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Hockey East From Rough Idea To Top Of The Heap

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Hockey East: From rough idea to top of the heap October 2, 2012 8:56 AM

BOSTON — Joe Bertagna, Harvard Class of 1973 and a goalie who had led the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference in goals-against average with a 2.45 mark as a junior, remembers how saddened he was during the summer of 1983 when he found out that several schools were bolting the league to form an entirely new circuit, Hockey East.

"I think anybody who grew up in that world playing ECAC hockey was sad," Bertagna reflected. "That first year or two, there were some hard feelings. Some schools refused to play other schools for a two- or three-year period.

"Then we all adjusted to the new world."

That new world today finds 28-year-old Hockey East arguably the best and deepest Division I league in the country. Hockey East has won three of the last four NCAA Tournament titles and eight national crowns since 1993. Its schools have made 37 Frozen Four appearances in the last 20 years.

Joe Bertagna is the league’s commissioner, and has held that job for the last 15 years.

It’s hard to believe now that there were concerns about the viability and survivability of the new league when it first began. It wasn’t as if it was something that had been in the planning stages for years. It was a lightning-quick preemptive strike against the Ivy League, a league within the ECAC whose members refused to increase the number of games they were playing in order make the ECAC competitive with the high-powered Western Collegiate Hockey Association and the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, whose teams were playing upwards of 40 games a year and dominating the national tournaments.

The Ivy League schools flatly refused to play more than 28, and if the rest of the ECAC insisted on playing more, then the Ivies were going to leave the league, which would have been a huge blow to the ECAC’s image and competitiveness.

Rather than let that happen, ECAC members Boston College, Boston University, New Hampshire, Northeastern, Providence, Clarkson, and St. Lawrence decided to bolt the league themselves and form their own.

"We found out (the Ivies) were holding meetings and didn’t want us around anymore," recalled BU’s Jack Parker, the only current Hockey East coach who was around at the league’s inception.

"You have to give the founding fathers a lot of credit, especially (Providence College’s) Lou Lamoriello. They said: ‘We can’t sit around and react. We have to act right now.’

"And they did."

The new league was only a few weeks old when Clarkson and St. Lawrence had second thoughts about leaving the ECAC and decided to return to the old familiar nest, leaving Hockey East with only five members. UMass Lowell (then ULowell), getting ready to play its first Division I campaign as an independent after dominating Division II hockey, and Maine were quickly invited to join the fledgling league. Maine had moved up to Division I only a couple of years earlier.

"So we had this small league, seven schools," Parker said, "and we said: ‘We can’t play each other eight times. What are we going to do?’

"We were lucky the WCHA was facing the same problem. A couple of their teams had bolted, and they needed some games. We had that interlocking schedule right from the start, and that made Hockey East."

Instant credibility

That alliance with the WCHA, at the time the nation’s top college league, gave Hockey East instant credibility. The interlocking schedule ended a few years later, and by then Hockey East was beginning to forge its own reputation.

BU and BC had already been national powers. But the rest of the league’s members needed to establish their own credentials.

"It’s hard to believe how many other hockey programs have grown up," Parker said. "Lowell had just turned Division I back then. Merrimack, Union, Ferris State, they were in Division II, and Maine’s program was just starting to come into its own.

"Not only has our league become pretty special," Parker added, "but there are programs that grew by leaps and bounds during that period as well, and they were able to hang onto Michigan’s or Michigan State’s, or BU’s or BC’s coattails, and now some of them have actually surpassed us.

"Some other schools got a chance to show: ‘Hey, we’re really good, too.’ The schools we’ve added over the years have been a big asset for us."

As the college hockey landscape prepares to radically change with the breakup of the WCHA and the dissolution of the CCHA, Hockey East remains secure. The league will expand to 12 teams by adding Notre Dame next season and the University of Connecticut the year after that.

"This is the calm before the storm," said Bertagna, "not just for Hockey East but all of college hockey, to play out this season with structures we’re familiar with and then see what the new world after that is like.

"I was looking at the first Hockey East media guide yesterday," Bertagna continued. "The first two schools I looked at, one had (players from) four different states on its roster, and the other had five different states.

"The third school I looked at was BC, and every one of its players was from Massachusetts. I looked at this year’s rosters, and the average number of states (represented) were 10, 11.

"We’re not getting our players from our own backyard anymore. Part of the pressure to grow as a league is to be known outside of your own region."

Top-heavy circuit?

The one big knock on Hockey East is that it appears top-heavy. The same four teams claim home ice for the tournament almost every year: BC, BU, New Hampshire, and Maine. Those schools have won 25 of the 28 Lamoriello Trophies that’s awarded to the tournament champion, and no team that has ever finished lower than fourth place during the regular season has ever won the tournament.

Bertagna thinks that’s beginning to change. In recent years UMass Lowell, Merrimack, Northeastern, and UMass Amherst, the league’s perennial also-rans, have begun to make more and more of an impact on the standings.

"There is always one team that far surpasses anybody’s expectations for that season," Bertagna noted. "(Lowell) last year was the story. Chances are somebody not getting enough respect will burst out this year and have a great year.

"My hope is that it happens more frequently."

And that would make college hockey’s healthiest league even healthier.

By Chaz Scoggins, [email protected]

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