Monthly Archives: January 2010

Recruiting Violations Come To Division III

Don’t look now, but big time college football and basketball aren’t the only ones to come under the watchful eye of the NCAA when it comes to recruiting violations.  Division III hockey now gets to feel the whip.

Yes, D-III hockey is getting smacked down thanks to a couple of SUNYAC schools.

The NCAA Division III Committee on Infractions has imposed one-year postseason bans on State University College at Buffalo and State University College at Geneseo for violations of financial aid rules.

The postseason ban for both schools applies to teams (primarily ice hockey) with student-athletes that had been awarded special grants for students from Canada. Both Buffalo State and SUNY Geneseo had awarded grants almost exclusively to student-athletes, particularly those in men’s and women’s ice hockey.

The SUNYAC playoffs have just six teams and with Geneseo being on the cusp of that, this hurts them badly because now they’re automatically out of the mix.  The conference is made up of nine schools but SUNY-Morrisville is not eligible for postseason play yet as they just joined Division III in the last couple of years.

Division III schools have to recruit more creatively than Division I schools do because D-III schools aren’t allowed to give out athletic scholarships and grant in aid programs like the ones described in the NCAA report are used to help bring players over from Canada. Of course, most schools also find ways to do this so that they stay within the boundaries of the rules set by the NCAA so there’s that too.  The impact this will have on the teams this year is pretty simple – no playoffs and they exist solely to play spoilers to everyone else in the SUNYAC.  The playoffs thing is big mostly for Geneseo as they’ve been a perennial burr-in-the-ass to the conference’s traditional top two teams in Oswego and Plattsburgh.  Geneseo is currently in a three-way tie for fourth place with Brockport and Cortland.

Buffalo State has been a perennial doormat for the conference for the better part of their existence and they were locked in a tie for last with the aforementioned Morrisville and destined for a first round playoff date with either Oswego or Plattsburgh.  Instead, they’ll be at home with Geneseo and causing a bit of a shake up in Division III.

Why a shake up?  Mainly because most of the other schools in Division III will be getting their books looked at closely when it comes to how they’re spending their money to bring in students from outside the country.  From the looks of the report by the NCAA, both institutions have done their share to fall on the sword and punish themselves to keep the NCAA off their backs but there’s potential here for a blow to be felt throughout the rest of Division III because of this.

Obviously Division III schools aren’t generally making money off of intercollegiate athletics and if the NCAA is coming in and smacking programs around for cheating the system or cooking the books, school administrators aren’t going to have a high tolerance for that sort of activity, especially when it comes to state colleges who get a lot of money from the state government.

What these programs have done for themselves is made life a lot more difficult for their own success for the foreseeable future.  Having school administrators watching over your shoulder any time you want to go recruit someone you want to add to the program is no way to live and trying to keep one’s nose clean while doing so, even though it should be simple enough to stay within the rules, is a pain in the neck when you’re a head coach.  After all, you’ve already got 1,001 other things to keep track of and now with the college financial office watching closely with your job hanging on the line because of it… Well, that just flat out sucks to be in that position but it’s no one’s fault but their own for it and while it’s noble of them to mostly fess up for it on their own the immediate future at both Geneseo and Buffalo State looks grim.  Look at the full punishment handed down by the NCAA:

  • Two years of probation from January 28, 2010, through January 27, 2012 (self-imposed by the institutions).
  • Termination of the Canadian grant program for incoming students, beginning with the 2009-10 academic year (self-imposed by the institutions).
  • Effective immediately, any of the institution’s athletics teams whose rosters include one or more student-athletes receiving Canadian grants shall end their seasons with the playing of their last regular-season contest and will not be eligible to participate in any postseason competition, including conference tournaments and NCAA championships. Further, any affected teams will not be eligible for regular-season conference championship consideration as long as their rosters include student-athletes receiving Canadian grants.
  • It’s not the death penalty for either of these schools, but it does effectively make their programs a lot worse off and it does so almost immediately.

    Yes, I Was Featured In Yahoo’s Puck Daddy

    Does that title hammer home the point of this post well enough for you?  It should.

    Ryan Lambert from Yahoo’s Puck Daddy hit me up for the Pop Quiz section of his weekly dose of college hockey on the Internet’s hockey leader and he quizzed me about the goings on in the ECAC.

    Please do feel free to check it out - big thanks to Ryan from The Two-Line Pass for giving me the big hookup this week.

    RPI v. Harvard: Preview (On The Air – 4 pm – WRPI.org)

    It seems to be my destiny this year that I’ll get the call to do RPI games against Boston-area schools that are being televised by the local cable folks.  This afternoon, I’ll be back on the air with WRPI to provide color commentary for RPI’s match-up against the Harvard Crimson.

