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  College Hockey Primer: The Horrible Truth About League Structures
by James Clippinger, College Hockey Correspondent

When most people think of Valentine's Day, they think of love and romance. I think of beanie-clad freshman shoveling a pond. Bizarre fetish? No, no, it's just that this Valentine's Day will mark the 102nd anniversary of the first-ever college hockey game, pitting Yale against Johns Hopkins. As such, this is a fine opportunity for a quick introduction to the exciting world of telephone sales...oops, wrong speech...college hockey.


Most sports have a nicely-defined system for making it to the major league. In football and basketball, players are plucked from the college ranks, while in baseball there is an elaborate multilevel minor league system. Which begs the question...where do hockey players come from?

Back in the good ol' days, when the there were six teams in the NHL, the only path to the big league was through the Canadian major junior leagues. At this point there wasn't even a draft -- player rights were based on each team's territorial rights. College and international players were ignored, since they didn't fit into this system.

Center Gordon "Red" Berenson and goalie Ken Dryden changed all of that. After graduating from Michigan in 1962, Berenson became a benchwarmer for the Canadiens and later the Rangers. He was traded to the expansion St. Louis Blues in 1967, and responded by leading the Blues in goal scoring over their first three seasons. He was later traded to Detroit and then back to the Blues, ending his career in 1978 with 284 goals and 411 assists. Berenson proved that a college player could be a star in the NHL. He currently serves as the head coach at Michigan.

Ken Dryden graduated from Cornell in 1969 after having been named an All-American in each of his three varsity seasons (freshman eligibility not arriving in college hockey for a few more years). He got the starting nod with Montreal at the tail end of 1971, and the rest is history. Dryden won the Conn Smythe Trophy that year as he lead the Habs to the first of the six Stanley Cups they would win during his tenure. He also won the Calder Trophy in 1972 and picked up five Vezina Trophies. Dryden was no dumb jock, however, as he attended law school in the off-season, skipped the '73-'74 campaign to perform required work (for C$137 a week) as a law clerk, and retired in 1979 at the age of 31. He is currently the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

So, Berenson and Dryden basically opened up the door for college players to enter the NHL. The 1980 Olympics exposed college hockey to an American audience, and suddenly American kids could make it to the NHL without going to major junior and learning a pesky second language, like proper English.


This is where it gets confusing. When I refer to "college hockey" in this column, I'm talkin' 'bout NCAA Division I hockey. There are also Division II and Division III teams, but with some notable exceptions like Guy Hebert (Hamilton College), Joel Otto (Bemidji State) and Greg Adams (the now-defunct Northern Arizona program, believe it or not), they don't produce that much NHL-level talent, and with LCS being an NHL-centric publication, we will ignore them. I apologize to all the Middlebury and Plattsburgh State fans out there, but we have to draw the line somewhere.

Let it be noted, however, that there are many NCAA Division I hockey schools such as Clarkson and Colorado College that play all other sports in a lower (higher numerically) division. At the same time, fully Division I schools like UConn and Villanova play in leagues made up almost entirely of Division II and III schools, and thus are ineligible for the NCAA Division I tournament. Why is there all this division-swapping in a nominally sensical world? Well, that's something for a summer column...

There's also the American College Hockey Association (ACHA), which sanctions non-varsity club teams in many parts of the country. The ACHA has its own set of divisions, national championships, and such, and even counts among its members some of the largest and most-recognized names in college sports, like Penn State and Syracuse. Teams that play in the ACHA leagues are, rightly or wrongly, considered no match for NCAA teams, and there is very little play between the two to settle that issue.

Okay, so now that you have a slight understanding of which division is which, let's meet the leagues within Division I, roughly east-to-west:


The Hockey East Association (HE for short) is a group of nine New England schools, consisting of four large public universities (Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts-Lowell and Massachusetts-Amherst), three large private universities (Boston University, Boston College and Northeastern University), and two small colleges (Providence College and Merrimack College). HE was formed in 1983 when the non-Ivy hockey powers of New England got fed up with the Ivy League's power in the ECAC and broke off.

Hockey East has produced some stellar NHL forward talent. Paul Kariya (Maine), Keith Tkachuk (BU), Tony Amonte (BU), Shawn McEachern (BU), Kevin Stevens (BC) and Craig Janney (BC) are among the Hockey East alum in the NHL. Hell's Kitchen native Joe Mullen also graduated from Boston College while it was part of the ECAC, and LCS hero Johnny Cullen was BU's all-time leading scorer until Chris Drury broke his record a few weeks back. HE has also produced Brian Leetch (BC) and some up-and-coming netminders in Garth Snow (Maine), Mike Dunham (Maine), and Dwayne Roloson (UMass-Lowell).

The BU Terriers are on top, but UNH and BC are both just a point behind, with Northeastern two points back in fourth. UMass-Lowell, Maine and Providence are all seven to ten points behind BU, and Merrimack and the hapless UMass-Amherst Minutemen fill out the standings.

