A myriad of logical reasons drove me to that conclusion. The more recent bouts of national competitiveness and relevance of programs such as those of Cornell, Harvard, and Yale compared to the non-Ivy programs in the Conference. One must keep in mind that I held these views before the 2012 and 2013 NCAA Tournaments. Perhaps it was the announcement of the B1G Hockey Conference with the allure of the Ivy League forming another academically and socially homogenous hockey conference. Those thoughts are so alien to me now; I can scarcely understand their calculus.
Then, something happened. We launched WAFT last season. This transformed me from a loyal member of the Lynah Faithful to an active participant and observer of the ECAC. I am actually very appreciative for that. I have grown to admire, appreciate, and respect the proud history of the East’s historic college-hockey conference as well as the people who have made it and continue to make it great.
So, what effect did Yale winning the national championship have on my views? Did an Ivy winning a national championship cause me to relapse to an old mindset? Far from it. I enjoyed supporting the three ECAC programs in the NCAA Tournament. It was exhilarating to be in the building when Quinnipiac defeated St. Cloud State and Yale defeated UMass-Lowell to guarantee that the ECAC would have its first national champion in 24 years. Watching Yale end the drought formally was one of the greatest hockey games I have watched without Cornell as a participant.
In short, in the matter of a few months I grew from a position of relative indifference to love the ECAC. It is a conference with many idiosyncrasies and atypicalities, but each makes the conference great. It is the home of two engineering institutions that compete at the highest level of college hockey. It is home to some of the most elite liberal arts colleges in the nation. And yes, it is home to six august institutions of the Ivy League. It is so much more.
The ECAC is a conference that loves its hockey and history. New York State is the state of college hockey. The Empire State hosts 10 programs that compete at the Division I level of college hockey. Six of them call the ECAC home. Those six love their college hockey. Anyone who doubts the level of passion and love that these schools and fanbases have for college hockey need only analyze a few facts.
Consider that the six non-Ivies of the ECAC have a cumulative student enrollment of 24,176. That number is smaller than the individual enrollment of all universities that comprise the B1G but Northwestern. Michigan, the university with the smallest enrollment of the B1G that will sponsor hockey, enrolls 154% more students that the enrollment of the six non-Ivies combined. For further comparison, acknowledge that Boston University enrolls 33,747 while the University of North Dakota has 15,250 students in attendance (63% of the enrollment of the six non-Ivies).
These demographic disadvantages do not daunt the ECAC or their fans. Over half of ECAC programs register attendance that place them among the top half of attendance figured in terms of percent capacity. Three programs rank in the top ten by the same measure. Having three programs in the top ten in terms of percent-capacity attendance ties the ECAC with the former WCHA for most programs in the top ten in that category. Yes, enrollment disparity and use of classic college-hockey barns hurt the ECAC programs in terms of average absolute attendance. However, five of the ECAC’s 12 programs rank in the top half of attendance even when examining average absolute attendance.
The schools of the ECAC love their hockey and it shows in attendance. How about environment? Lynah Rink perennially ranks as one of the most fearsome college hockey venues for opponents. That is nearly a truism. What about the other 11 venues? I doubt many programs would find the embrace of home fans at Appleton Arena, Cheel Arena, Houston Field House, or Messa Rink a welcoming one. Each building offers its unique form of harassment from the obnoxious goal horns of Cheel and Houston to the clamor of cowbells at Messa. It is unlikely that a dedicated ECAC fan could mistake in which venue he was by aural cues alone.
I challenge a fan of any conference to find a college-hockey conference with buildings with more character. Gone is the spectacular Old Barn of North Dakota. The men’s hockey programs of Boston University and Minnesota have vacated their historic homes of Walter Brown and Williams Arena in exchange for Agganis Arena and the new Mariucci Arena respectively. These great programs have forsaken their historic barns in exchange for lavish but most often sterile homes that feel more befitting of professional hockey than its collegiate counterpart. In the place of sterility, one will find authenticity at nearly all ECAC venues.
