(Ed Note: Mike Snee is the Executive Director of College Hockey, Inc., a nonprofit group that promotes Division I men’s college hockey. Among the group’s goals are to encourage schools to consider adding Division I hockey programs. Anyone interested in contributing an article, column or post to the blog can pitch yo stuff here. Now, here's Mike.)
By Mike Snee
The Frozen Four field of UMass Lowell, Quinnipiac, St. Cloud State and Yale may not grab the attention of casual sports fans like it should, and it may not produce the TV ratings those of us who love college hockey feel it deserves.
It should, however, capture the imagination of any forward-thinking university president or athletic director who wants to raise their school’s profile.
As college hockey fans have long maintained, there is tremendous opportunity for schools that want to pursue Division I hockey. With only 59 programs nationwide and the talent pool growing, the chance to compete for national championships has never been better.
Penn State saw that opportunity and joined Division I this year. The four schools assembling in Pittsburgh offer vivid examples of the possibilities college hockey can offer – and it doesn’t take a massive donation, like Terry Pegula’s to the Nittany Lions.
The national media has taken note of Quinnipiac’s rise from commuter school with a hard to pronounce name to hockey power. ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap included a segment in his “The Sporting Life” podcast this week on the Bobcats, and how hockey and political polls have combined to raise the university’s profile.
“I knew that the poll would certainly play an important role in getting the word out,” university president John Lahey told Schaap of the polls that are cited constantly during presidential elections. “The amount of coverage the media gives to politics on one hand … and sports is just enormous. If you invest in a poll … and have a sports program that can get you to the pinnacle of sports, it’s not surprising that those would be the two things Quinnipiac is best known for.”
Much of Quinnipiac’s success is credited to head coach Rand Pecknold, who initially made $6,700 a year and led midnight practices at the public rink, and especially athletic director Jack McDonald.
"As College Hockey News wrote:"
The seeds for Quinnipiac's Frozen Four run were laid long before most people ever heard of Quinnipiac, back when it was still a college and not a university. Before it was in the ECAC or even in Division I hockey.
It started when Jack McDonald was hired by president John Lahey in 1995. Lahey was open-minded to raising the profile of athletics, and he hired an athletic director that helped him achieve it.
Quinnipiac didn’t need a $100 million gift to jump-start its program, just the foresight of men like McDonald and Lahey and the hard work and intelligence of those like Pecknold. They did spend a little more than half of that total on a state-of-the-art facility, TD Bank Sports Center, but it is home to four sports and the centerpiece of a new campus.
Quinnipiac has made these strides despite what could be seen as a geographic disadvantage. Sure, New England is one of college hockey’s hotbeds, but the Bobcats haven’t always won local recruiting battles against traditional regional powers like Boston College or Yale, which is just 15 minutes down the road.
Instead they have turned elsewhere, to the Midwest, Canada, and – most notably – California, Missouri and Arizona.
That highlights another opportunity for potential programs in states like those out West: they can recruit in their backyard, and they can do so without competition. At least until other programs catch up.
Quinnipiac’s co-leading scorer, Jeremy Langlois, hails from Tempe, Arizona. Five players in action this week on ESPN2 (Thursday) and ESPN (Saturday) are from California, including UMass Lowell’s best defenseman, Chad Ruhwedel.
With some foresight, those players’ younger brothers could be playing for Arizona State or USC someday.
Quinnipiac’s success has gotten the most media attention in the field, for good reason – the Bobcats are both the top overall seed and the most recent of the four to join Division I.
Ruhwedel’s River Hawks, Yale and St. Cloud State each offer their own compelling reasons why college hockey is a potential windfall for aspiring athletic departments. Each drew more than 3,000 fans per game this year, raucous crowds that bring out the best in school spirit. Each features model student-athletes, and each has players who will carry their school’s name to the NHL.
Most importantly, each of these schools is just two wins away from their first national championship.