College Hockey: Enjoy 1 More Year of Hockey East as We Know It
Maybe there is some merit to that notion that the age of 30 serves as a harbinger of change for the worse. That is exactly what is slated to apply to the Hockey East Association in 2013-14, which will be its 30th year of operation.
The upcoming season will be the last before the league is officially subject to the mostly messy effects of the NCAA’s conference realignment bug.
It will also be the last before the Hockey East men’s league takes up the widespread habit of admitting all member schools into the postseason (The women’s league will enter this season with that misfortune already in effect).
At this time next autumn, the 10 current men’s league members will be grooming for a league schedule that will include a new member in Notre Dame. Yes, that Notre Dame, as in South Bend, Ind., which is no less than a 15-hour bus ride from the 10 intimately compacted Hockey East cohabitants.
The rationale behind admitting the Fighting Irish on the heels of the mass realignment between the CCHA and WCHA had just barely a sliver of understandability, for a while. After all, the Notre Dame and Boston College football programs have their time-honored rivalry.
In addition, the University of Connecticut is raring to become the HEA’s 12th member in 2014-15. This will mean giving the Irish hockey program two fellow Big East rivals in UConn and Providence all within the same conference.
That is, for one year, anyway.
Two weeks ago, Notre Dame announced that all teams outside of football and hockey will defect the Big East in favor of the ACC, effective in 2015-16. Translation: Connecticut, Providence and Notre Dame will simultaneously be Big East and Hockey East rivals for all of one academic year.
Well, so much for that. But, hey, at least the Irish will have a common thread with Boston College, namely being a couple of former Big East programs now cohabitating in Hockey East and fostering hockey’s “Holy War.”
Granted, on paper, that looks like a substantive booster to the two programs and the league in question. In reality, though, all parties concerned have enough appreciable material to build upon as it is.
BC has its civic feuds with the other Beanpot schools, particularly Boston University, with whom it forges a rivalry that eclipses Michigan-Ohio State football in intensity. Everywhere else in Hockey East, the Eagles are generally perceived as the New York Yankees of the circuit, lending an effortless fervor to any building they visit.
It simply will not work the same in Indiana as it does in Boston, Amherst, Lowell, North Andover, Durham, Burlington, Orono, Providence and, eventually, Storrs.
For the Irish, there are plenty of prospective or established rivals across the Great Lakes, whether that would be in the new-look WCHA or the newfangled NCHC. Why they did not pursue membership in one of those leagues is nothing short of a head-scratcher, especially now in the wake of the ACC announcement.
Geography is pivotal to percolating rivalries in the college game, just as much as exclusivity is important to percolating playoff races.
On that note, Hockey East will no longer jut over the surface in the gasp for respectability once it starts allowing all 11 teams (12 in 2014-15) to start every season with an automatic conference tournament passport in hand.
Hockey East has always been admirably different, running a simple, clear-cut top-eight bracket for as long as it has been a nine- or 10-team circuit. Its women’s league began as a six-team conference with four playoff seeds at stake and later adopted an NFL-like format with six out of eight teams seeing bonus action.
Unfortunately, despite a lack of expansion now or in the foreseeable future, the WHEA will go forward with an all-inclusive postseason this year. Its male counterpart is to follow suit next season.
Although there will still be battles for national rankings, higher seeds and home-ice advantage, there will no longer be playoff streaks or droughts.
You will never again see the likes of what the Providence men’s team went through, qualifying for each of the first 24 Hockey East tournaments and then missing three in a row before restoring relevance last season.
Protracted streaks of playoff appearances and/or appearances in specific playoff rounds are vital to a program’s tradition. Just the same, a stretch of irrelevance and repeat playoff absences creates more room for an eventual sense of redemption when it is over.
Those notions are about to lose all meaning in Hockey East. So, too, is the very moniker of what has always been an all-New England conference.
At least the league will retain its integral elements for one final season. A season that must be savored.
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