UNH junior forward Jason Krog (25 GP, 27-24--51) is having a career season, stealing some of preseason player-most-likely Chris Drury's thunder. It's not like the senior center from Boston U. is having an awful season (25 GP, 16-19--35), but after a stellar junior year, the pressures of carrying BU are starting to mount. Anyway, Krog is the nation's leading scorer and the spark behind UNH's Wankle-rotary-engine-strong offense.


The Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference (ECAC) hockey league is the elder of the two Eastern leagues, having existed in some form since 1962. The ECAC requires a bit of explaining...you see, the ECAC is the only league that is not hockey-only. At the same time, in many ways it *is* hockey-only. A lot of Eastern schools belong to the ECAC, which sanctions a number of tournaments in a variety of sports, but isn't a league in the schedule-making sense. ECAC schools generally belong to a full-service league within the ECAC, such as the Ivy League or the Big East.

This system works fine for lesser sports, but it fails for hockey, since so few schools have varsity hockey teams and many of them differ vastly in quality from the school's other teams. Thus, with the ECAC being a broad-based organization, it only made sense that they would organize all of Eastern hockey into cohesive groups. ECAC Division I was formed for the elite teams, while other teams were put into ECAC West-East-North-South-Central-SUNYAC divisions. There's some hierarchy within those divisions, but remember, we're worrying about NCAA Division I teams, so when we say "ECAC" we mean "ECAC Division I."

The ECAC consists of six Ivy League universities (Brown, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Cornell and Dartmouth), three small liberal arts colleges (Colgate, Union and St. Lawrence), two engineering schools (Clarkson and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, best known for spelling reasons as RPI) and one large public university (the University of Vermont, known far and wide as UVM even though a postal trainee could tell you it should be UVT). The ECAC is an oddity among the leagues in that the Ivies, Colgate and Union do not give athletic scholarships. This leads to the impression that the ECAC is the weakest league, since the combination of high admission standards and low availability of athletic scholarships should doom many programs. At least within the league, this doesn't hold much water, as non-scholarship schools have won the ECAC regular-season championship eight of the 14 post-HE-breakoff years.

A commonly asked question is whether the Ivy League has a hockey component. While whoever has the most points in Ivy games at the end of the year is declared the Ivy League champion, it doesn't carry an NCAA tourney bid or anything. Still, it gives schools an excuse to hang more banners, thus keeping American textile workers on the job.

Notable ECAC alums include John LeClair (UVM), Adam Oates (RPI), Joe Nieuwendyk (Cornell), Joe Juneau (RPI), Todd Marchant (Clarkson), Craig Conroy (Clarkson), Ted Donato (Harvard), Eric Lacroix (St. Lawrence) and (personal bias selection here) Bruce Gardiner (Colgate). Don Sweeney (Harvard) and Daren Puppa (RPI) are among the ECAC's defensive products.

Yale is the shocker of the ECAC season thus far, holding a commanding four-point lead over second-place Clarkson. Not bad for a team picked 10th in the preseason coaches' poll. After that it's Colgate in third, seven points behind the Bulldogs (or is it Eli?), with RPI, Harvard and Cornell log-jammed in a fourth-place tie nine points back. Princeton, Brown, Dartmouth, UVM and St. Lawrence are all battling for playoff position and to stay in at least tenth place, as the bottom two teams in the league don't make the playoffs. The Union Skating Dutchmen, despite the coolest nickname in hockey, are mired in last place after going 0-8-1 in their last nine games.

Yale sophomore Alex Westlund is the ECAC's best league-game goaltender this season (11-2-0, 0.937 save percentage, 1.76 GAA) and is currently the hottest player in the league after posting back-to-back shutouts against Colgate and Cornell. Westlund has been shaky against non-league opponents, going 2-2-0 with significantly worse numbers, but hey, that's okay since the perennial cellar-dweller Bulldogs are disrespected left and right by the hockey establishment, and won't make the NCAA tourney without winning the league. The entire Yale team gets honorable mention for playing great defensive hockey without resorting to clutch-and-grab.


The Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA), which dates in its current form from 1981, when a number of Michigan schools broke off from the WCHA to form a more geographically compact conference. This, of course, would be shot to hell when Alaska- Fairbanks joined up in 1995, but it was a damn fine idea. The league consists of ten large-to-huge public universities (Alaska-Fairbanks, Bowling Green State, Ferris State, Lake Superior State, Miami of Ohio, Michigan, Michigan State, Northern Michigan, Ohio State and Western Michigan) and one large private school (Notre Dame).

The CCHA is well represented in the NHL, with the Michigan State trio of Rod Brind'Amour, Joe Murphy and Bryan Smolinski and LSSU's Doug Weight among the forward ranks. BGSU has quite the defensive threesome in Rob Blake, Garry Galley and Dave Ellett, while Steve Shields (Michigan) and Glenn Healy (WMU) work the nets.

In what has been a chaotic season for the CCHA, Michigan has once again taken the lead in the league standings, with a three-point margin over arch-rival Michigan State. Miami and Ohio State are also in the mix, five and six points out of first respectively. Northern Michigan, at eight points back, rounds out the top five, and with a five-point gap between NMU and sixth-place Lake State, it's mostly a battle for playoff position for the lower six teams.

