Everyone in hockey says they want to “grow the game,” and usually that means two things: 1) increasing the amount of viewers/fans/money that the sport generates; and 2) adding more teams.
Of course, particularly on the latter, that’s easy to say, and not easy to do. Starting a D-I men’s hockey program costs a ton of money.
But even when a school wants to do it, the college hockey community throws up roadblocks.
This was on display again last week when Alabama-Huntsville announced it was suspending operations because it couldn’t find a conference. In this case, of course, it wouldn’t be “growing the game,” but rather preventing it from contracting. It seems college hockey is ready to sacrifice of couple of programs it perceives as weaknesses — UAH and Alaska-Anchorage — and just move on.
To be fair, it’s not the people saying “grow the game” that throw up the roadblocks. Those people are usually coaches, hockey conference commissioners, hockey media and fans.
But the decision makers are the athletic directors, school presidents and Board of Trustees — the ones that make the decisions on money. And most of them (or none) truly give a rat’s rump about “growing the game” of college hockey.
In this case, however, I don’t see any bad guys. Just reality.
Every side to this has a good reason. You can’t argue with the sincerity and plan that alumni Taso Sofikitis and Sheldon Wolitski came up with. They’ve put their money where their mouth is, literally, and come up with the best possible model under the circumstances.
I also can’t blame the UAH administration for insisting that the continuation of the UAH hockey program — which it wanted to ax last year — be contingent on finding a conference. Despite the money Sofikitis and Wolitski are pledging to pump into the program, it’s impossibly unsustainable to play as an independent in UAH’s case.
“We really appreciate what Taso and Sheldon has done, and we pledge to keep working with them for however many years it takes to get a conference affiliation,” UAH president Darren Dawson said.
By the same token, I understand the reticence of Atlantic Hockey. Even if it could get past UAH’s prior mistakes, there’s still the hurdle of having a team so geographically distant from all of its programs. UAH’s hockey program is being tainted and hurt by the mistakes of prior school administrations.
The frustration is clear, though.
“The conference thing is not in our control,” Sofikitis said. “If anyone in college hockey is listening, give us a shot. We’re UAH 2.0. We have a sustainable funding model. Anything we do in our lives we win. We will put a valuable product on the ice, because we don’t do anything any other way. If anyone is listening in college hockey, we need a shot. It’s on the other 60 teams in college hockey. They want to see the sport grow and flourish in the southeast. Because I know we can win. Being in a conference is what will help build and grow as a program.”
One of the follies here is in getting so excited about last year’s funding plan in the first place. College hockey media and fans should be wise to this by now.
My colleague, Chris Boulay, wrote a piece a year ago, when the funding plan was announced, essentially pumping the brakes on the excitement. As he rightly, and presciently, pointed out then, the whole $17 million/10-year plan was meaningless if the team didn’t find a conference. And, it was unlikely then, and still is now, that Alabama-Huntsville will find one.
That fact is the source of great consternation to UAH supporters. But rightly or wrongly, the calculus that goes into the decision of conferences to add teams, hasn’t changed.
Every time we write one of these pieces, pumping the breaks on people’s unrealistic or misleading expectations, we get called “haters” and “doom and gloom.” And yet it’s just about always right.
I loathe when my wife throws cold water on my dreams of living on a golf course in Dubai, but I have to admit she’s right. (I AM buying that Tesla, though, dear.)
I realize this cold calculation is terrible for UAH’s supporters, alumni, players and coaches. I certainly have sympathy. It stinks. I’ll give you a virtual hug. But those not emotionally tied in have to make these cold assessements.
Interestingly (or not), I’m at the point where I don’t even care myself whether college hockey “grows,” per se. I want to see it thrive, I want to see it continue to be a viable alternative Major Junior, I want it to continue to put players in the NHL, continue to fill NHL arenas for the Frozen Four, and continue to have thrilling seasons.
But do I care if more programs add college hockey? I don’t think I do.
When new programs are added, it’s interesting, it’s fascinating. If I could wave a magic wand and make it happen, I’d love to add Washington, Oregon, Georgia, and Vanderbilt, to name a few. But that’s only because I want an excuse to visit the cities those schools are in.
But whether or not the game “grows” — why do I need to care anymore? Maybe it’s because I’m old now and won’t be around to see most of this growth — but what is wrong with the way it is? Why is there such urgent fervor to expand? What’s wrong with the 60 programs we have now? Why does anyone need more?
I’ve yet to hear a satisfactory answer to this question.
But if college hockey people do want the game to grow, they need to figure out a way to create the conditions to make it feasible.
“We have not gotten very many straight answers from Atlantic Hockey,” UAH athletic director Cade Smith said about the league’s upcoming meetings. “They have not given us a date on when they would complete those meetings or given us an answer — they think the meetings might end in June. If we were invited (to join the conference), it would not be for next year, they’ve been pretty clear about that. So we felt if we’re going to have to make this decision in two months, that makes it harder on the current players to give them time (to find a new team). There’s never a good time, but that has a lot to do with our decision.
“It’s harder than we thought it was going to be a year ago. The proposal that (Sofikitis and Wolitski) put together is really strong. It’s a proposal that seemed like a home run.”
I get that there is no grand poobah of college hockey that can force schools to create structures conducive to expansion. I’ve written articles trying to remind fans of this many, many times. Each school is on its own. So when someone says that some portion of NCHC, CCHA and Atlantic teams should re-arrange to form a new midwestern conference, I say, “yeah, that’s makes 100 percent perfect sense, now convince all those schools to do it at the same time.”
This may be silly, or wrong, or short-sighted, or whatever. But it is reality.
“Every team that’s out there is either in the NCAA Tournament or trying to be,” Smith said, “And so adding another team, they don’t feel helps them get to the NCAA Tournament. They say we appreciate you reaching out, but all it does is hurt our effort to get an automatic qualifier to the NCAA Tournament.”
In order to encourage change to the structures that stunt growth, we need to accept the reality first, and then figure out ways within that reality.
I don’t really have good solutions there yet. Maybe that’s another column.
With all that’s on the table in college sports right now — pandemic, budgets, NCAA legal issues — expect more change, for better or worse.
“We all agree in our conversations that we do think the landcaspe of college athletics will change a lot over the next six months, a year, two years,” Smith said. “I’m not sure anyone knows specifically. So we can’t answer that not knowing what that will be like, but we do think some changes may benefit us.”