Longevity of use cannot be confused with neglect of modernity. Cornell, Princeton, Quinnipiac, RPI, St. Lawrence, and Yale have invested considerable sums of money to ensure that the developmental and training experiences of all student-athletes in each program remains competitive with those afforded student-athletes at other programs. Lynah Rink underwent considerable renovation in 2007 that ensured that East Hill continued to provide skaters for the Big Red the best tools in college hockey to develop and compete with the elite of college hockey. Cornell’s facilities are second to none much like most of those at other ECAC programs.
Players in the ECAC are afforded the opportunity to breathe the rarified air that legends of the college-hockey game once gasped while carving their own coveted place in the annals of their own program. No other conference can or will give its student-athletes these opportunities. Those same student-athletes will earn educations and degrees that are amongst the most valuable in higher education.
If the fact that 11 of the Conference’s 12 teams predate the formation of the NCAA Tournament in hockey by at least two decades does not intrigue you then consider the ECAC’s national competitiveness. Yes, national competitiveness. I am far from one who thinks that Yale’s first national championship somehow ushered in a new era of ECAC dominance. It might have, but that is yet unproven. What is certain, is that the ECAC was far from nationally irrelevant during the rein of a tattered and hackneyed mantra.
The ECAC has produced some of the greatest victories in the NCAA Tournament since the adoption of the current format of the national tournament. Cornell ushered in the new format in 2003 with a Frozen-Four berth. The Big Red ended that season ranked first in national polls. Cornell battled Minnesota to a regulation draw at Mariucci Arena in 2005. The Big Red’s encore included a triple-overtime, scoreless deadlock against Wisconsin in Green Bay that ended disappointingly with Cornell on the wrong side of a 1-0 decision to the eventual national champion. Yale toppled North Dakota in 2010. Union may not have upended any traditional national powers in its 2012 run to the Frozen Four, but Cornell helped carry the weight of legitimacy with upsetting a Michigan team that carried high expectations and a one seed. The 2013 NCAA Tournament witnessed two ECAC teams in the Frozen Four, Union dominating traditional and contemporary power Boston College, and Yale leaving Pittsburgh with its first national championship.
Was the ECAC snake-bitten? Yes. May it still be? Perhaps. But, any argument that the quality of hockey played in the historic conference of the East has been or is inferior to that played in other conferences is patently untrue. Cornell and Yale have proven over the last half-decade that they can compete with the most touted programs in the sport in any contest.
But with pride in the ECAC, I would direct detractors to the recent successes of Union, a program that seems to be making a bid to join Cornell and Yale as two programs that have regularly competed and defeated the best of college hockey over the last half-decade. The tradition of Cornell hockey may make the Big Red the historical default standard bearer from the ECAC since The Divorce, but what Cornell fans and the rest of the college-hockey landscape need to recognize is that there are far more able hands reaching to lift that banner. Yes, internally that means Schafer, et al. will need to reaffirm Cornell’s role as the dominant force within the league and the most formidable nationally. Yale’s winning of its first NCAA national title has made that task all the more taxing. But, great programs rise to great challenges.
The Cornell exception still is true but to be accurate it needs even more addenda. No programs, no matter how proud and successful, can sleep on Yale or Union. Quinnipiac has made a bid to join those ranks despite the absence of any out-of-conference victories over historically dominant programs. The other programs of the ECAC from Casey Jones’s and Seth Appert’s recruiting prowess at Clarkson and RPI to Greg Carvel’s revitalization of a briefly lagging St. Lawrence program to Bob Prier’s regaining of footing after Guy Gadowsky’s departure at Princeton to a Colgate program that is finding a new appreciation for its past. Lest we forget Brown, an often maligned program, that has appeared twice in the last four ECAC Championship weekends. Dartmouth is a perennially competitive program that finds itself as often on the wrong side of the bubble but seems on the verge of correcting course.
