It's hard to surprise the feverish college hockey world, but Long Island University did just that on Thursday when the Sharks announced the creation of a Division 1 men's team for the 2020-21 season, just one year after entering women's college hockey. That women's team got off to a slow start, but rallied late and won the New England Women's Hockey Alliance (NEWHA) conference championship, upsetting top-seeded Sacred Heart along the way, under the tutelage of coach Rob Morgan. Finding a bench boss for the men's team is obviously a high priority right now.
"We started women's hockey a year ago," said LIU athletic director Bill Martinov. "Coach Morgan came in on a short timeline and did a great job - not bad, winning a conference championship your first year. We're using that game plan to help here. We want to move quickly, but get the right person. We want coaches with experience in Division 1, maybe even someone who helped start a program because it's going to take some work on the front end."
Recent additions to the men's D1 field have included high-profile programs Penn State and Arizona State, both of which were founded thanks to massive financial commitments from donors. The Sharks don't have a deep-pocketed white knight behind them, but they do have leadership that has added 10 sports programs in the past five years, led by school president Dr. Kimberly R. Cline.
"I can't give Dr. Kline enough credit," Martinov said. "She has a strong interest in athletics and there are so many positives to adding more student-athletes. And we've got plenty of hockey fans on campus."
Indeed, the Sharks are New York City's only D1 NCAA program and the men will likely play at the same two New York Islanders-affiliated rinks that the women played at this season. While the school didn't have any discussions with the NHL franchise about adding a men's team, there is certainly an affinity for the home squad.
"They've been a great host for our women," Martinov said. "And let's face it: they're the New York Islanders. Any time you can associate with them, it's great."
Clearly the timeline is tight to get the men's program off the ground for next season, but Martinov is upbeat. LIU sent out a questionnaire for future students who might be interested in playing for the team and got 300 responses within the first 24 hours. Martinov also had more than 100 voicemails and emails from folks inquiring about a variety of posts, from equipment manager to team doctor to assistant coach. Martinov has worked at a university with hockey programs before during his time at Notre Dame and he has already spoken with former Fighting Irish coaches Dave Poulin and Ric Schafer about his latest on-ice venture.
Along with finding a coach as soon as possible, LIU will also need to build out a schedule - no small feat, given that many other programs have already made their commitments for 2020-21. There is the possibility however that the Covid-19 pandemic could cancel some travel for other teams - especially those who may have planned on going to Europe - and the Sharks might be able to pick up some opponents that way. Regardless, LIU is looking to play at least a 20-game schedule next season, with a two or three-year buildout to get things running at top speed.
Joining a conference would obviously help scheduling and the most natural fit would be Atlantic Hockey, home to nearby Army and Sacred Heart, among others. Right now, Atlantic Hockey has 11 teams and evening it up to 12 would be a boon. And luckily for a program that will have to be frugal early on, LIU is geographically in great shape for travel: everyone from Princeton to UConn and even all the Massachusetts schools are a simple bus ride away.
As for recruiting, Long Island itself has a lot going for it in terms of the level of grassroots activity.
"It's pretty high," said Mike Snee, executive director of College Hockey Inc., which educates and lobbies on behalf of the sport. "Just off the top of my head, Charlie McAvoy and Adam Fox are from Long Island and they're two of the top young defensemen in the NHL. Long Island has a great tradition of hockey in general, which I'm sure you can trace back to the Islanders' Stanley Cup dynasty."
The USPHL junior circuit has a team that plays out of the same Northwell Health Ice Center rink that LIU's women played out of, while the NAHL has the New Jersey Titans, about an hour away from Long Island. There's also the usual array of Jr. A talents from Canada to consider as well.
How fast can it all come together? That's the challenge for the Sharks now, but they're not intimidated.
"Challenges are opportunities to be successful," Martinov said. "I think we can do some great things in a short period of time."