    I encourage you to tune into WRPI online to catch Tim Heiman and myself calling the game.  We’ll be fighting an uphill battle for attention locally as Time Warner 3 will be airing the game in the Capital District and throughout central New York as well.  So why not be a pal and tune in online, or if you’re in the immediate Capital District, 91.5 FM?  See, now you’re properly equipped to help a brother out.

    VS.

    Both teams come into this afternoon’s 4 pm tilt off of wins Friday night.  RPI fought off Dartmouth to win 2-1 and Harvard handed Union College their first ECAC defeat winning 4-1.  The upside of the victory for Harvard is that their main scoring line of Canadiens first round pick Louis Leblanc, Michael Biega and Alex Killorn didn’t have to carry the offensive load.  Meanwhile, goaltender Ryan Carroll more than shouldered the load stopping 47 shots to earn the win.

    Surprise news for Harvard was that senior defenseman Jack Christian rejoined the lineup.  The last time Jack Christian played was against Princeton in the 2008 ECAC Championship against Princeton.  Christian missed all of last season and the first half of this year after suffering from post-concussion syndrome.  Christian isn’t a high-scoring defenseman, he’s a guy that’s going to help Harvard keep the other team off the board and provide leadership.  His comeback to the lineup will do a lot to lift the Crimson up.

    RPI shook off a miserable first period of play as well as surviving a relentless first period onslaught thanks to the play of goaltender Allen York (27 saves in the game).  Dartmouth was able to put one by York in the first to give the Big Green a 1-0 lead thanks to a 2-on-1 break in four-on-four action.  The Engineers played what seemed to be a very disinterested brand of hockey and tried to sleep walk through Dartmouth’s stifling defensive shell.

    While the team woke up in the second period and played harder they were still unable to generate much offensive pressure.  In the third, a face off play by Patrick Cullen turned into a rebound goal for Tyler Helfrich and was shortly followed up by laser of a shot from senior Paul Kerins that bounced off the glove of goaltender James Mello and into the net to give RPI a 2-1 lead they would not relinquish despite falling back into their bad first period habits late in the game.  In this case, RPI certainly snatched victory from the jaws of defeat and head coach Seth Appert seemed to know that in the post-game press conference.

    As for my predictions about how this weekend would shake out for RPI… I was pretty well wrong about the Dartmouth game as it ended up being much closer than I thought it would but I’ll hold strong to my beliefs that this game will hold true to form and be a one-goal classic-like game.  There’s a ton of talent out on the ice and while Harvard coach Ted Donato hasn’t been the best about taking full advantage of that aspect, Harvard is a dangerous team nonetheless.  Don’t expect RPI to come out as flat as they were last night and look for them to try and take advantage of the short turnaround time against the road team.

    RPI: Back To Business

    Six weeks ago, the RPI hockey team last played a home game.  A month and a half away from the friendly confines of Houston Field House sounds a bit insane except when you consider that those six weeks all come when the students at RPI are on winter break it doesn’t sound so bad.  After all, home games without the bulk of your vocal home crowd suck ferociously.

    For fans of the team that are only aware of the team while they’re at home, a few things happened.  They beat perennial powers (albeit ones in a down year) Boston University and University of Michigan in front of their home fans.  They swept a road weekend conference series at Quinnipiac and Princeton, a feat that hasn’t been accomplished since 2007. They were also humbled by a very tough Michigan State team to lose the championship of the Great Lakes Invitational and also dropped their final meeting with Union College over in Schenectady.

    The loss to Union has some folks up in arms because it’s Union College and they’re a local rival and  because head coach Seth Appert was quoted after the game saying this:

    “I refuse to believe that they’re better than us. I believe in our guys, I have a lot of belief in that locker room, what we have in there. I have a lot of respect for Union. I think they’re a really good hockey team. I think they’re a Top 10 hockey team. But I don’t believe they’re better than us.”

    Cocky words?  Not at all.  After all, each game with Union was decided by one goal this season (Union scoring an empty-net goal in the final game notwithstanding) and Appert did go on to heap a ton of credit on the Union program saying, “They’ve earned where they are.  Don’t get me wrong by what I say in terms of that question. They’re in first place in the league and they’ve earned every minute of that.”

    Obviously Seth Appert wasn’t going rogue on anyone and his faith in his own team is quite clear where it stands.  Unlike teams in RPIs recent history, this year’s team hasn’t shown the penchant for fading and letting teams dominate them on the scoreboard like they used to.  However, for this team to spend six weeks away from the friendly confines and play six games and come away with a 4-2-0 record in that span against a handful of difficult opponents in very difficult settings is saying a lot for this team.

