Once again, the snowflake that begins an avalanche tumbles from the B1G mountain. Hockey became the conduit to give the B1G what it has coveted for so very long. Notre Dame was wooed into the B1G fold. Like all realignments in this era of rampant branding, this decision has more to do with everything beyond athletic scheduling and competitive balance. The shifts that it is anticipated to trigger are no different.
Hockey East will have an 11-team conference when the 2017-18 season begins if no other movements in the college-hockey landscape occur. There appears to be little desire within the separatist division of ECAC Hockey to revert back to a playoff format in which its members do not benefit from guaranteed post-season berths. Hockey East's members in just two seasons have taken to the playoff format that ECAC Hockey has employed since 2003. Our neighbors are in need of a 12th member.
Occam's razor cuts through the thicket of speculation.
Moving Parts and Motives
Exchanging the hockey programs of Quinnipiac University and Rochester Institute of Technology is in order. The moment is now more than ever. Practical and psychological considerations align now to make the switch beneficial to the universities, programs, and conferences involved. Motives of each constituent need to be understood. This writer harbors no prejudice toward those of either.
Quinnipiac University views its sports programs as primarily a means of brand augmentation and publicity. The niche that the University expertly has carved out in polling affirms the power of ubiquitous reference in gaining notoriety for a nascent university. Quinnipiac regards its hockey programs as similar instruments.
Rand Pecknold views himself as a figure who will inject the name of his school in Hamden into the national conversation. His role goes far beyond hockey in his eyes. He aspires to elevate the University. Think this is overwrought? Listen to Rand's interviews from the last several seasons.
Pecknold invokes one image each time that he is asked why other than personal glory he drives for the national success of his hockey program. That image is of Doug Flutie's Hail Mary pass against the Hurricanes of Miami in 1984. Pecknold, like so many from New England who witnessed that game, is absolutely convinced that moment created Boston College's national relevance in academia.
Remember, this was the Fall of 1984. Boston College had spent nearly a quarter-century "rubbing elbows" with the hockey programs and presidents of Ivy-League institutions in ECAC Hockey. This low-profile association did nothing to establish Boston College as a university according to those New Englanders, including both Jack McDonald and Rand Pecknold, who created and enacted Quinnipiac's branding model.
A nationally televised Hail Mary pass made Boston College a household name. As foolish as that sounds to many, including this writer, the people who have made and make decisions at Quinnipiac University believe it. Emphasis on television coverage and markets cannot be overstated. Quinnipiac's administrators maintain that, absent a football program, regular Frozen-Four appearances and a national championship in hockey will raise their institution from a relevant regional university to the ranks of national university.
This model should lead Quinnipiac University to leave ECAC Hockey and join Hockey East.
Rochester Institute of Technology focuses on its sports programs as a form of congealing socialization and professional networking. The engineering bastion from suburban Rochester values its program for uniting its university less than gaining exposure for a brand already established in specific niches of science and technology. This is not to say that RIT discounts the latter entirely. Much like with Quinnipiac, both are considerations. RIT emphasizes the former. The image of RIT hockey is more Brick City Homecoming and the Corner Crew's celebrating an Atlantic-Hockey title at the Blue Cross Arena than watching its name appear on Selection Sunday.
The networking aspect is where RIT's current association with Atlantic Hockey leaves something to be desired. As a high-tech university at the epicenter of a revolution in photonics, RIT would benefit greatly from joining a conference that brings its traveling student body and its leadership into closer proximity with New York's other premier engineering institutions, Clarkson University and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, not to mention the College of Engineering at Cornell University.
Union College's and Clarkson University's recent academic collaborations in graduate education illustrate the potential of the bonds of ECAC Hockey. Similar fruits would be born for RIT. Quinnipiac with its considerable youth, unlike RIT, does not fit among either the traditional liberal-arts colleges, Colgate University, St. Lawrence University, and Union College, or the traditional engineering colleges, Clarkson University and RPI, of ECAC Hockey's non-Ivy League members. RIT neatly rounds out an "engineering bloc" of ECAC Hockey.
RIT uses hockey to enhance its academic experience. Quinnipiac hopes to use hockey to establish its academics. This distinction distills the rationale behind why each should percolate to new conferences.
