of a program such as Bryant, which reclassified to Division I in 2009. The Bulldogs invested heavily in their move to Division I, including the renovation and expansion of the athletics complex and football stadium. The lacrosse program, which was competing as part of the Northeast-10 Conference in Division II, made instant big splash news by hiring former Duke head coach Mike Pressler. Pressler guided the Bulldogs to back-to-back 10-win seasons, including a 12-5 record in 2010 that saw them beat Quinnipiac, Army, Yale, and Dartmouth and lose to national superstar North Carolina by just one goal. In just three short years, despite a sub-.500 season a year ago, Bryant has already become a recruiting force in New England, forcing other schools, like local rivals Brown and PC, to take notice.
All of this will take place during an investment phase for BU that will include the construction of state-of-the-art facilities. While Nickerson is older and more venerable, the introduction of a new field in the backdrop will provide more of a scenic look to the BU campus, which can sometimes blend in and be lost to the city of Boston and the neighborhood of Allston. With the fields nestled back behind Agganis off of Commonwealth Avenue, they are both hard to find. With these introductions, it’s likely BU will take an athletic complex-centric view of their campus, which is expansive along the Green Line of the MBTA. And, with the growing popularity of lacrosse and the success of the national power field hockey team, the Terriers have a solid plan in place to challenge their rivals for citywide supremacy.
The last month of the regular season in college hockey is right around the corner, and teams on the bubble are starting to try and lock up some slots before heading into the conference tournament season. Conference tournaments have a knack for knocking some teams out, keeping some teams in, and providing some of the wilder moments of the college hockey season.
As it stands right now, the conference leaders are the following teams: Boston University (Hockey East), Union (ECAC), RIT (Atlantic Hockey), Ferris State (CCHA), and Minnesota (WCHA). The #1 team in the nation is Minnesota-Duluth, who’s five points back of Minnesota for the WCHA lead, and Boston College is still somehow only one point out of the Hockey East lead despite a January swoon that’s knocked them down, at one point, out of the top five.
As a reminder, remember that 16 teams make the tournament, slotted into four regional brackets of four teams. As it stands right now, the top 16 teams in the PairWise Rankings are the following (the PWR is used almost exclusively to select the teams):
2) Boston University
4) Ferris State
5t) Boston College
5t) Ohio State
12) Notre Dame
13) Northern Michigan
16) North Dakota
Remembering that all conferences require automatic bid, let’s take a look at the bubble and what teams might have work left to do if they intend to make the tournament. We begin with Hockey East.
With the 2012 portion of the schedule underway, it’s going to be a fast and furious marathon sprint to the finish for the world of college hockey. Although nearly two full months’ worth of games remain, the race for playoff seeding is well underway with teams separating themselves from first round byes and home ice advantage. In at least two of the conferences, there’s already a good idea of who’s in, who’s out, who’s on the road, and who’s probably not going very far.
With that in mind, we begin a look back and a look forward of the 2011 portion of the college hockey schedule before looking ahead to what could, might, should, and will happen in 2012.
We begin with the Hockey East Association:
On January 1, 2008, a two-year planning process came to fruition when the NHL hosted its first ever “Winter Classic” hockey game. The Classic, a regular season game played outdoors in the winter elements, sought to recreate two feelings never before experienced at the NHL level: 1) for players to play a game outside in a sort of style envisioned by pond hockey, in a movie such as Mystery, Alaska. This type of game would harken back to the days when hockey was played outdoors in the cold, with snow falling, by boys and men who just wanted to get out on frozen water and play some shinny before their moms or wives yelled at them for dinner. And 2) it sought to recreate the electric atmosphere of having over 70,000 people pack into a stadium to cheer on hockey teams, as Michigan and Michigan State were able to do when almost 75,000 packed Spartan Stadium in Lansing to watch the Wolverines and Spartans do battle.
