Last preseason I wrote a piece based on the simple hypothetical question, “which school would be the best ‘Hard Knocks’ showcase?” People seemed to enjoy it. The #2 and #3 stories met for the national championship with a first-year head coach taking the title. #6 made the NCAA Tournament after a three year absence. #9 entertained the hell out of us once again while #1, like so many teams, had another storybook season go awry.
So here’s the second annual version.
For those who have never had Liev Schreiber’s voice narrate sports in their life, “Hard Knocks” is a month-long HBO series each preseason featuring an all-access look at an NFL team’s training camp. It’s also the best show on TV.
This year the Los Angeles Rams’ return to the West Coast was featured. Focus on a struggling team, as the Rams have been the past five to fifteen seasons, long enough and you get convinced they are going somewhere, even if that’s not the case. Despite Jeff Fisher’s best 7-9 attempt to bore up the proceedings, several intriguing storylines ranging from #1 overall pick Jared Goff to wide receivers on the bubble to tank tops and mermaids came out of the five part series filmed in real time.
Moving the mix of humor and preseason practice over to the college ranks, this year the options are limitless. All sixty men’s hockey schools have intriguing preseason storylines, whether it’s Boston College having to rebound from a Frozen Four appearance with the reality of losing a record seven players early, or Air Force because Frank Serratore.
I would watch any school if there was an actual college hockey “Hard Knocks” (or even Showtime’s “A Season With” series with college football) if we lived in a world where this was actually financially feasible.
However, in an effort to cut down on having to rank all sixty men’s hockey teams I’m using the same criteria HBO does. 1) No first-year head coaches. 2) No teams that have made the playoffs (NCAA Tournament) in the past two seasons.
(A third rule exists, but since no one is actually doing the program I can’t enforce “no team that did ‘Hard Knocks’ over the last decade.”)
While both cut down on intriguing stories - Wisconsin and St. Lawrence with new head coaches, North Dakota in the enviable position 59 other teams would like to be, and BU’s monster freshman class are a few that come to mind - a total of 35 schools remain eligible. Taking away the two Alaska schools (which currently have bigger fish on their plates) and the automatic Air Force, the top 11 schools I’d want to watch a preseason version of “Hard Knocks:”
11. Army West Point
Like its service academy cousin, the life of an Army student-athlete is a unique one balancing school, sports and service to the country. The Black Knights’ history goes back a long ways - a member of the Riley family has been head coach since 1950 - and the team is coming off its best season in close to a decade.
10. Bowling Green
Of all WCHA schools the Falcons have come closest to making the NCAA Tournament the past two seasons without an appearance. Falling in the WCHA FInal FIve semis in back-to-back appearances, BGSU barely missed out an at-large bid in 2015. With the top defenseman and goalie among 19 players returning from last season, this year could be the team who breaks through for the first time since the Jerry York era. (I think Bowling Green is a favorite for the MacNaughton Cup. The WCHA Coaches and Media both agreed.) Head coach Chris Bergeron has upped the expectations from a program which faced being cut not too long ago
Plus there would have to be a feature on SB Nation College Hockey favorite “Church of Dufour.”
9. Ohio State
Another Ohio team appearing to be on the up, Steve Rohlik’s Buckeyes turned things around from a 3-11 first half start. While not quite pulling off a Northeastern, who went from one win in its first 14 games to a Hockey East tournament championship and NCAA berth, Ohio State ended the season with a 6-1-2 run and four wins over top-10 teams. OSU returns plenty of offense to a team which, typical of Big Ten teams, put up crooked numbers (top-10) last season yet allowed them back (bottom-10).
Now in his fourth season Rohlik finally has his team - and even helped out with a second over the summer.
8. Bemidji State
The other Serratore. Once I asked Tom Serratore a question where the answer was “I’m not an expert in psychology” followed by two minutes of giving an answer that could have filled a Psych 101 lesson.
If that doesn’t do it, the Beavers have triplets who as babies starred in what is considered one of the worst movies of all time. On the ice? They’ve combined to be three of BSU’s top forwards.