For Quinnipiac to realize its goal of brand augmentation via television exposure vis-à-vis "the Boston College model," it needs a larger media market that cares about college hockey and greater television coverage. Hamden can keep burning dollars to put its games on SportsNet New York, but the Bobcats never will capture the attention of the New York City or even Downstate markets. New York City's media market is an echo chamber with atrocious acoustics.
It is the windmill at which Jim Delany of the B1G keeps tilting. No college team ever will capture the television attention of that large, diffuse, and diverse market. B1G and Ivy-League alumni account for large swaths of the Downstate population. Both groups, even in conjunction, can never transfix a majority of the market. It would be far better for Quinnipiac to focus on a market that manifests occasionally a laser-like focus on college hockey: Boston.
Boston is a market in which Quinnipiac can play. Quinnipiac University draws its student body largely from New England and New York. Proximity to and curiosity about Boston are natural fits for both. Hockey East regularly gets coverage on the New England Sports Network. The Boston media market comes in tow.
The Boston media market counts 6.3 million viewers. It is the eighth-largest media market in the United States. Quinnipiac has not tapped that market. Captivation of this market is unavailable in ECAC Hockey. Membership in Hockey East would ensure that this wellspring nourished the reputation of the 87-year old university.
Coverage and exposure are what Quinnipiac University wants. Its hockey program is its chosen tool. Boston is the market in which it can best realize these goals. If Quinnipiac Athletics can pry air time from SNY, it will be able to do the same with NESN. The difference will be that audiences on NESN are more receptive.
Greatest publicity is gained during the national tournament. Hockey East consistently sends more programs to the NCAA tournament than does ECAC Hockey. In this regard, Quinnipiac should seek admission to Hockey East to improve their odds of more reliable national attention in late March.
Additionally, a fanbase that is comprised not insignificantly of nomadic would-have-been Whalers fans is more invested in traveling to the TD Garden where the Bruins play than to the Olympic Center where college hockey triumphed over the juggernaut of Soviet hockey. NESN would broadcast any trips the Bobcats made to the TD Garden.
Holdouts who insist that Quinnipiac is content in ECAC Hockey despite all evidence to the contrary point to John Lahey, president of the University, as the reason why the Bobcats will remain perched in ECAC Hockey. They insist that Lahey enjoys too much the social advantage of nominal association with the Ivy League. It is dubious if anyone at Quinnipiac is this naïve.
Quinnipiac has made many expert branding decisions over the last several decades. If the University values highly superficial associations and the arrangements of banners in rafters, it is as foolish as the person who pays thousands of dollars a plate for a dinner thinking it buys his way into a future president's inner circle. History indicates decision makers at Quinnipiac University are far wiser.
Boston College bolted the conference that it shared with the Ivy League weeks before a diminutive quarterback lobbed his legend into immortality. That moment is what decision makers at Quinnipiac believe established Boston College. This model tells the Bobcats to take their den to a new savanna where they can seek their own moment.
Rite of Passage
ECAC Hockey has been a predominantly New York league after its hockey-east division defected in 1984. ECAC Hockey's home in Lake Placid reflects this reality. The only non-New York and non-Ivy League member of ECAC Hockey currently is Quinnipiac. Admission of RIT as a replacement for Quinnipiac removes this anomaly.
New York is the state of college hockey. ECAC Hockey is its conference. New York's greatest programs deserve to play in this conference. RIT is the only such program that finds itself outside of the league's embrace. Any readers chafing at referring to RIT as a historic and great program need to consider the rich history of the Tigers.
If RIT were to join ECAC Hockey, it immediately would tie for the lead in terms of number of tournament titles won if one counts modern tournaments won at all levels. Yes, ECAC Hockey fans and Lynah Faithful, RIT has won 14 post-season titles, the same number that Cornell has won and four more than Harvard has won. RIT's playoff haul counts identically to that of Cornell two NCAA championships and 12 conference championships.
Now, like Minnesota and Wisconsin do not heel to Penn State's seven ACHA national titles in the B1G, Cornell and Harvard never will concede a status of equality or inferiority to RIT in ECAC Hockey. The value in noting how decorated RIT is by comparison is that it probes how the depth of hockey tradition at RIT resembles that found among ECAC Hockey's members.