The logical next retort from detractors? If the ECAC has been nationally relevant since the adoption of the modern NCAA Tournament structure, then why does the ECAC not own as many national championships as the other dominant conferences? If you are one for historical revisionism, you may enjoy this argument. Tug at the logical threads that weave this tale and it all quickly unravels.
The first Eastern program to win an NCAA national championship was Boston College in 1949. Ned Harkness led RPI to join the Eagles on that pedestal in 1954. The ECAC crowned its first champion in 1962. Hockey East held its inaugural tournament in 1985. Boston University and Cornell combined to win five national championships between 1962 and 1984. RPI won the first national championship after the split between the ECAC and Hockey East. Harvard and Yale contributed a title each to the ECAC’s total.
Hockey East has winners in Boston College, Boston University, and Maine. The Eagles, Terriers, and Black Bears have won eight national championships while representing Hockey East’s brand of college hockey. Those keeping score at home realize what that means. The NCAA’s national-championship trophy has been handed as often to skaters wearing an ECAC patch as it has to those wearing a Hockey East patch.
Boston College gave Hockey East the lead in 2012. Keith Allain and Yale evened the score in April. The conferences of the East remain deadlocked in terms of national titles that each conference has won. That equality is far from the disparity that most perceive to exist within Eastern college hockey.
Consider the current membership of each conference that will play in the 2013-14 season. Hockey East is the only conference that has NCAA-championship-winning programs that has fewer than three such members. The B1G Hockey Conference, ECAC, NCHC, and new WCHA all count four member programs that have won NCAA titles. This is but another metric by which the current ECAC is equal to the other major conferences.
Brian Sullivan of USCHO.com champions the argument that the ECAC is the most internally competitive league in the nation. His arguments are sound. If one has not read them, they should seek them out. His conclusions are why the ECAC is the most exciting league to watch. The league is historical in ways that most other conferences can merely pretend to be. The parity of the conference and its continued stature as one of the most nationally competitive conferences makes each weekend and the ECAC Tournament exhilarating. Detractors need to consider that the 2013 NCAA Championship Final was a rematch of the 2013 ECAC Consolation Game.
The ECAC is the oldest conference in college hockey. It is time that it embraces that history. The Whitelaw Cup is a phenomenal prize and those that compete for it are of national timber.
Anyone who chafes at the notion that the ECAC is the oldest surviving collegiate hockey conference needs to consider that the branding of the new WCHA as the WCHA is essentially a naked license. None of the essential elements remain. The one founding program of the WCHA that remains is Michigan Tech. The Huskies of the Upper Peninsula left the WCHA for the CCHA in the 1980s to rejoin it later. No continuous membership connects the new WCHA to the original WCHA.
Why does this matter? Why does it matter to Cornell fans particularly? It matters because too often fans of the ECAC have withered when confronted with the criticisms of other conferences or resorted to foolhardy polemics. Any arguments that the ECAC is the next dominant force in college hockey are premature. Statements to such effect delegitimize the successes of this conference. But, Yale’s first NCAA national title and the continued competitiveness of other ECAC programs prove that the Conference deserves a place at the table of elite conferences. As a coequal.
As I watched the close of the 2012-13 season in Pittsburgh, I could not help but feel pride in what Yale had accomplished. Yes, it likely was somewhat greater because the Yale skaters on the ice were fellow Ivy Leaguers, but I felt pride in the ECAC. It was an accomplishment for our proud oft-maligned, but much beloved conference. When the national-championship trophy was handed to Yale it was hard not to think back to the moments at Hobey Baker, Houston, Ingalls, Lynah, Messa, and Starr that unfolded as I watched. One could smile and realize that in the 2013 NCAA Tournament the only program that proved able to eliminate an ECAC program was a fellow ECAC member. This is the home of great traditions. This is the home of great hockey.