    In more than a few games this year, situations have arisen where previous Engineers teams would fold up the tents instantly.  The game against Michigan sticks out as a prime example.  It was a game where they were ahead, some shady calls are made against them and Michigan storms back to tie the game and then things hang in the balance.  If that game happens even a season ago, RPI cracks and gives up two more goals to end that game and lose.  Instead, Marty O’Grady says, “Screw this,” and scores on an impossibly accurate snap shot to put RPI up for good in a 4-3 win.  RPI played this exact type of game two seasons ago against the Minnesota Golden Gophers and lost in front of a huge and largely Gopher-biased crowd.  Things change and things are certainly different for this RPI team.  Now they’re back at home and back on the hardcore ECAC schedule the rest of the way.  This weekend they see a couple of teams who in seasons past have been in the upper-middle part of the pack and still lurk as dangerous.

    Dartmouth College comes to town not having seen RPI since the Engineers unceremoniously disposed of the sixth seeded Big Green in the ECAC Tournament last year and if you think revenge isn’t on their mind, you’re crazy.  The downside for Dartmouth is they’re just not very good this year.  They’re severely lacking scoring and even more severely lacking good goaltending.  Juniors Scott Fleming and Adam Estoclet lead Dartmouth in scoring with 15 points each and Fleming is the team’s leading goal scorer with eight.  Only two other players on the team are in double-digits in points and their main goaltender, Jody O’Neill, has a save percentage lingering around .890 and a 3.79 goals against average.

    This does not bode well for the Big Green against RPI who sits as one of the highest scoring teams in the ECAC averaging 3.10 goals per game in conference matchups while allowing  just 2.40 goals against.  Dartmouth, on the other hand, has been scoring 2.60 per game while allowing 3.60 per.  Dartmouth, in this case, is going to have to turn the tables on RPI the way the Engineers did to them in last year’s playoffs.  The Big Green stumble into this game losers of seven of their last eight and winners of four games all season.

    As for RPI’s opponent Saturday afternoon, the Harvard Crimson, there’s reason to believe that perhaps the ship is finally being righted in Cambridge.  After an uncharacteristic and abysmal start to the season where after opening their season with a win over Dartmouth Harvard went winless in their next ten games going 0-8-2 in those ten.  Since then, they’ve won three of their last five games including a win over #6 Yale.  Their two losses in that span came on the road against Minnesota so those can almost be excused since Minnesota is certainly the better team. Harvard’s gotten wins against Quinnipiac and Dartmouth (again) in that time and considering the Crimson were a team many believed would battle in the top half of the ECAC this would seem to indicate they’re getting their act together.

    Harvard’s success has come at the hands of freshman and Montreal Canadiens first round pick Louis Leblanc.  Leblanc and his linemates Michael Biega and Maple Leafs Lightning draftee Alex Killorn have been the one sure thing, scoring-wise, head coach Ted Donato can count on.  Those three players are the Crimson’s three top scorers and Leblanc, of late, has been scoring goals in bunches while finally showing off the talent that made him the Habs top choice in 2009 (aside from being French-Canadian that is).

    In goal is where things have gone a bit astray for Harvard.  Junior Kyle Richter returned after a one year absence to attend to “personal matters” and he’s been less-than stellar.  Meanwhile, junior Ryan Carroll has stepped up and provided some sense of sanity of late backstopping the team to their last two wins over Yale and Dartmouth.  In about half as many games as Richter has played, Carroll’s goals against is almost a full goal lower than Richter’s and he’s sporting a slightly better save percentage.  While I’m not sure Coach Donato wants to totally write off Kyle Richter, I’d bet that Ryan Carroll will get the nod this weekend for Harvard.

    For as innocent as an RPI-Harvard might seem to be, all is not as indifferent as it might appear.  For instance, one thing RPI is going to have to look out for against the Crimson is the antics of the flying Biega brothers.  Whether its senior Alex Biega, junior Michael Biega or the latest addition, freshman Danny Biega the Engineers and Crimson seem to get together in scrummy fashion when it comes to them.   It all starts with the sandpaper-like play of defenseman Alex who is no stranger to the RPI crowd and he’s usually good for a skirmish or five over the course of a game. Adding in the very talented Michael Biega and his ability to get on the board, that automatically makes him disliked on the road.  It’ll be interesting to see which big brother Danny plays more like.

    This game also offers RPI fans the opportunity to once again boo and mock junior defenseman Chris Huxley.  Four years ago, Huxley initially committed to play at RPI but then jumped ship when then head coach Dan Fridgen was not retained by RPI.  Through semi-shady dealings Huxley ended up reneging on his RPI commitment to go to Harvard, something which RPI fans have not forgotten about because each time Huxley touches the puck in Troy he’s booed by the faithful and even given an obvious last-name based nickname.  If you can’t figure out what it is, I’m not going to help you.

    The RPI Bedwetter Fan View Of The weekend:

    “The Friday night game against Dartmouth lingers as a possible “Superman” game where Jody O’Neill has the game of his life and RPI is stuck looking for answers against a goalie that has the horseshoe firmly implanted in his rectum.  The Saturday afternoon tilt against Harvard sits like a trap game.  Harvard is a team that’s wildly down this year but playing better of late and RPI will find it hard to match up with Leblanc’s line.  Allen York will give up some softies and RPI still won’t get anything done 5-on-5.  I haven’t been happy since 1985.”