The Tigers won their national titles at the Division II and III levels. One of their regular adversaries in the post-season during that era was Union College. The Dutchmen, unlike the Tigers, never broke through for a national title at that level. A rivalry of sorts is built within this narrative as well as obvious seeds of potential.
RIT has played at the Division I level for only ten years. It has made one Frozen Four and three NCAA tournaments. The Tigers have won three tournament titles in that time.
By comparison, Quinnipiac, the program that RIT may replace, has won one tournament in that time and owns only two all-time post-season tournament victories compared to the 14 of the program from New York. Quinnipiac with the aid of scholarships and better odds at an at-large bid has made only two more national tournaments in its history despite playing at the Division I level for nearly twice as long as RIT.
Scholarships, in there lies a rub. RIT does not offer them. The Tigers could fit alongside the Ivies and Union College in not offering financial compensation on the basis of athletic prowess. ECAC Hockey also may serve as the vehicle for RIT to gain the status that Clarkson, RPI, and St. Lawrence enjoy if the Tigers desire.
A faction of RIT boosters wants scholarships. The NCAA will not allow its program to have them. Membership in ECAC Hockey may solve this problem if administrators decide in favor of scholarships. The lobbying power of the Ivy League may be enough to influence the NCAA in allowing RIT to have play-up status for scholarships in Division I hockey if League representatives endorse RIT's position. RIT Athletics compete predominantly at the Division III level which is why it needs such a waiver.
At the Division III level, conveniently, RIT competes within the Liberty League. Its conference members there are Clarkson, RPI, St. Lawrence, and Union. The five members of ECAC Hockey that were not the six Ivies and Colgate would share a non-hockey league if RIT joined ECAC Hockey.
Furthermore and very importantly, RIT sponsors women's hockey at the highest level. Commissioner Hagwell's noble insistence on a mirror league would remain easily intact. The Tigers have won two tournament titles in College Hockey America. The Bobcats whom they would replace have won one playoff title.
Internally, the politics of ECAC Hockey would even out nicely with the addition of RIT. ECAC Hockey would divide into three distinct blocs: the Ivy League, traditional liberal-arts schools, and engineering colleges. The latter two then would count three members each unlike now when Clarkson and RPI stand alone in terms of representing primarily engineering-based interests.
Some members of the ECAC-Hockey community detract from the history of RIT as unbefitting some ill-defined standard of prestige of the universities within the conference. These arguments are used usually in contradistinction between the prospective candidacies of Holy Cross and RIT.
Age is bandied often which is strange considering that RIT is 14 years older than Holy Cross. Clarkson, Cornell, and St. Lawrence Universities all were established after RIT's establishment in 1829. If this effete crowd perceives a geographic demonym as too bourgeois, it need not worry any longer. Founded as the Rochester Athenæum, its name is as likely a reference to the founding role of Nathaniel Rochester as it is the neighboring city that at the time bore the name Rochesterville.
Having now forsaken its frontier name, Rochester provides intriguing prospects for the media profile of ECAC Hockey. Losing Quinnipiac will not cede the Connecticut media market. Hockey fans in the Nutmeg State will flock to whichever team is winning. Regular discussions in the concourses of Hamden and New Haven involve debates as to which team is more likely to win in a night deciding which game fans attend. ECAC Hockey could gain the media market of Western New York.
RIT is followed fairly widely in Western New York. The region counts 2.9 million viewers. A majority of that market is available to ECAC Hockey with RIT's membership. It provides an additional vehicle for the broadcast of ECAC Hockey's championship weekend as well. Time Warner Cable Sports regularly broadcasts and re-airs games for RIT hockey. This network spans across most of New York. It is experienced with in-studio and in-game hockey broadcasting. This solution for broadcasting has setbacks. It adds negotiating leverage for ECAC Hockey and Commissioner Hagwell at the very least.
Media markets are not the only way to gain revenue. Ticket sales are. The one thing other than debauchery that the Corner Crew is known for is traveling. Last season, the Crew took over Compton Arena 510 miles from campus. This season, Quinnipiac was the visitor in Albany in the NCAA tournament because the Corner Crew made it so.