Senior RW Bill Muckalt (27 GP, 23-21--44) gets a lot of the credit for Michigan's success after losing nine key players to graduation. And he deserves it, as he does everything for Michigan, from scoring game-winners (five of 'em so far) to picking up points on the power play (ten!). Honorable mention to Michigan's unsung junior C Bobby Hayes, who gives the Wolverines another weapon and is a major short-handed threat, with four SHGs this season.


The Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) is the oldest remaining Division I league, dating from 1951 or so. After many rounds of expansion and expulsion (including the now-damn-humorous "overage Canadian ringers" scandal of '58...another summer column), it consists of seven public schools (Alaska-Anchorage, Michigan Tech, Minnesota, Minnesota-Duluth, North Dakota, St. Cloud State and Wisconsin), a medium-sized university (Denver), and one small liberal-arts school (Colorado College, *not* to be confused with the University of Colorado...CC folks are touchy about that, much like Colgate folks and toothpaste jokes). The WCHA is the big-travel league, and was even before UAA joined the fold.

Former WCHA forwards in the NHL include Brett Hull (UMD), Kevin "Mr. Whale" Dineen (Denver), Derek Plante (UMD), Trent Klatt (Minnesota), Scott Mellanby (Wisconsin) and Tony Granato (Wisconsin). Speaking of Wisconsin, they are a defense-producin' machine, springing defensemen Chris Chelios, Gary Suter and Bruce Driver and goalies Mike Richter, Curtis Joseph and Jim Carey (ugh) on an unsuspecting world. In the interests of equal time, I guess I should point out that CCHAite Lake State gave the world Blaine Lacher. Other goalies of note are Ed Belfour (North Dakota) and Damian Rhodes (MTU).

Of course, none of these folks compare to Mr. College Hockey himself, Neal Broten, who not only won the first Hobey Baker Award (hockey's Heisman) but is the only man ever to win an NCAA championship (Minnesota, 1979), an Olympic gold medal (USA, 1980) and a Stanley Cup (New Jersey, 1995).

North Dakota took control of first place this week, after a wildly inconsistent Minnesota side swept second-place Wisconsin to give the Sioux a two-point advantage. St. Cloud State has a solid grasp on third, four points out of first. After that, it's Colorado College needing to make up nine improbable points to catch NoDak, and the rest of the field is jockeying for position.

In a bad year for scoring in the WCHA, you gotta respect North Dakota senior defenseman Curtis Murphy (26 GP, 5-29--34) for driving the Sioux offense. However, the nod has to go for the guy who makes that offense so useful...freshman goalie Karl Goehring. Goehring waltzes into the league, ousts last year's NCAA championship-winning netminder from the #1 starting job, posts a 15-1-1 record with a 0.938 save percentage and 1.67 GAA, and he's still virtually unknown.


There are only four independent teams playing enough Division I games to qualify for the NCAA tournament. Air Force and Army have both played hockey for years, and have at times been in leagues, but their inability to recruit Canadian players (still the lifeblood of most teams) have reduced them to occasionally knocking off a strong opponent. Mankato State and Nebraska-Omaha both hope to join the WCHA in the near future, with Mankato moving up after dominating Division II and UNO starting a brand spankin' new program. Both have done comparatively well in their first Division I year.


Each league has its own strange year-end tournament, which we will explain when they get closer. The major point it that each league tourney winner and each regular season league champion gets a bid to the 12-team NCAA tournament, which happens in late March with the championship round in early April. There are two regions (West and East), with the first round and quarter-finals taking place at regional sites and the semi-finals and finals taking place at the Frozen ('cause basketball owns Final) Four. Each round is one game single-elimination, and the #1 and #2 seeds in a region get byes into the quarter-finals. #3 and #4 in each region play their games at that region's site, and #5 and #6 get shipped off to the other regional site. This doesn't always work out, though, as attendance issues come up, not to mention wackiness caused by needing two teams from each league in the draw. Teams are chosen and seeded by the Pairwise Ranking criteria, although the selection committee has been known to lean on the wheel a bit when needed.


NCAA ice hockey has essentially the same rules as the NHL, with a few key differences. Two line passes are legal and icing is whistled when the puck crosses the goal line (no pesky touch-up required). Helmets with full cages (either wire or the superfly Plexiglas) are required at all times -- if the helmet should get knocked off, a player must stop immediately and replace it or face a penalty.

Speaking of penalties, they're pretty harsh in college play, with fighting and most other antisocial behavior carrying a disqualification. DQs are rough...in addition to sitting the rest of the game, the player is suspended for his team's next game. More than one DQ in a season leads to even greater penalties. Major junior is the place for aspiring Rob Ray types.

The officiating in college is also a bit screwy. There used to be two referees and one linesman, but that didn't work too well for various reasons, such that now there is a referee (orange armbands and all) and two "assistant referees," both of whom have the power to call penalties behind the play, but rarely do.


Sorry that took so long, but the college hockey landscape is complicated. In coming issues, we will have full reports from each of the leagues as they go through the stretch drive, the conference playoffs, and the NCAA tourney. Then we'll explain how all them thar divisions work, discuss why there are teams in Alaska, and posit whether Mork or Mindy ever attended a college hockey game. Until next time...

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