Surprising Griffs need to continue winning ways

Has there ever been this much excitement around a Canisius team with only one win through its first five outings?

Even the most optimistic of Griffs hockey fans tempered their expectations heading into this season. The team has 12 freshmen and 20 underclassmen. There are only two seniors, and one of them is a goalie. Add in the fact that the program’s top two career scorers just graduated and the outlook wasn’t very bright.

Canisius coach Dave Smith prepares his team for a series with Bentley this weekend.

The first three games of the year were ugly, perhaps even worse than expected.

An exhibition against Queens University didn’t count towards the standings but stayed fresh in the minds of players and fans. After Niagara beat the Canadian club with ease the pervious day, 7-2, Canisius lost a 2-1 lead less than five minutes to go and ended up skating to a 2-2 tie.

A weekend trip to Connecticut on Oct. 15 and 16 didn’t go any better. Quinnipiac manhandled the young Griffs over the two-game set, winning both games by a combined 11-1 score. Canisius was held to an abysmal nine shots in the first game and 14 in the second.

With a Thursday night game the following week against preseason favorite RIT, things looked to go from bad to worse. The Tigers had beaten Canisius eight times in a row, each loss furthering rivalry status between the schools.

Nobody really thought Canisius had a shot against an RIT team that was getting votes in the national poll.  But lo and behold, they pulled it out. The freshman played like seniors and the seniors looked like Hobey Baker candidates. The defensive unit came together and gave Tiger players all they could handle in the corners. Scott Moser’s game-winning goal was arguably the biggest goal of his career and nearly every one of Dan Morrison’s 33 saves was highlight reel material.

Suddenly, the Griffs looked like a real hockey team – and a dangerous one, at that.

“Going into Quinnipiac was a real eye opener,” junior forward Preston Shupe said. “We have a real young team and everyone got to see what it’s going to take to play at this level and especially to succeed. They’re a strong team and the next couple weeks at practice we knew we had to do everything we could to get to the next level. And that’s what we did. We practiced hard, worked hard and we’re getting there.”

The Griffs took their newfound confidence all the way to Colorado Springs last weekend for a meeting with the defending Atlantic Hockey champions, Air Force.

That’s an awful long way to travel for just one game, but after the performances the Griffs gave in the first three games, no distance was too far for a shot at redemption, an opportunity to prove the first victory over RIT since 2008 was no fluke.

Nothing brings a team together like some last-minute heroics. Trailing 3-1 with less than two minutes to play, the Griffs pulled the goalie in favor of an extra attacker and were immediately rewarded with a Kyle Gibbons goal. The team continued to pour on the pressure, and with six seconds left, the puck found its way onto the stick of freshman Doug Beck, whose first career goal couldn’t have come at a better time.

Canisius had the better of the chances in overtime and had a goal waved off at the buzzer before skating to a 3-3 draw.

The Griffs have still only won one game on the season, but a 1-0-1 conference record has them sitting in third place in the Atlantic Hockey standings. After two emotional conference games, those… whatever they were against Quinnipiac seem like a distant memory.

Now here’s the dilemma for Canisius – Bentley comes to town this weekend.  The Falcons were one of three teams to be ranked below Canisius in the AHA preseason poll and finished 10th in the conference last year. It’s one thing to be able to hang with the big boys in the conference, but it doesn’t mean anything if you can’t take care of the little guys.

There’s no such thing as an easy win in Atlantic Hockey, but if the Griffs want to be contenders, this homestand is a great opportunity for four big points.

“I think it was my sophomore year, coach threw out a stat that we had a great record against the top half of our league, but then we’d slip up against the bottom half,” Moser said. “We can’t let that happen. Definitely the games against the middle-of-the-road to bottom teams… are just as important, if not even more, than the ones against the higher-ranked teams.”

Early points are especially important to widen the gap between good teams that are starting slow, like RIT, Niagara and Robert Morris, who don’t yet have a conference win between them.

Coach Smith acknowledges that his teams have never played as well as he’d like against Bentley. In a year when the success of the team will be so dependent on the play of the freshmen, it’s time they learn some new winning ways  – a Canisius team that takes care of business.

New potential hockey conference for Canisius, Niagara and… UB?

Air Force rumor in opposition to coach’s decree

With the future of the once-prestigious Central Collegiate Hockey Association in jeopardy, reports have a new potential suitor for the Canisius and Niagara hockey programs: the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.

Bruce Ciskie from KQDS-FM radio in Duluth, Minn. reported Friday that Bowling Green, currently a CCHA team with an invitation to join the WCHA, had a meeting this week with the four Atlantic Hockey schools who previously met with the CCHA — Canisius, Niagara, Robert Morris and Meryhurst.

The WCHA had originally given BGSU a deadline of Sept. 22 to accept the invitation, but that date was extended to Oct. 7 late this week.

Kevin Gordon of the (Bowling Green, Ohio) Sentinel-Tribute wrote that “The extension further fueled speculation Atlantic Hockey members Canisius, Mercyhurst, Niagara and Robert Morris are being considered for WCHA membership.

