by Amy Moritz
Niagara and Canisius will only play twice in the regular season. Both games will be at Niagara's Dwyer Arena. They will not play each other in the brand new HarborCenter in downtown Buffalo, which is the new home for Canisius hockey.
Confusion and disbelief were the typical reactions after the Atlantic Hockey schedule was released with little consideration apparently given to Western New York rivalries.
First up, a look at the basics of the conference scheduling.
With Connecticut leaving Atlantic Hockey for this year for Hockey East (despite the Huskies still being on the official Atlantic Hockey website), Atlantic Hockey is down to 11 members. So the conference decided that scheduling would go like this: programs would play four teams four times. The remaining six teams would be played only twice -- three of them in two-game home series, three of them in two-game road series.
Explained Atlantic Hockey commissioner Bob DeGregorio, "It’s going to be a cycle over the next few years. … Some years you will play people away and not home and some years you will be playing people both home and away. With 11 schools it takes 10 years to complete the cycle."
In an article last May on USCHO.com, Atlantic Hockey commissioner Bob DeGregorio said, "We are still working out the formula. Our intention is to be fair and also maintain local rivalries."
But when asked about the schedule and local rivalries on Wednesday, DeGregorio spoke only of the difficulty in working with an odd number of teams.
"We presented the schedule to the coaches at the coaches’ meeting and it passed. It wasn’t unanimous, but it passed at the coaches' meeting," DeGregorio said. "Then we presented it to the directors and it passed unanimously. The final decision is in the directors’ hands. In perfect honesty with 11 schools it’s very difficult to do a schedule. It stinks. We’re making the best of it. For the first time people who never traveled to Air Force every year will have to go to Air Force a couple of years in a row. That’s the way it works. There’s no easy solution to this unless we get a 12th team and then go back to the drawing board."
So, if Canisius and Niagara drew only two games this year, why not make sure they played in the inaugural year of HarborCenter and let Niagara host next year?
"As far as First Niagara Center, that’s up to them once they get the schedule where they want to play, it’s up to them to move their home games," was DeGregorio's response.
Of course, that doesn't quite answer the question from Western New York fans for two reasons. First, FNC is only hosting two regular season games for Canisius because HarborCenter won't be done until the end of October. Second, the two games are Niagara's home games which is the point of contention. In this inaugural year of HarborCenter, a Niagara-Canisius game would sellout in downtown Buffalo and draw potential new fans. Don't want to cut Niagara out of home games? Make sure that Canisius and Niagara play four times this season.
"We're certainly disappointed to not be playing Niagara in the HarborCenter," Canisius athletic director Bill Maher said. "It's something we hoped could have been worked out. Given the complexities of the Atlantic Hockey schedule and moving to 28 conference games, it was not possible. I do know the commissioner worked very hard and he just wasn't able to make it work.
"You're trying to work with 11 schools all of which have their own levels of priorities. Then you try to balance the east and the west split and travel partners. It's a complex mouse trap. ... Every school has one vote and therein lies the challenge. There are a number of things in our world we would decide differently, but we're one of 11. That's what happens with membership."
While scheduling is complicated, Atlantic Hockey is missing the opportunity to not only protect regional rivalries but enchance them, which in turn helps grow interest in the teams, the league and college hockey as a whole.
Apparently Canisius and Niagara are not consider local rivalries worthy of maintaining.
Neither is Canisius and RIT. Those two teams will also only play twice, both times at HarborCenter with no return games to RIT's brand new campus facility, the Polisseni Center.
This is terribly short-sighted of Atlantic Hockey.
Regional rivalries drive college sports and while fans in Western New York may not yet embrace Atlantic Hockey, they do understand Canisius-Niagara which has a 100-plus year tradition. RIT is new on the scene and Division III in all sports with the exception of the elevated hockey program. But already it hasn't taken long for Buffalo and Lewiston to develop rivalries with Rochester.
Atlantic Hockey did preserve the integrity Niagara-RIT rivalry which will be a pair of home-and-home weekends. But the rivalry has to go deeper than superficial one always pointed out by higher ups. Yes, Niagara coach Dave Burkholder was an All-American goalie for RIT in the 1980s. But that was before the current roster of playres was born (sorry Burkie). RIT may hold on to that memory, but without a long tradition against the Tigers, it merely registers as an interesting footnote at Niagara.
There are better reasons to enchance the rivalries and one of them is to create games which showcase three of the strong programs in the league pitted against each other.
So let's look at the three Western New York programs:
Niagara entered Atlantic Hockey after College Hockey America folded. It has four NCAA appearances on its resume including the first (and currently only) at-large bid to the NCAA tournament from Atlantic Hockey, which came in 2013.
RIT has a history of national success at the Division III level before elevating to Division I in 2006. The Tigers are the only Atlantic Hockey team with a Frozen Four appearance. That came in 2010. RIT will begin play in the brand-spanking new Pollisseni Center this year -- a $38-million facility which will seat about 4,000, perfect for its very enthusiastic fan base which also travels well, especially to regional games.
Canisius made its first NCAA tournament last year and again made it to the conference championship game. Their success and clear investment in hockey helped land the deal with the Buffalo Sabres to move the Golden Griffins into the new HarborCenter, an 1,800-seat state-of-the-art rink attached to First Niagara Center and an NHL-quality facility.
There are good things happening with programs within Atlantic Hockey. But the league's strategy to grow the league seems to go along the lines of, "Hey look! We have some good teams, players and coaches. You really should come see us." Marketing doesn't work that way. And the work the individual schools are doing to enhance their programs needs better support at the league level.
Which is where the schedule comes into play.
A strong trio in Western New York helps strengthen the entire league, which among the 59 Division I teams has the nine worst average attendance figures. Scheduling Canisius, Niagara and RIT to play each other four times during the regular season, particularly in a year where two of them are opening brand-spanking-new facilities, is an opportunity to draw in, and possibly retain, new fans. It's an opportunity to showcase the best of what's going on in the league. It's an opportunity to increase exposure for the individual teams and for the league.
But all it turned out to be was another opportunity wasted.