In the almost-four years since, the Winter Classic has accomplished what other exhibitions and All Star Games couldn’t for the NHL; it was the gimmick everyone embraced and over the last couple of years, it’s gone from being an outdoor game at a football stadium to a hockey game played at some of the United States’ holiest cathedrals. After playing at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo, the next two Winter Classic games went to smaller, more intimate affairs at Wrigley Field and Fenway Park (if 30,000 can be considered “intimate”). And, this year, it was announced the Philadelphia Flyers will play the New York Rangers in an old time hockey matchup, taking place at Citizens Bank Park, the home of the Phillies.
The Winter Classic has surpassed logic and reason; the outdoor games at some of these stadiums actually resulted in worse sight lines than an indoor game. The game at Fenway featured an over-100% capacity, jammed with wall-to-wall people. The atmosphere for television was electric, but being at the game was actually kind of miserable, especially if a fan sat along the first base line, relegated to insane lines at the restroom and at the concession stand while watching most of the game on a Jumbotron screen.
Still, it retains its appeal because of what the outdoor game evokes. It’s the only outdoor game of the season, and, for hockey purists, it retains some of the feel of playing on backyard ponds across North America. But, at its heart, the Winter Classic and the outdoor game has started to drift away from that feeling, instead becoming a marketing ploy to sell tickets and raise money. In that case, it’s lost some of what its original meaning was, and it’s become something of a gimmick to print money. The outdoor game, now, is still special, but it’s special for the wrong reasons. It’s still something to behold, but, at this point, we have to ask the question.
Has the outdoor hockey game jumped the shark?
After nearly shocking the Michigan Wolverines last weekend, the Bentley Falcons continued their five game road trip to open up the season with a Friday night matchup against the UMass Minutemen in the Mullins Center before traveling to Hamden, CT and the campus of Quinnipiac University to play the Bobcats on Friday. These two games closed out the Bentley out-of-conference schedule for now, as they’ll head back to Connecticut to take on Sacred Heart in their conference opener on Tuesday, before opening up their home schedule with a much ballyhooed weekend set against ECAC’s Clarkson University.
But Bentley struggled to maintain a full, 60-minute game for the second straight weekend, coughing up a 2-1 after one and 2-2 tie after two to the Minutemen by struggling in the third period, giving up three goals en route to a 5-3 defeat. On Tuesday, the Falcons trailed only by one after the first period before coming unglued in the second period. Losing their composure against Qpac, the Bobcats capitalized and scored four in the second and third combined to win, 6-1. The losses dropped Bentley to a strong 0-4-0, still on the verge but not quite getting their first victory of the year.
The 2011-2012 Bentley Falcons season opened up last weekend with a trip to Ann Arbor and a two-night tango with the #6-ranked, defending national runners-up Michigan Wolverines. It was the highest-ranked team Bentley had ever scheduled, and they entered the weekend after the Niagara Purple Eagles lost at Yost Ice Arena by a 5-0 count.
The Falcons gave Michigan all they could handle, leading the first game, 1-0, after the first period and trailing, 2-1, after two, before falling in a 5-1 final score. The next night, Bentley again gave Michigan a slight scare, once again trailing by only one entering the game’s final frame. But, in a similar story, the Wolverines had too much talent, speed, and firepower, scoring two third period goals en
route to a 4-1 victory.
As in any sport, the only thing that truly matters is a team’s ability to win games, and Bentley was unable to pull out any upsets last weekend. But the team made a statement that maybe this year is going to be different, firing on all cylinders against a high-ranked opponent. Now, Bentley turns the corner to a game at the Mullins Center in Amherst, MA with the UMass Minutemen, a team they shocked with a 4-1 victory in the UConn holiday tournament two seasons ago, on Saturday before traveling to Hamden, CT on Tuesday to battle the Quinnipiac Bobcats. For Bentley, a win in either or both of those games would go miles to making as big as a statement as they did in Ann Arbor.