Lake Placid is well within the Crew's range. It is only 278 miles from Henrietta. RIT fans and the Corner Crew will travel. They likely will sell more tickets than any fanbase currently in ECAC Hockey.
The hockey programs of RIT bring with them the added luster of a new arena. A decided detriment is attached to losing Quinnipiac's new arena. The Gene Polisseni Center is more than equal to replacing a departed High Point Solutions Arena. The former is newer. Its environment is better. The Polisseni Center, named after a loyal benefactor, fits better among the names of ECAC Hockey's barns than does a corporately purchased moniker.
This question begs for the monetization of this particular realignment. The way in which RIT's joining ECAC Hockey would affect the hockey programs of the founding ten members and Union College financially is through travel and travel-partner relationships. What net increase would each current member suffer in added travel were RIT to replace Quinnipiac?
The first choices that one must make is determining which programs would pair with which programs in the travel-partner relationships. This writer takes the North-Country pair and its associated road trips as being the utmost sacrosanct of the pairings in ECAC Hockey. Clarkson and St. Lawrence should remain wedded.
The North Country remains together because they have a shared identity despite their enmity. The Capital District is slowly developing a similar aura about it. Keeping RPI and Union together additionally reinforces the geographic rivalry of the two.
RIT needs a travel partner. The member of ECAC Hockey most proximate to Rochester is Cornell. Those two should be paired as to mitigate as much as possible the perceived drudgery of a trip that now seems outside of the footprint of the conference. Quickly, the other pairings fall into place after this decision is made.
Trip travel is reduced if Colgate pairs with Dartmouth, Harvard rejoins Brown, and Princeton reunites with Yale. The pairings are Brown-Harvard, Clarkson-St. Lawrence, Colgate-Dartmouth, Cornell-RIT, Princeton-Yale, and RPI-Union. How much extra travel would each of the 11 current members incur compared to the current arrangement?
Members of ECAC Hockey combine to log over 30,000 miles on buses during the regular season now. Yes, the conference's mileage could circumnavigate the globe and still traverse the United States nearly twice with that total. The addition of RIT requires each current member to average traveling an additional 230.6 miles over the course of an 11-week regular season.
The average change in percent of travel is an increase less than ten percent. Switching out Quinnipiac and adding RIT causes an average increase of travel across the entire regular season of just 8.68%. Half of the conference adds fewer than 200 miles in travel. Two members, Clarkson and St. Lawrence, enjoy reductions in travel burdens with RIT's addition.
These are percentages and miles. This contributor promised real monetization, did he not? Well, assuming the average cost of diesel fuel at the time of publication and the standard fuel efficiency of a chartered team bus, what will the average cost increase be for a current member of ECAC Hockey to add RIT?
Yes, the cost of adding RIT will be less than $100.00 per program on average. The purchase of two affordable adult all-session passes to championship weekend more than accounts for that amount. The purchase of 16 all-session passes erases the entire conference-wide incurred burden of current members. RIT will bring more than 16 fans.
The additional cost of travel per current member is immaterial to the advantages of bringing RIT into ECAC Hockey's fold.
There is tremendous opportunity in pairing Cornell with RIT. For opponents, the Lynah Rink-Polisseni Center trip will be one of the longest in college hockey. It would become one of the most fearsome with two of the nation's most rabid fanbases at either end. The Corner Crew would gain more regular national exposure as comparisons to the Lynah Faithful would be unavoidable.
For Cornell, it may revitalize a fanbase that sadly has grown ritualistic to a fault at times. The Corner Crew will travel to Lynah. The Lynah Faithful will travel to Polisseni. The best would make each other better.
The prospect of a Cornell-RIT Whitelaw Cup Final harbors the prospect of creating the liveliest environment that Herb Brooks Arena has seen in nearly four decades.
ECAC Hockey offers everything that RIT desires or may fancy. RIT presents everything that ECAC Hockey demands of its members.
It remains to be seen if when Where Angels Fear to Tread makes its annual trip to Lake Placid at the end of the 2017-18 season whether our contributors will see hanging above hallowed ice a pristine banner for the Tigers of RIT waiting for its first number to be scrawled. It is the right choice for all involved. Now, it just needs to be made.