    The Right Way To Look At The Weekend:

    RPI should roll Dartmouth and the Big Green’s porous goaltending should do their part to help solve any questions about their play at even strength.  I’ve got the feeling the game with Harvard is going to be a one goal semi-classic type of game.  Maybe I’m giving Harvard too much credit here, but there’s too much talent all over that team for them to keep losing games all year long.  That said, a solid game out of Allen York and Harvard doesn’t stand a chance.

    Listen to this weekend’s games on WRPI online. 6:45pm Friday, 3:45pm Saturday.

    Minor League Hockey: Circle Of Life (Update)

    Well here’s a bit of news courtesy of Chip Alexander of the Raleigh News & Observer via Twitter.

    Canes will have AHL team in Charlotte next year. No official confirmation yet but it’s a go.

    I wonder if anyone at the Times Union Center in Albany was made aware of this because right now the Albany River Rats are the minor league home of the Carolina Hurricanes.

    It’s funny how the minor league hockey cycle works though.  Last year I wrote about how the then Philadelphia Phantoms were moving back to the Capital District area of New York and discussed how the Adirondack Red Wings were essentially run out of town by the Albany River Rats.  Fast forward to now and the River Rats agreement with the Hurricanes was coming to an end and now it appears that the River Rats for the mean time will be unaffiliated and are now in danger of existing past this season.

    This isn’t meant to say the River Rats are a tremendous success in Albany. They aren’t.  The River Rats have consistently been one of the poorest draws in the AHL and are right there again this year averaging less than 3,500 fans per game in an arena that, for minor league hockey purposes, holds about 9,000.  That attendance number is what you can expect to see at a 3/4 filled RPI hockey game or a Fire Marshall breaking things up and evacuating the building situation at Messa Rink for a Union game.

    Obviously this move for the Hurricanes makes sense because it brings their minor league operations near by and paying to fly guys all over the place out of Albany is pretty expensive, despite the fact that Albany’s airport is “international.”

    So what do the River Rats do now?  The first thing  to do would be to call the Anaheim Ducks.

    The Ducks lost their affiliate after last season, the infamous Iowa Chops, after the owners in Iowa fell out of favor with the Ducks over money squabbles.  Go figure.  This year, Ducks prospects have been shared all over the AHL in an effort to keep their players playing and in shape.  Obviously the major issue here for the Ducks (and for Albany) is the geography.  Anaheim and Albany are quite a distance from each other although Albany is closer to Anaheim than Portland, Maine – a former home for the Ducks.

    The upside for the Ducks is that, like the Chops, the River Rats is an extremely unique moniker with oodles of marketing capability, none of which any of the brain trust in Albany has ever been effectively been able to use.  Perhaps with a little help and swagger from folks in southern California, the ad wizards in Albany can figure out what the hell to do with hockey.  It’s either that or give up the market completely to the Adirondack Phantoms who actually seem to care about hockey.  The Phantoms averaging 4,303 per game in the tightly packed Glens Falls Civic Center (capacity: 4,800).

    Whatever the solution is for the River Rats, the time to act is now.  It’s unknown as yet what the Ducks’ plans are for an AHL team next year and Albany would offer them a ready-made situation to make things work.  That is, unless, the folks in Albany are just willing to let hockey walk away just like they did with the ECAC Tournament.  There’s surely going to be plenty of other turnover in the AHL during the off-season, but this situation with the River Rats and the city of Charlotte is one that’s come out of nowhere.

    UPDATE (1/22/10):

    The Times Union’s Pete Dougherty has gotten on the case and done some sniffing around to find out what’s up with the River Rats and he may have gotten down to it, and the news isn’t good for Albany minor league hockey fans.  According to a report he’s found (the same “report” I found mind you), the River Rats are going to be sold.

    Garen Szablewski, president and CEO of the River Rats, said that owner Walter Robb is “looking at number of different options in terms of affiliations and future of the franchise,” but he is unaware that any deal has been struck.

    It reads like Pete Dougherty is taking as many leaps of faith as the Raleigh News & Observer’s Chip Alexander is taking in guessing what the next move will be in saying that Rats owner Walter Robb will sell off to someone that will move the team out of town, but it’s not like that hasn’t happened to Albany once before (hello Albany Firebirds).

    Universe Destroying Polar Bear Back For Revenge

    You may have missed it a few months back when some intrepid hockey fans discovered the entrance video the University of Alaska hockey team used during their 2007-2008 season was unleashed on the masses by Greg Wyshynski at Puck Daddy.