A look from around the world of local college football in New England, Week Five Edition:
-Boston College is a bad football team. Fans used to look at the schedule, see Duke and Wake Forest and pencil in those two wins while preparing for games against Clemson and Florida State. Now, they pencil in losses for Clemson and Florida State while preparing for maybe wins against Duke and Wake Forest. Except, they don’t win football games. They trailed 24-9 after three yesterday and made a mad-dash comeback before ultimately falling short, 27-19. They struggled moving the football (again), and they couldn’t punch the ball in the end zone (again). They’re now 1-4, with their lone win coming against FCS cupcake UMass. They’ve lost to Duke and Wake Forest, a feat not accomplished by any team in the same season since Georgia Tech during a bad stretch in the 1990s. And their remaining games don’t look promising – at Clemson, at Virginia Tech, at Maryland, vs. Florida State, vs. NC State, at Notre Dame, and at Miami. Fans have completely forgotten bowl eligibility, since that should be done when they return home for FSU at 1-7, and when that 13-year streak snaps, at least they’ll be playing four games that most likely aren’t winnable.
-The difference with BC isn’t the talent on the field, though. They’re getting hamstrung by a multitude of factors, almost a perfect storm. Former head coach Jeff Jagodzinski did such a terrible job recruiting that they only have five or six seniors even in the lineup on a given play. There are a number of freshmen and sophomores starting, and their quarterback is a true sophomore who had his freshman season interrupted by injury. That lack of seasoned talent gets coupled with a gameplan that really isn’t designed to win. Current head coach Frank Spaziani and interim offensive coordinator Dave Brockhave singlehandedly lost BC two games in conference. Every offensive set is completely predictable; they’ll either line up with tight ends galore or a slot receiver for a run play, then they’ll either run directly up the gut or throw a down-and-out from the opposite side of the field. We haven’t seen an
unimaginable offense in years. Chase Rettig threw almost 50 passes yesterday, and three-quarters of the were a roll out or a fade back on a hash mark, then throwing across his body across the field to the opposite hash mark. He essentially throws a 20-yard pass every single time out, only it’s a completion for 4 yards over the line of scrimmage, or it hits the turf short of the receiver. And that’s when he doesn’t get killed because “O-Line U” is forgetting how to block this year.
-But, again, the defense showed up yesterday late, only after surrendering 24 points through three quarters. And even then, they showed up, but they didn’t stop Wake Forest. The depleted secondary allowed a drive where two passes in a row (one of which was a trick option play) resulted in 30-45 yard gains. They came up with big stops at times, anchored by Kasim Edebali and a stifling defensive line, but the secondary looked like they were auditioning for the New England Patriots by getting burned, then burned again, then burned again.
-One last thing on that game, and then we’ll continue with others. We are absolutely shocked by two events. Number one – the referees. The reffing in this game was the most egregiously bad case of officiating we’ve seen in years. It was so lopsided on the penalties that it became funny, then wasn’t really funny. Right in front of an official, we saw at least twice, blatant pass interferences that weren’t called against Wake Forest, but there were plenty of chincy BC penalties (see also: a cheap offsides call and an equally cheap pass interference late). There’s always been a belief that Southern officials in the ACC thumb their nose at BC, and yesterday was a pretty good case study. Even Spaziani got angry, which is a rarity. But, then again, BC’s faced this for years with Notre Dame, and they used to have the talent to overcome it. Now, not so much.
-The second part is the general anger by the fanbase. Leaving the stadium, quotes were heard saying, “Worst BC team in 20 years,” among others. The general consensus by the non-student fan base is that Spaz needs to go. He’s a great guy, a wonderfully loyal, nice, appreciative man who is by far a gentleman and a great human being. That doesn’t translate to head coaching material, however. “FireSpaz” is now a twitter handle, and there’s a blog website up asking AD Gene DeFillippo to axe Spaz. And, while they’re at it, the fans are starting to turn against “GDF” because he hired Spaz because he worked on the cheap and was loyal to the school after the Jags debacle. People are angry, and while sports talk radio isn’t talking about it because, well, they’re egomaniacal and hate college football up here for some reason, the core people around BC need to be taken seriously. Stay tuned on this one.
