Providential precedent for URI hockey
Pucks and pigskin can only coexist on so many campuses. When one must take the sideline, the answer is usually obvious, and depends on where you are.
The Rhode Island Rams are no anomaly in that regard. The only difference is they continue the field the sport that serves their interests less.
Every authoritative observer in the state and region says URI can only join the 60 men’s and 35 women’s Division I hockey programs if it lets football evaporate. Mark Divver of the Providence Journal tweeted as much last month.
In the resulting thread, Jake Levin, another local journalist and URI alum, opined, “Without football, the school could fund a men’s AND women’s D1 hockey team.” He added that the sacrifice could also leave room for lacrosse and other sports.
As it is, the Rams are one of 124 teams embarking on the NCAA’s 2017 Football Championship Series campaign. For them, however, “Championship” is a chronic misnomer.
No realists among the Rhody faithful are holding their breath on contention. This is a program that has mustered one winning season in this century (8-3 in 2001), and only three since the ’90s. The Rams have crossed the three-win threshold in one season since they last finished above .500.
Those plebeian results have yielded pockets of apathy among would-be boosters. Meanwhile, the 2,500-seat on-campus ice house, Bradford R. Boss Arena, houses two club hockey programs. Yet it has never seen varsity action in 15-plus years of existence.
URI has a foundation with which to follow Levin’s advice. It also has a prime trendsetter to emulate elsewhere in the state.
Providence College simultaneously featured a hockey and football program for one year — 91 years ago, to be exact. The latter evaporated long ago, but is hardly missed. Between their hockey and hoops tradition, Friar Fanatics tend to skip the formalities of fall and get their fill of excitement through a long winter.
Now beginning its second century of operation, PC made football its first major athletic endeavor in its fifth academic year, 1921-22. Hockey came along in 1926-27, folded that spring, then rebooted for a permanent stay 25 years later.
In between, football persisted until 1941, its final game taking place two weeks before Pearl Harbor. As normalcy slowly returned after the war, Providence eschewed the gridiron to replenish its sports scene.
In the early-to-mid-’50s, PC’s basketball program, which had started the same year as hockey and kept running without a hitch, took its first leap toward prestige. And hockey joined in as a companion winter sport, ultimately building up to an unequivocal, perennial No. 2 in the Friartown hierarchy.
On the heels of Title IX and the admission of female students, both sports established their respective women’s programs in 1974. Like their male counterparts, they have had Ferris-wheel fortunes on the ice and court through the decades. But they are staples with ceilings set by historic teams and alums.
One of PC’s cherished customs is its nonconference, intrastate bragging-rights basketball battle with the Rams. Who is to say local puckheads would not duplicate that fervor if the two institutions collided on the ice once a year? Or, if they could be Hockey East rivals, once at each rink in an annual Friday-Saturday series?
The latter question is a jutting matter of “if.” The men’s Hockey East conference requires a minimum seating capacity of 4,000 for new programs. As their options stand, the Rams would thus need to emulate Connecticut and take their act to the state capital.
That would mean persuading the Dunkin Donuts Center, already home to PC men’s basketball and the AHL’s Providence Bruins, to open roughly 17 more event slots for college hockey.
Can you picture a late-autumn Saturday doubleheader of Friars-Rams in Downcity, with one school acting as the home team in one sport before the roles reverse in the nightcap?
That might be a moot point if Holy Cross completes its reported push to follow its women’s program to Hockey East auspices. If the Crusaders secure the prerequisite of moving into the DCU Center, they are the logical candidate to replace Notre Dame as the 12th tenant.
With that said, Boss Arena is big enough for either the WHEA or College Hockey America and Atlantic Hockey, the Crusaders’ current conference. Having lost UConn in 2014, the AHA would doubtlessly pounce if it could nab another New England state university. Its sister conference, the CHA, would benefit from adding URI to Penn State and Syracuse among its marquee tenants.
Bob DeGregorio’s jurisdiction has expressed interest in this before. As Mike McMahon of College Hockey News wrote in a fan mailbag last month, “About three years ago, URI athletic director Thorr Bjorn said that the university wasn’t looking to add hockey; he had made the statement in response to Atlantic Hockey admitting that URI was the most attractive candidate for a 12th team in that league.”
The statement McMahon referenced preceded an unrelated Divver tweet in mid-November 2015, citing URI football’s trifling attendance. None other than ESPN’s resident college hockey aficionado, John Buccigross, chimed in at the time, “Rhode Island should eliminate football and start a men’s and women’s hockey team.”
In the year between the AHA’s statement and Buccigross’ proposal, the Skating Friars hoisted an NCAA championship trophy. That crown was PC’s first in any men’s sport, and its third overall, joining a pair of women’s cross country titles. The program had come within one goal of another in 1985.
The women’s team, whose formation and traction football’s absence made easier, has set its own imprint to the tune of 10 conference playoff titles and 10 Olympians from three countries. Several alumnae have gone on to instrumental coaching roles at other schools. Of recent note, Katie Lachapelle just joined the upgraded Holy Cross program after nine years as an assistant at Boston University.
BU itself has been football-free for two decades. In that time, the modern Terrier women’s hockey program has come into existence, won five conference titles and been to six NCAA tournaments, including two national finals.
The Rams can chase something like that too. Or they can keep hurling Hail Marys into the 124-team abyss. It’s their call.