    Chances are good, however, that you didn’t miss it and you were left speechless by it wondering how the universe could survive such an onslaught by one of the arctic’s fiercest creatures.  Well it’s time to strap on your Depends because the Alaska Nanook is back for revenge and he’s taking it out on Mother Earth.  I’m sure you’ve seen the PSA with former ER star Noah Wyle talking about global warming and it shows a polar bear on an ice floe that’s melting.

    This particular bear of the tundra isn’t having any of that shit and he’s taking aim on the rest of the CCHA as well as the rest of Planet Earth itself.  Worse yet?  He’s developed a Voltron-like ability to produce a light sabre-ish hockey stick from his paws and he can fly a fighter jet.

    If this is the route evolution is taking, we’re better off melting down those ice caps in the first place. Call it a “preemptive strike” by the human race.

    That said, after watching this video I’m ready to run through a wall.  Let’s play hockey.

    A For Vendetta

    The regular news from tonight’s NHL action will read that Vancouver lost a tough game against Nashville at home 3-2.  The real story came out after the game when Canucks irritable forward Alex Burrows dropped a tactical nuke-sized bomb saying that referee Stephane Auger approached him during warmups saying… Botchford from The Province has all the pertinent information.

    “It started in warm-up,” Burrows said. “Before the anthem, the ref came over and said I made him look bad in Nashville on the Smithson hit and he was going to get me back tonight.  When Smithson hit me sideways he said ‘I saw the replay you had your head up and weren’t really hurt and you made me look bad and I’m going to get you tonight.”

    The game Burrows is referring to is a game from December 8th, also against the Predators, where Jarred Smithson received a five-minute major for charging and a game misconduct in a game Nashville also won 4-2.  In last night’s game, Burrows was dinged for three penalties in the third period, two of which most folks are describing as “dubious” including a diving call that was not matched up with the usual accompanying penalty on the other team.  Suffice to say, there’s some red flags here.

    The fun part of tonight’s affair is that the Sportsnet cameras caught what might be part of the smoking gun on video.  Have a look.

    Obviously it’s impossible to tell much of what’s being discussed here even if you can read lips, it’s just six seconds of video.  The fun part of this incredible accusation by Burrows is that it’s gotten folks all across Twitter to dig into Stephane Auger’s past to see if there are any other heated discrepancies and… You could say there’s a few and you don’t even need to check out games outside of this season to find some, two of which were games that were discussed right freaking here.

    The first example is a game where his officiating partner Dennis LaRue took the heat for wrongly disallowing a Brad May goal against the Dallas Stars, a dubious decision considering it ended up costing Detroit the game.  The other game occurred when Philly’s Daniel Carcillo cold-cocked Matt Bradley and Auger awarded Washington an unprecedented nine minute power play against the Flyers.

    If you want to dig even deeper, both the guys at Kurtenblog and Twitter fan MsConduct did some instant Internet research to find other complaints against Auger in the past, including one instance where Coyotes forward Shane Doan lost his cool and Auger accused him of using an ethnic slur against him.

    With all of this stuff popping up all over the place, another bizarre call by Auger on Burrows shows that the dislike for each other may go back even further still.  Take a look at this video from last season.

    Burrows was given a five-minute major for cross checking and a game misconduct for what amounted to basically nothing aside from Patrice Brisebois overselling a sort of hard hit.  If I were Alex Burrows, I know I’d question an official’s ability if he’s handing out major penalties like that like they were candy.

    Alex Burrows’ vision of what referee Stephane Auger actually is.

    Let’s get to the heart of the matter here though:

    Alex Burrows has made a very damning accusation, one that is tantamount to accusing the official of fixing the game.  Burrows is no angel, he plays a game on the edge of being legal and illegal.  He’s got a history of questionable hits and plays and he’s most certainly got a reputation amongst the players and the officials.

    Stephane Auger, as is being unearthed even more as I write this, has a history of questionable calls and now has a very serious allegation being made against him, one where he’s even caught on video speaking with Burrows before the start of the game.  This is a situation where the league has to do every bit of due diligence imaginable because the credibility of the game is being questioned. One thing that Gary Bettman cannot do is follow the example of his big brother in the NBA, David Stern.

    In April 2007 when San Antonio Spurs superstar forward Tim Duncan called out referee Joey Crawford, Stern, ever the mediator, suspended Crawford for the remainder of the regular season and playoffs while fining Duncan $25,000 for slamming an official.  Duncan received two quick technical fouls, one while he was on the bench laughing with teammates, and was ejected from a game that ended up costing San Antonio the second seed in the playoffs.  Crawford was reinstated the following season and he promptly managed to make a no-call in a game between the Lakers and Spurs that cost the Spurs Game 4 of their series, an error so egregious the NBA apologized for it.  Some consolation.

