April 12, 2005
Air Force to Join Atlantic Hockey in 2006-07

By James Jahnke

Seeking greater league stability, Air Force announced its jump to Atlantic Hockey at a news conference Tuesday in Colorado Springs, leaving College Hockey America in an enrollment bind.

The Falcons will play next season in the CHA and then join Atlantic Hockey for the 2006-07 season. The Rochester Institute of Technology also moves into the AHA in ’06-07, bringing the league’s enrollment to 10.

Without Air Force, College Hockey America’s team count will fall to five – one fewer than the NCAA minimum for an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Unless a replacement is found, the CHA will begin a two-year probation period with five teams in 2006-07, during which it will retain its autobid. If enrollment is still below six in 2008-09, the league would lose the bid.

That uncertainty, coupled with the desire to be in the same league as fellow service academy Army, prompted Air Force to pursue the move in September.

“There are a number of reasons why this is great,” Falcons coach Frank Serratore said. “It’s the best long-term fit for us. Had we not taken advantage of this, what happens if the CHA loses another team like Findlay last year? Maybe then, Atlantic Hockey is full.”

The league made its first offer to the academy after a conference call of athletic directors in February, but the marriage was delayed two months as the sides hammered out an equitable schedule. At first, the league – comprised entirely of Eastern schools – proposed that Air Force play an unbalanced schedule of more road games than home games to offset travel-cost concerns. When the Falcons balked, the league went back and drafted an even schedule in which all 10 schools will play 14 league games at home and 14 on the road.

When Air Force and RIT join, each school will have a “buddy” that it will play four times a year. The buddy pairings are Air Force and RIT, Mercyhurst and Canisius, Holy Cross and Sacred Heart, Army and Connecticut and Bentley and American International.

Beyond that, there will be two-year cycles during which teams alternate playing others two and four times. The increased number of guaranteed home games is considered a positive change by most AHA teams.

Air Force went 7-1-2 against Atlantic Hockey teams this season, and should be able to better compete for the league title there than in the CHA, where it finished fifth this year.

Reached about three hours before Air Force’s press conference, CHA commissioner Bob Peters said he was not ready to make a comment about his league’s future. Later in the day, the CHA released a statement that did not include any concrete plans for expansion, only vague, optimistic quotes.

“College Hockey America will continue to actively seek membership expansion and currently has had contact with several potential members,” Peters said in the statement. “College hockey in general has experienced dramatic expansion over the past 25 years and College Hockey America will do its part to ensure continued expansion now and in the future. The CHA will maintain its commitment of strong leadership by continuing to encourage emerging collegiate hockey programs to elevate to varsity status.”

One school that might have to be crossed off that list is Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Mo. The Lions have been the most talked-about possible replacement in the CHA, but moving their athletics department from the NAIA to the NCAA is causing the school headaches.

“If we could do just ice hockey, it wouldn’t even be a question,” Lindenwood athletic director John Creer told INCH on Tuesday. “That would be great. But the NCAA told us we can’t join with just one program. “The NAIA has a new rule as of about four years ago that immediately drops all teams from postseason competition if a school makes overtures to another organization. So if we were to apply to the NCAA, we couldn’t play in NAIA tournaments for the five to seven years it takes to go through the NCAA process.

“We can’t afford that. It would just kill us to sit on the sidelines that long.”

Creer said Lindenwood hasn’t totally ruled out pursuing NCAA hockey, but at this point, the issue is not on the front-burner. Most likely, the NCAA would have to indicate it would be willing to expedite the five- to seven-year process before Lindenwood would jump back into the fray.

“Most of our programs are happy with what we’re doing,” Creer said. “So it’s not a situation where we’re desperate. We’d have to reach the point where we’re willing to bite the bullet and sit out to get into the NCAA.”

With Lindenwood off the table for now, there are no known teams ready to jump to Division I to save the CHA. Speculation most likely will center around successful club programs, such as Navy, Iowa State and Penn State, and teams in other leagues such as Atlantic Hockey’s Mercyhurst.

“We hope the CHA survives and does well,” Serratore said. “This is just a better place for us.”

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