Sept. 27, 2006
By Elliot Olshansky
According to the league's preseason media and coaches' polls, 2006-07 will see a return to business as usual.
The release of the polls during CCHA Media Day at Joe Louis Arena saw a rare disagreement between the coaches and the media as to which team will finish first in the CCHA this season. However, it will, by all accounts, be a close call between two Michigan-based teams. Defending league tournament champion Michigan State was the coaches' pick, capturing seven first-place votes and 117 points, compared to 108 points and one first-place vote for second-place Michigan. The Wolverines did have an edge with the media, but the very narrowest one possible, as Red Berenson's team received 845 points (26 first-place votes), with Rick Comley's Spartans right behind with 844 points (38 first-place votes).
Although the Spartans finished a close second to
"It should be a fun year," Comley said. "Our league took tremendous strides last year nationally. I know polls are out, but I expect every game to be a war. There's not a building that we go in or a team that comes into our building that you don't have to fight for your life. Regardless of what expectations are going in, we're going to have a great season in the CCHA.
As good as the conference will be, however, Comley has good reason to be confident in his Spartans, who return 17 letterwinners from last season's CCHA championship squad, including top returning scorer Jeff Lerg (15-23-38 in 2005-06), and his cousin, starting goaltender Jeff Lerg (17-6-6, 1.96 GAA, 928 SV%).
"In our locker room, we believe in what's there," Comley said. "We believe that we have the opportunity to be a good team. We believe that if we go through the process properly and do everything that it takes to become a good team by the end of the year, we'll get rewarded."
For his part, Berenson was concerned with improving a team that was one of the youngest in college hockey last season and finished outside the top two in the CCHA standings for the first time since 1990.
"Our team will be a team that has to improve from last year," Berenson said. "We did some good things offensively, and we did some good things defensively, but we weren't as consistent as we needed to be. Our highlight might have been our first game of the year, and our lowlight may have been our last game of the year. Somewhere in between, we have to get better, and I think we'll have the ingredients to do that."
In addressing the assembled media, Berenson was less concerned with pumping up his own team than he was with a league-wide trend.
After noting the presence of All-CCHA forward and former Hobey Baker Memorial Award finalist T.J. Hensick - one of four CCHA players to attend the event - Berenson said, "I want to compliment players like T.J. and [Nebraska-Omaha forward Scott] Parse and our captain Matt Hunwick, and the other seniors. It's nice to see the seniors stay and complete their four years and become dominant players and be rewarded for it. I'm a big believer in that."
Comley echoed his colleague and rival in saluting the conference's seniors.
"I certainly echo Red's thoughts with T.J. here and Scott here," Comley said. "To have seniors here of the quality that they are, it just makes the whole league better, and they're sending the right message to everybody."
Hensick, Parse and Hunwick were all named to the Preseason All-Conference First Team by the league's coaches, with two fellow seniors on the Second Team: goalie Jeff Jakaitis of Lake Superior State and
THINKING OF TOM
Junior forward Tom Fritsche, the Buckeyes' top scorer in each of the last two seasons, is currently not enrolled in classes at OSU, as he was recently diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. Listed at 185 pounds, the 5-11 Fritsche has dropped to 145 pounds, according to his coach.
"It's something he can live with," Markell said. "There's a lot of support for him. It's a difficult situation, but we don't know if we're going to have him at all this season. It can be anywhere from two or three months if the drugs kick in, but it's going to be a long time for him to gain the weight back.
"It's a tough pill for our kids to swallow, because they are teammates and they are friends. Certainly, our thoughts are with him."
While the Buckeyes' scoring situation is the smallest of concerns when it comes to Fritsche's illness, Markell's team will need players to step up and score in 2006-07 to avoid a season like the one that just passed.
"There's certainly a question mark in our mind as to who's going to do it," Markell said. "It's going to fall in a lot of guys' hands. Certainly, they're going to have their opportunities, and there's a number of guys who can put it in the net, but we look for them all to do that."
LAYING DOWN THE LAW
CCHA commissioner Tom Anastos has been at the forefront of many of the rules changes that have been instituted in college hockey in recent seasons, including the crackdown on obstruction that began before the 2004-05 season. Anastos praised recent initiatives along the same lines by USA Hockey and Hockey
"I credit our coaches for all the efforts that they do in trying to enforce a high level of play and a high standard that people can look up to," Anastos said. "I myself have three kids who play youth hockey, and in a very short time already, have seen the positive effects on kids playing the game, and ultimately, more kids coming into our league as they get older."
Anastos also introduced new rule changes during his Media Day presentation. Video replay, which was introduced at three CCHA schools last season, will be spread throughout the entire league in 2006-07. The system used will rely on a single camera above the goal line at each end of the ice. While there has been controversy over a single-camera system when multiple replays are available at televised games - a Michigan State-Ohio State game last season being a primary example - Anastos explained that financial concerns dictate that the one-camera system stay in place, at least for the time being.
"It's very much a financial issue," Anastos said. "Is our system perfect? Absolutely not. To expand the system is possible, but it requires a pretty substantial investment to do it. Right now, after exploring it and discussing it, our membership has decided that we're going to sit tight with what we're doing."
In addition to the expansion of video replay, Anastos spoke on several NCAA-wide rules changes. The NCAA will allow on-ice officials to wave off icing calls that result from "attainable passes," allowing play to continue. In addition, players will be allowed to direct the puck into the net with their skates, although kicking the puck will still be illegal.
Goaltenders will be helped and hurt by rule changes in 2006-07. Skaters will no longer be allowed to obstruct goalies' vision while in the crease. "A player can't go in there and stop a goaltender from playing his position," Anastos said, "not only physically, but also visually."
On the flip side, goaltending equipment will be reduced in size this season, following the precedent set by the NHL last season.
"He was the one, more than anybody I know of, that spearheaded it," Daniels said. "We did go through some growing pains as coaches, as players and as officials, but we are far advanced from where a lot of other people are today because of Tom's initiative, and I think it's brought a better brand of hockey to the CCHA."