    Gary Bettman and NHL head of officiating Terry Gregson cannot screw the pooch on this matter.  If it turns out to be absolutely true that Stephane Auger said this to Burrows before the game he absolutely must be fired from the league.  To have a referee go rogue like this and take it into his own hands to decide how he’s going to call a game and be purposefully slanted against one player on the ice puts that player’s team at an instant disadvantage and makes the game immediately unfair and destroys the competitive balance.  If an official wants to take the game into his own hands in such a way, that’s an official that no longer needs to be affecting outcomes of games with their biased judgments.

    If it turns out that Burrows was butt-hurt for blundering through the third period and Auger just happens to be a very mediocre official and Burrows opted to throw him under the bus because he flat out hates the way he calls a game then Alex Burrows better have a second career option waiting for him because if he thinks the calls are working against him now he hasn’t seen anything yet.  Is there a referee in the world that would give Alex Burrows the benefit of the doubt for anything after leveling a complaint like that and it turned out to be false?  No friggin’ way.

    Never.

    Ever.

    But if Burrows is telling the truth… The NHL spin doctors better be prepared for the enormous public relations nightmare that awaits them because every official is going to go under the microscope.  If you thought the rules crackdown after the lockout was rough on teams, the rules reinforcement that will go down through the fallout of this situation is going to be eerily similar.  After all, there can be no appearance of favorites and there can be no complaints anymore.

    Rust Belt Hockey Tour

    This post is about two weeks overdue at this point but such is life and my New Year’s Resolution was to actually follow through on promises to recap things that I say I will recap when they happen.  Confused yet?  Good… I’ve got you right where I want you then.

    The trip started off on 12/28/09 with an overnight stop in Buffalo to prepare us for the driving the next day to Detroit.  That evening, the entire gang of the Collar City Madmen hit Duff’s Wings in Orchard Park, NY.  Given that location you can bet we were within shouting distance of Ralph Wilson Stadium and sure enough we rolled right past it on the way to Duff’s on this snowy, blustery Buffalo night.  Hundreds of wings were consumed, a few beers were had and some bubble hockey was played.

    That’s right – bubble hockey.  For being a Buffalo-area sports-type place the whole restaurant was decked out in Bills, Sabres and Bandits jerseys.  There was a Danny Briere jersey turned so that his name wasn’t showing to the people and there were a few more interesting autographed jerseys including one of Bills punter Brian Moorman.  Sure, he fits in well with the autographed Thurman Thomas jersey.

    The highlight of the decor for our hockey-mad gang were the different NHL pennants hanging from the rafters (Hartford Whalers represented) and the pucks hanging around the wall.  Why was this important to notice?  Easy.

    This is what we call a good omen.

    Here over the doorway to the restrooms, were these pucks which on first glance the skating Puckman celebrating the 1985 National Championship was the shining beacon for everyone.  Of course after looking at this picture a day or two later I noticed the other part of this set up that told me this trip was going to be awesome:  The 1980s Oswego State puck RIGHT NEXT TO IT.

    Fate was smiling upon our merry band for sure.

    We packed up the cars and moved out of Buffalo to head across Canada to get to Detroit on 12/29/09 and I can say without a doubt that Canada is the much more farm-friendly version of upstate New York, driving wise.  When you ride along I-90 through New York the landscape is pretty dominated by trees whereas going across southern Ontario through Niagara wine country (including Wayne Gretzky Vineyards) there is very little in the way of trees to occupy any of the landscape and everything in the way of what I can only imagine what the Great Plains would look like.  Farms everywhere.

    I noticed this in southern Quebec on the way to Montreal over the summer as well and it struck me as odd then too and to see the same thing going down the highway through cities like Hamilton, Brantford and London it threw me off.  It must be one of those comforts of home kind of things or the fact that upstate New York isn’t quite as immediately farm-like as some folks would like you to believe.

    On the way through Canada we hit a rest area, the only one along the way oddly enough, to grab some food and sure enough we spot folks who weren’t part of our group there decked out in Rensselaer hockey gear.  Being the inquisitive folks that we are and the fact we were in the middle of Canada we had to find out who they were on the way to go see.  Turns out we ran into Brandon Pirri’s parents.  They were a bit startled by our group and the fact that we were driving from the area out to Detroit to go see the team play.  In fact, if I was to get a chance to ask them I’m sure they’d say there were horrified by our fandom but that’s neither here nor there.

    I discovered that my timing at border crossings is quite outstanding as when our car came up to go back into the United States into Michigan, it was right after a shift change and, much like in July after the NHL Draft, we were the first car up for the new guard.  We hand over our passports and enhanced IDs and I say right now that my enhanced driver’s license makes me look like a felon.  Flat out, I look insane.  Add to that I now have a bit of a beard going on and according to the border patrol agent, I looked older than what my license says. (aside: I look older than 30?  DAMN IT!).