-Yes, there were other games played this weekend in New England besides Boston College. UMass went down to Old Dominion for their first ever meeting. The #20-ranked Minutemen (rankings for the FCS area) promptly lost to the Monarchs, 48-33. UMass looked very banged up on defense after getting smoked by Boston College last week, giving up three touchdown passes by Thomas DeMarco in the first half alone as ODU raced out to a 25-0 lead in the second quarter. UMass rallied with 26 unanswered points by the third quarter, then surrendered a safety to trail 27-25. In a bizarre turn, Tyler Heinicke came in for DeMarco when the incumbent was hurt late and threw two TD passes, including a 56-yarder to Reid Evans. UMass added a score late, but by then the issue was no longer in doubt.
-For UMass, they have to be wary of falling into the same trap Northeastern fell into a few years back. The Northeastern Huskies opened the season at Boston College and the size differential between FCS and FBS resulted in a massive amount of injuries. As BC laid waste to the Huskies in that game, Northeastern lost two quarterbacks and left Alumni Stadium in Chestnut Hill as a virtual MASH unit. That season was lost right off the start, and NU promptly went winless. The lack of success and lack of ticket receipts actually translated to the university finally dropping the hammer and cutting football. For UMass, the Minutemen don’t have to worry about losing the program; their transition to FBS says otherwise. But the injuries incurred against BC really hurt them defensively, especially up the middle at linebacker. The smaller linebacking corps was deeply exposed in pass coverage, and ODU went over 500 yards of offense. That’s not good.
-The Endicott-Curry matchup was supposed to be the feature matchup of Division III’s New England Football Conference this past weekend. The defending champion Gulls hosted the Colonels in a game that could have brought parity into the NEFC’s Boyd Division. But the 4-0 Gulls destroyed the 3-1 Colonels, leading 35-7 at halftime en route to a 55-7 massacre. Phil Konopka went for 385 and five touchdowns through the air for Endicott, and Mike Lane gained 183 yards on 31 carries. In contrast, Curry’s quarterbacks mustered just 140 yards on 16 completions, splitting reps between Mark Gilson and Anthony Carnavale. Mike Murphy gained 200-plus yards receiving, and the defense registered two big interceptions. This was supposed to be a marquee matchup up in Beverly. Instead, Endicott assured themselves the inside track to the NEFC’s championship again, and they put a stomping on a rival to boot. Unless something drastic changes (and Dan Rubin is eyeing the 10/22 matchup against UMass-Dartmouth for that one), they’ll be repeat champions.
-Bobby Tarr just keeps getting better and better for Bentley. He notched two scores again in a 28-14 win over American International in a Friday night matinee. The senior gained over 100 yards on 20 carries, teaming with fellow back Lorenzo Warren for all of Bentley’s scores. But the real highlight of the night came from the Falcon defense. AIC scored a TD on their opening
possession, then mustered three points the rest of the game. Sal Ruffino scored three individual sacks and split another with RJ Barden. Eight Bentley tackles went for losses, AIC QB (lots of letters there, huh?) Kevin Arduino threw for only 65 yards. Bentley did give up over 100 yards rushing, but it was easily overlooked with the results of other games. The Falcons, who’ve won seven consecutive NE-10 football games, are now 4-1. If they beat Merrimack next week, they can start setting an eyeball on the SCSU and New Haven games with a chance to take control of the conference.
-Speaking of Dan Rubin and his beloved UMD Corsairs, how ’bout them? Edgar Osols drilled a 45-yard field goal with under a minute to play as the Corsairs shocked MIT with a 31-29. Osols also served as Corsair punter, coffin cornering one at the MIT one-yard line to set up a UMD touchdown. The win pushed UMass-Dartmouth over .500 to 3-2 heading into next week’s showdown in Rhode Island against Salve Regina. It also pushed them to 2-0 in NEFC play, and that 10/22 game at Endicott might end up being one with league championship implications. This makes our editor-in-chief very happy, and if he’s happy, we’re happy.