“Those four schools have expressed an interest in leaving their present league because it offers only 12 scholarships, six below the NCAA maximum. The CCHA and the WCHA use the NCAA maximum.”

The WCHA currently has 12 teams. It will shrink to eight in 2013-14, losing eight teams to the National Collegiate Hockey Conference and Big Ten while poaching four from the CCHA.

“Adding those four schools would help balance the revamped WCHA geographically,” Gordon continued. “If BG[SU] and the four Atlantic Hockey schools joined the WCHA, the league would have 13 schools — six in the south/east; and seven in the north/west.”

The league could actually get up to 14: Ciskie’s source said there was one more school involved in the meeting, one that doesn’t currently have a Division I program but is interested in adding one — the University at Buffalo.

Gordon wrote more about UB and said the athletic department member he contacted hadn’t responded to an email seeking comment at the time he published.

The Canisius athletic department would not confirm or deny any details about the new meetings and issued the following statement:

“With the current landscape of college hockey, a number of discussions have taken place and continue to take place. Because of the sensitive nature of these conversations, and out of respect to the schools and conferences, we feel that it is in the best interest to show consideration for the ongoing process and not discuss these conversations through the media.”

Ciskie also reported that Air Force and RIT were invited to the meeting, though neither attended. Air Force, he said, was interested but couldn’t get someone to the meeting; RIT was not.

Air Force’s supposed interest in a conference jump is directly opposed to statements its head coach Frank Serratore made Tuesday at Atlantic Hockey Media Day.

“All these programs in football and in hockey, they’re changing conferences like they change their underwear,” Serratore said in his closing remarks at the podium.

“I would like to go on record as saying the Air Force Academy is a proud member of Atlantic Hockey. This is our league, this is where we are and we ain’t looking anywhere.”

Niagara’s Athletic Director Ed McLaughlin also recently backed the AHA, saying his school is “not considering any move to a league that may disband,” referring to the CCHA, and that it “look[s] forward to helping Atlantic Hockey grow.”

Spin:

I see UB’s involvement in a meeting like this as more of a let’s-show-up-and-see-what-they-say type of deal. The school isn’t going to announce tomorrow that it’s starting a new program.

With all the conference moving going on, this might seem like a good time to get into the action, but building a program takes time. The 2013-14 season is still a while off, but even that would probably be too soon for a new team to jump in.

All I’ve ever heard about UB’s hockey program is that it probably won’t get one. Stranger things have happened, but there are a lot of things to take into account. Hockey programs are extremely expensive to run, and the Bulls would almost certainly have to add a women’s program as well to comply with Title IX.

UB has a club team that competes in the ACHA. Everyone seems to love mentioning that fact, but I’m not sure why. It’s not like those players could just go into a D-1 league and be competitive. I play in the ACHA — there’s no way.

Google Maps shot of the Northtowns Center, located at the bottom-left corner. The back lot and baseball diamond and at the arena's immediate right. UB Stadium and Alumni Arena are also listed. Maple Road is cut out from the bottom of the image.

The only other reason I could think of is to see where the club team plays — if there is a rink on campus. Technically there isn’t, but the Northtowns Center (formerly Pepsi Center) might as well be. UB baseball’s home field lies on the Northtowns Center’s grounds and the rink’s back parking lot is the same one you would use for a ballgame.

The Northtowns Center is great for youth hockey, but for a Division I team? I’m not so sure.

The Feature Rink is really the only one of the four pads a D-1 team would use. It (generously) says it can seat 1,800 (no individual seats, all bench seating), smaller than a D-1 team would like. There is limited press seating, if any.

Plus, the thing looks like it was built for roller hockey. The boards have a concrete base all the way around, dangerous because it has no give to it. You always see the boards shaking at NHL games… that’s for safety. Why be crushed between a shoulder and a hard place when you could be hit into something that gives? Plus, the benches (and penalty boxes) are small. Really small. We disliked playing there in high school for that reason; it’d be even worse with big college guys.

So where would the team play? Not only would UB have to fund two programs, it would also have to build a rink, unless it rented time out somewhere or threw a lot of money into renovating the Northtowns Center.

The largest college in one of the country’s most hockey-crazy cities really should have a D-1 team, but there are a ton of obstacles. I wouldn’t get too exited.

Air Force was the Atlantic Hockey champion last year, but the school is better suited to remain in its current league, despite the geological difference.

Air Force coach Frank Serratore.

Especially when it can make use of military flights, Serratore said the travel back-and-forth from Colorado really isn’t that bad.

Air Force would be more competitive in the 12-scholarship Atlantic Hockey Association than in any of the other major conferences, which allow the NCAA-maximum 18.

As a military academy, Air Force can’t give athletic scholarships. Plus, upon graduation, athletes can’t really try to enter hockey’s professional ranks like former Golden Griffin Cory Conacher is doing. All graduates owe the country five years of service, Serratore said. Even Jacques Lamoureux, the best player ever to come out of Air Force, is only playing part-time for the ECHL’s Alaska Aces while stationed in Seward’s Folly

There’s nothing formal that says the two schools must remain together, but the Air Force enjoys playing in the same league as Army, too.