    Piling on with further confusion is that Tim has a shaved head now (he’s got hair in his picture) and apparently Tim and Tyler looked like twins (…the hell?) it meant we got the once over and then over again by the agent.  Whatever, she did her job and considering every knucklehead in the last few days was trying to fly to Detroit with bombs… We can understand.  But honestly, four extremely pasty white guys with New York plates coming to Detroit, the chances were better that trouble would find us rather than us going to look for it.

    As for the Great Lakes Invitational on 12/29 and 12/30 for us RPI fans, our entertainment came in the form of RPI beating Michigan 4-3 and getting some help from maybe some of the best and most loyal fans in all of college hockey:  Michigan Tech.  Their fans and some band members were eager to join up with us for the Michigan game and take part in our taunts and cheers and given how poorly Michigan Tech’s season has gone (including a 10-1 thrashing at the hands of Michigan State in the other game that night) having them jump on the bandwagon for the night was probably as fun for them as it was for us to help send the very partisan Wolverine crowd home disappointed.

    For what it’s worth, Michigan’s goaltending is abysmal.  Bryan Hogan may be the single worst goaltender I’ve watched in person since… Former Michigan goaltender Billy Sauer in the 2008 Frozen Four.  Michigan does have a talented squad but they must really hate themselves some Bryan Hogan because he can’t stop anything thrown at the net.

    For those of you who are Michigan haters, we came up with a few chants that really helped keep the crowd quiet so feel free to adopt them as your own.

    “Worse Than Sauer”

    “Where’s Jack Campbell?”

    There may have been only about 20-30 of us in our vocal section made up of the Collar City Madmen and other RPI folks as well as the MTU fans who joined in, but after RPI jumped ahead 3-1 after Paul Kerins’ soft wrister found its way into the net, I can assure you that even a place as large as Joe Louis Arena that 30 people can be heard saying these things.  We confirmed this with some of the RPI players we spoke to at the 12/31/09 Red Wings game who said they got a good laugh out of our vocal antics.

    Beautiful.

    As for the GLI title game, well… Bryce Merriam looked nervous in warmups and he looked equally as nervous when the game started and RPI was in an almost instant 2-0 hole against a truly great Michigan State team.  I know that sounds like I’m huffing and puffing and dropping to my knees for the team that won the tournament (they defeated RPI 6-1) but after having seen how some past great teams have showed up in Troy to hand RPI their heads, this Michigan State team did the same thing (albeit with a home ice and officials advantage).

    This team beat a good RPI squad and did so after fending off a flurry of threats in the middle of the second period and skated away relatively easily with the win.  The Spartans are very good. They’re as dangerously good as the Miami team with Ryan Jones a couple seasons ago and Corey Tropp and Jeff Petry are two of the more dangerous players I’ve seen on the ice.  No, I wasn’t being secretly snarky about Tropp – he’s got a bit of a history, it’s a shame that there’s this incident as he’s also a pretty good hockey player as well.  Jeff Petry was the guy who really impressed me though.  I’ll confess to going into full-on man-crush mode.  What a friggin’ player and just a dynamic defenseman for the Spartans.  I said this at the tournament and I’ll say it here publicly because hey, why not?  Michigan State is a definitive contender to be at Ford Field.  They are very, very good and easily the best team I’ve watched this season.

    As for the first of two NHL games we would take in, the Red Wings-Avalanche tilt on New Years Eve was special for me.  It was my first Red Wings game in Detroit and after calling Joe Louis Arena “home” the previous two nights, there’s nothing that compares to the buzz inside an arena when the real home team is there and there’s nearly 20,000 people packing the place out and this holds true for Detroit.

    Not bad seats, right?

    As for the game, truly spectacular from this Wings fan’s perspective and a haunting one for the rest of our groups because, while some folks may not have been rooting for the Wings at all, they definitely weren’t prepared to see former Boston University forward Brandon Yip on the ice for the Avs.  We all certainly weren’t prepared to see Brandon Yip score two goals in our presence, that’s for sure.

    Thankfully for us, Darren Helm and former Maine Black Bear Jimmy Howard were the heroes of the day as Detroit went on to win the game 4-2. Helm had two goals (both shorthanded, one on an empty net) to seal it for the Wings and Jimmy Howard was college-like in his rock-solid play to  help us ring in 2010 on a very high note.  Here’s a few more photos from Joe Louis Arena, feel free to click on them to help make them look bigger on your monitors, I made them smaller so as to make the page easier to load.

    As for our New Year’s Day jaunt back to Buffalo, the day’s drive was interrupted by a lunchtime stop in London, Ontario to grab some food and catch the Winter Classic (well, two periods worth).  You’d think this would be easy to do given that it’s a hockey event and we were in Canada so finding a place open that could hold eight or nine people and would have the game on would be easy to do.

