Men's CCHA Hockey

CCHA RinkRap: Minnesota State's Hellish Schedule; NMU's Super Senior

CCHA RinkRap: Minnesota State's Hellish Schedule; NMU's Super Senior

Minnesota State begins a difficult non-conference schedule and the rare scenario of a Canadian Major Junior player crossing over to the NCAA.

Sep 28, 2021 by Tim Rappleye
CCHA RinkRap: Minnesota State's Hellish Schedule; NMU's Super Senior

In this edition of CCHA RinkRap we focus on Minnesota State’s off-the-charts degree of difficulty in their non-conference schedule, the ultra-rare scenario of a Canadian Major Junior player crossing over to play NCAA hockey at Bowling Green, and how the COVID eligibility exemption created an anomaly at Northern Michigan—a three-time captain.

Stitching Another ‘C’ In Marquette

“I remember giving Joe [Nardi] a hug in Mankato after losing the championship game,” recalled Cats coach Grant Potulny about their WCHA title game setback back in March. “I thought it might be the last time I had him. I told him I loved him and he was a great Wildcat.”

But due to the NCAA’s Covid eligibility exemption, Nardi has returned to Marquette, giving Potulny another layer of leadership. “Joe Nardi is an extension of our coaching staff,” said Potulny. “It’s his fifth year here. He’s been a captain three years in a row, he’s played in pressure-packed situations.” Situations like the 2018 and 2021 conference championship games. 

Nardi is one of four “Super Seniors” across the country who will be wearing a captain’s letter for the third straight season, joining Logan Cockerill (BU), Adam Karashik (UConn) and Jack Quinlivan (Maine). They all wore an ‘A’ in 2019-20, and a ‘C’ last season and now.

Potulny knows how vital upperclassmen are in the postseason push. He has a masters degree in college hockey leadership: he wore a captain’s letter for the Minnesota Gophers in both seasons of their back-to-back national championships in 2002 and 03. His annual goal is to have enough leadership on his Northern squad to be able to turn the dressing room over to the players before Christmas. With Nardi and nine other Wildcat seniors, he should be able to give the players control of the room before Thanksgiving.

Hell Month For The Mavericks

There are tough non-conference schedules, and then there is the insane gauntlet that Minnesota State has created for themselves this October: a pair of games against national champion UMass (#1) starting Saturday; immediately followed by a series against NCHC favorites St. Cloud (#2); followed by a run up to Duluth for the Ice Breaker tourney, which includes two other teams in the top six of the USCHO poll. What kind of drill sergeant schedules that kind of torture-test before Halloween?

“Four months ago this seemed like a really good idea, as it gets closer, you wonder a little bit,” said head coach Mike Hastings, who shared the blame with assistant Darren Blue for asking their squad to perform hockey’s version of walking barefoot over flaming coals to start the season. “Our focus right now going out to UMass is to get off to a good start, we know they’ll be hanging a banner as NCAA champion there; coming back to play a very good St. Cloud State team… who ended our season last year.” Twelfth-ranked Providence and either #3 Michigan or #6 Duluth also await, closing out three weekends that will either steel the Mavericks, or break them. 

“We’re excited about it because it’s an opportunity to look ourselves in the mirror and judge ourselves against the best competition,” said Hastings, who also takes the long view, a macro-method to his madness. He knows how vital out-of-conference play is to the end of season Pairwise rankings, the final arbiter of the NCAA tournament. “Year in and year out we have tried to schedule non-conference games in a real aggressive manner,” said Hastings, “making sure our book of business is good enough to play in the big dance.”

For the rest of the CCHA, the Mavericks marquee matchups in October are gifts that keep on giving, because the strength of opponent schedules is a critical factor in the Pairwise and the Ratings Pair Index, the calculus that determines at-large bids to the national tournament.

Ultimately, however, it is not mathematicians in lab coats who have the final say as to which schools contend for national titles, but the young men on the ice. Playing a schedule against a who’s who of college programs may help the odds, but Hastings knows there’s one crucial caveat in order to trigger the favorable avalanche of NCAA data. 

“It’s worked for us before, but when you schedule those games, you’ve got to win some of them.”

BGSU Latest Test Site In NCAA/CHL War

Since the birth of the USHL in 1979, NCAA hockey has lived in a state of hypocrisy: allowing predominantly American players to maintain their eligibility playing Tier I junior hockey in the USHL, while banning predominantly Canadian players who also play Tier I junior hockey for Canadian Major Junior leagues. The official stance from the NCAA is that Canadian major juniors are quasi-professional, although the differences in player stipends between the leagues is negligible. Banning Canadian major junior players from playing college hockey has been the law of the land since the early 1970’s, and advocates for the two feuding sides are so entrenched that common sense is an afterthought.

That is why the CCHA coaches’ pre-season rookie of the year selection of BGSU’s Austen Swankler is such a head-turner. A quick internet search reveals that Swankler last played for the Erie Otters of the OHL, one of the three Canadian major junior leagues (CHL). Could this be the landmark case so many college prospects have hoped for? Have the NCAA gatekeepers finally seen the light and released its 50-year-old ban on CHL players? Sadly, no.

According to Mike Snee, the executive director of the advocacy group College Hockey, Inc., Swankler’s green light at Bowling Green was merely an oversight, one forgiven by NCAA administrators. 

“The Austen Swankler situation is simply a mistake by the NCAA,” Snee wrote in an email. “They missed that he has played in Erie and gave him his eligibility. Austen apparently answered all questions honestly and thus the NCAA policy is to not go back on a ruling if the student athlete was honest with his answers. So no, not a landmark case.”

Snee also mentioned that the Swankler case had a precedent: 2020 Lake State grad Brayden Gelsinger, who also slipped through the compliance cracks after a 14-game stint with Kamloops of the Western Hockey League, another CHL circuit.

There is no shortage of irony that the CCHA’s top newcomer is a product of the NCAA’s sworn enemy—the CHL, a player who will accelerate Ty Eigner’s rebuilding at BGSU. It’s obvious that allowing both USHL and CHL Tier I junior stars to play college hockey would only raise the level of play on campus. The evidence will be on display throughout the CCHA this season.