The news out of Atlantic Hockey and its member schools this offseason has the potential to change the game for a league which has struggled to find its niche in the college hockey world. As Atlantic Hockey prepares for its 14th season, what do the changes mean? Here's a look at five things you need to know:
1. Programs are undergoing major facility upgrades. It’s not quite a facility arms-race, but Atlantic Hockey schools are one by one moving out of dumpy ice rinks into legitimate hockey arenas. It started in 2014 when RIT built the Polisseni Center on campus. Then Canisius moved into HarborCenter in downtown Buffalo in 2015.
Now, American International and Sacred Heart have announced their home games will be played in American Hockey League rinks while Bentley has started building a new multi-purpose facility on campus.
At American International, the program will move its games out of Olympia Ice Center into downtown Springfield’s Mass Mutual Center. Sacred Heart is moving from Milford Ice Pavilion to Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport, Conn.
“To state the obvious, we inherited one of the best facilities in college hockey from where were at Olympia,” said first-year coach Eric Lang. “From a recruiting standpoint, we’re able to target a different type of player now. My assistants on the road have said the feedback is positive. It’s a big facility and we have a lot of work to do as far as getting people in the seats, but the Mass Mutual is a top facility.”
Bentley is scheduled to drop the puck in 2018, moving the Falcons out of the small, cold John A. Ryan Skating Arena and into a 75,000 square-foot building.
2. What’s the big deal about 18 scholarships? The league announced in early September a plan to move to be fully-funded, meaning by 2021 schools in Atlantic Hockey will be able to offer the NCAA maximum 18 scholarships What that means for this season on the ice, is well, really nothing. Atlantic Hockey is still playing with fewer scholarship athletes than the rest of college hockey – 14 to the NCAA maximum 18 carried at other schools. But there are two areas where the plan to expand scholarships will have two immediate impacts – recruiting and perception.
“It sends a message to everyone outside of Atlantic Hockey that we’re serious about being competitive,” said Holy Cross coach Dave Berard. “It changes the profile and outlook of our league. … In the next four to five years, I think you’ll see a dramatic shift in the perception of Atlantic Hockey also in the competitive balance in the national standings.”
3. What’s still missing? Wins and fans. The new digs and more money certainly help Atlantic Hockey and it’s perception in the college hockey world, but the bottom line remains putting wins on the board and fans in the stands.
Quality facilities draw recruits, but it also has the potential to draw opponents. Atlantic Hockey teams traditionally must travel for their non-conference games and while there certainly is credence to the “on any given Sunday” mentality, it’s far more difficult to win on the road. Same can be said for the uneven scholarship level. Top lines in Atlantic Hockey can match up against the best in college hockey, but the disadvantage comes in depth.
“We’re up and coming now. We’re not a league that’s playing with one hand tied behind our backs,” said Air Force coach Frank Serratore. “We’re moving forward and progressing. I don’t know if that puts us on par with the rest of college hockey. That won’t be known until we start popping more people in the mouth. In sports, that’s the way it is. It’s a zero-sum game.
“We’ve got to start beating teams. When we start beating teams, we’ll be looked at as on even keel with the rest of college hockey. Nobody can negative recruit us that we don’t have scholarships. They can’t negative recruit us on facilities. Now, we’ve got to start winning.”
4. Who will win Atlantic Hockey? So speaking of winning, who will take home the Atlantic Hockey title?
The preseason favorite is RIT. The Tigers won the Atlantic Hockey tournament the last two years. The Tigers return 19 players from last year’s team which went 18-15-6 and soared in the second half.
“We’ve got a very determined group coming back, determined to be better,” RIT coach Wayne Wilson said. “As much as we hope the predictions are accurate, we’re really focused on being a better team and being ready to play our best hockey at the end of the year.”
While Atlantic Hockey may struggle out of conference (the league went 14-59-3 last season), within the league the parity has been impressive. Only once in the last six years has the regular season champion also won the tournament, held annually at Blue Cross Arena in Rochester, and the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. (Air Force in 2012) Only once has a team received an at-large bid. (Niagara in 2013).
“It’s really, really, really hard to get to Rochester, N.Y.,” Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin said. “And I can tell you from first-hand experience, once you get to Rochester, it’s really, really, really hard to win that tournament. There’s such parity among top to bottom, there’s going to be a day when a low seed, a nine, 10, 11 seed, is going to win the Atlantic Hockey playoffs and belong in the NCAA tournament. That’s going to happen one of these days.”
5. Western New Yorkers who will make an impact. At Holy Cross, goaltender Paul Berrafato (Williamsville) won the starting goaltending job midway through the season and helped the Crusaders to a third-place finish in Atlantic Hockey. Berrafato won 17 games as a sophomore with a 2.17 goals against average and a .919 save percentage.
“As he played more he developed more confidence and our team developed more confidence in him and it led to him having type of year he had from a statistical perspective,” Berard said. “To me being a goalie myself, stats are great but the true testament of a good goalie is if you can win or lose games, games when you might not have your best and you find your way to make big save at a critical moment. Paul has a way to do that.”
Berrafato and Holy Cross lost in the Atlantic Hockey quarterfinal round to Army West Point, backstopped by another Western New Yorker – Parker Gahagen. The Buffalo native led the nation in save percentage last season (.937). Gahagen went 14-119 with a 2.01 goals against average and returns for his senior season.
“Parker is an extremely hard worker. You have to make him get off the ice a lot of time,” said Army West Point coach Brian Riley. “Last year there was just a confidence level that he gained. We’re expecting a big year out of him and I’m hopeful his senior year will prove to be his best year here at West Point.”
Canisius and Niagara have a strong contingent of Western New Yorkers on their rosters.
Junior Ryan Schmelzer (Buffalo) was named assistant captain for the Golden Griffins who also have Josh Gabriel (Lancaster), Dylan McLaughlin (Lancaster), Nolan Sheeran (East Amherst) and Josh Kielich (Orchard Park.)
The Purple Eagles have Niagara Falls native Vinny Muto along with junior Larry Smith (Grand Island) and sophomore Ryan Kuhn (Wheatfield).