    Not so fast.  Being that it was indeed New Years Day we forget things like it being a holiday for most everyone, so our initial research into places in London that proclaimed lots of TVs and food proved to come up empty as hell.  Luckily we spotted a Boston Pizza restaurant that was open and was definitely showing the game.  Yeah… I know, city not known for their pizza proclaiming superiority – it’s like getting a Los Angeles Cheesesteak or Chicago Wings – whatever we were in Canada so anything goes.  The wait staff was shocked to see so many of us and they were equally happy to bring us in because, hey, we’re ignorant Americans and we’re hungry.

    The Winter Classic when broadcasted by CBC is a glorious wonder.  Jim Hughson doing play by play and no NBC masturbatory bullshit.  We were also spared from listening to the Dropkick Murphys during the pregame and we were already back in the car while Lenny Clarke murdered “Sweet Caroline.”  Thank goodness for small miracles.

    Upon reaching Buffalo, the temperature must’ve dropped about 30 degrees because it felt like we had landed on Hoth when we parked and walked up to HSBC Arena.  Ice cold, windy, awful… Ahh, Buffalo.  As for the game inside featuring the Sabres and Thrashers, well, it started off pretty bad for Buffalo as the Thrashers jumped out 3-0 in spite of Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller doing everything humanly possible to keep the team in the game.

    Then the Thrashers stopped playing… And the Sabres figured out that they’re leading the Northeast Division and they should play like it.  Back they come to tie the game at three and get it to overtime where down at the opposite end of the ice from where our awesome luxury suite was located, this happened:

    Unreal.  Just a completely freaky goal but it sent us all home on a high note to end our Rust Belt Hockey Tour.  Of the games we attended and someone in the gang had a vested interest in one of the teams, our record was 3-1 with RPIs loss to Michigan State being the only (understandable) blemish.  Beating Michigan in Joe Louis Arena is the absolute highlight of the trip on a trip that didn’t have any lowlights to speak of.

    We enjoyed Detroit quite a bit (no, seriously) and found a bar that welcomed us as much as we enjoyed it.  We did a slight tour and checked out the sights that will be more popular in Detroit come Frozen Four time (Ford Field, Comerica Park, Hockeytown Cafe) as well as the more tourist-driven locations like Greektown and the General Motors building.  For the bad rap that Detroit gets in general, sure, some of it is earned and there are some really rough parts of town… But you’re not going to those areas if you’re going there for games or other events.  It’s easy for me to say as I was never there on my own and making my way around town but I’d absolutely go back again.  Whether I go for the Frozen Four or not is up in the air as of yet, but I wouldn’t have reservations about going back.

    Surrounding such a trip with tons of hockey games though is a must-do.  Joe Louis Arena for being as old as it is compares similarly, to me, with the Carrier Dome in Syracuse as far as how the concourse is laid out and the amenities contained within it.  The inside bowl of the arena is spectacular as far as sight lines go.  For the GLI we were in the lower level along the goal line and it was a great place to be and the same can be said of our seats for the Wings game in the upper half 15 rows back in the 200 level.  We were in the corner but it didn’t matter because the views were perfect and unhindered by anything and folks leaning forward in their seats wasn’t much of an issue either.

    It doesn’t have all the fun bells and whistles a lot of the new arenas do and sure the concessions are a bit too expensive ($8.75 for a Miller Lite? Blow me.) but being able to duck off down to the Olympia Room to get away from the concourse is a good thing, even if that gets crowded too.  I say this with my Red Wings fan hat on that the place is great, but I understand why folks are clamoring for something new and reverential to the team’s past.

    RPI’s Jerry D’Amigo – American Hero

    Congratulations to RPI’s Jerry D’Amigo and the rest of the Team USA World Junior Championship team for winning the gold medal over Canada in an overtime thriller 6-5.  Without Jerry D’Amigo, Team USA ends up as cannon fodder for Canada and Sweden.  D’Amigo scored two goals against Sweden in the semi-finals and added another goal and an assist against Canada in the finals.

    Despite D’Amigo being one of the top performers in the tournament and, dare I say it, clutch as hell, he was not named to the All Tournament Team.  Somehow just as many Americans were named to the All Tournament Team as there were fourth place Swiss (two).  I wonder what the third place Swedes think of this development.

    When Jerry returns to Houston Field House in Troy, you’d better believe the USA chant is going to be loud and fantastic.  Hopefully the Canadians on the team don’t have too much of a problem with this.

    For what it’s worth, D’Amigo (and Wisconsin’s Derek Stepan as well as Caps prospect and game-winning goal scorer John Carlson) were jobbed out of the MVP award by Canada’s Jordan Eberle.  At least he can take solace in a nice individual effort.

    The win marks the United States first win in the World Junior Championships since 2004.  Canada had won five straight gold medals in the tournament going into tonight.  And for all of you looking for a sweet boost of American pride… Look no further than this video taken from the American locker room after the victory.  Watch this and then tell me you wouldn’t go sprinting into battle.  I dare you.