I’m not a psychologist either, but it’d be a fun look. Bemidji State returns enough of its team to maintain continuity for a squad that is predicted to finish in the middle of the WCHA yet also have position battles. The Beavers have to replace Ruslan Pedan on defense along with longtime (what felt like) nine year veteran forward Cory Ward. Freshman goalie Jack Burgart could challenge Michael Bitzer.
Continuing this summer with the program’s first-ever first round pick (Tage Thompson, taken 26th overall by the St. Louis Blues), it has been fantastic seeing the growth of the Huskies program as Mike Cavanaugh and company navigate the waters of Hockey East. Thompson and fellow sophomore Maxim Letunov are two of the more exciting players in the league on the ice. I’m intrigued to see more of the Huskies off of it.
The bad news: Both Spink brothers finally graduated. Therefore no twin magic.
The good news: Colgate brings plenty to the table in Don Vaughan’s 24th season. There’s new with Class of 1965 Arena opening up this season on campus and the move away from the only rink in college hockey which features a bowling alley. There’s old with visiting said bowling alley. There’s a mixture of old and new with senior goalie Charlie Finn. As a freshman he was one major reason the Raiders reached the NCAA Tournament. Colgate has yet to be back since and Finn ended last year with a (albeit barely) sub-.900 save percentage.
5. Colorado College
Sorry NCHC fans. Six of the eight conference schools appearing in the 2015 NCAA Tournament limits the league’s options in this hypothetical exercise. Of the two remaining, both Colorado College and Western Michigan have made up the league’s basement as of late. That appears to be continuing, as the Broncos and Tigers were once again picked to finish seventh and eighth, respectively.
Still, there’s no wrong answer between the two options. Given the choice in this exercise CC stands out a little more than the Lawson Lunatics and Andy Murray’s team at Western Michigan. The work that Mike Haviland has put into recruiting for a school that spent most of the 90s and 00s contending nationally should start to bear fruit one of these years.
4. Robert Morris
Atlantic Hockey sits on the opposite side of the NCHC. Too many teams are eligible. Only RIT has represented the conference in each of the past two seasons. Every other team could make the list if not for longtime AIC head coach Gary Wright stepping down at the end of last season.
Out of the group, Robert Morris has come the closest by winning the past two regular season titles and falling short to the Tigers in the 2016 conference championship game. (The Colonials also won the conference tournament in 2014.) It seems that Derek Schooley has instilled a winning culture at RMU with an offensively pleasing style - the Colonials were one of three teams last year to average more than 4 goals per game - and showcase Pittsburgh hockey. Look, if the Stanley Cup showed up...just saying…
Plus that grudge against RIT? The Colonials and Tigers open against one another.
3. Arizona State
As the only repeat from last year’s inaugural rankings, ASU gets back on the list for a few reasons. First, there’s still the new program smell in Tempe. Lessons have been learned from year 1 into this year’s transition to a full-time D1 independent schedule against a who’s who in college hockey. There’s a plan in place. And there’s also the offseason putting a wrench into some of those plans.
Some of the best Schreiber narration comes from the odd minutia that comes up in day-to-day life. At Dartmouth there’s enough where an entire episode could be done on photo day.
Great point here by Yau and Ernsting. Roth with the long return and it's 15-0. Getting ready for Princeton. pic.twitter.com/DwKnnRvSwQ— Dartmouth Hockey (@Dartmouth_MIH) September 13, 2016
Dartmouth actually be doing this now without missing a beat thanks to the Ivies not beginning play until the end of October when Michigan comes to town. Picked ninth in the ECAC, the Big Green feature 11 freshmen and 17 underclassmen on a team which upset Yale in the ECAC first round last season. I hear New Hampshire is nice during the fall too. I wouldn’t know.
1. Penn State
And at number one sits Penn State. The Nittany Lions hit all the sweet spots.
It’s a program people know from its name, but may not know much about. Located in the mountains somewhere between the East Coast and Midwest, State College is heavily isolated. Getting there remains a trek for almost every other school.
Pegula Arena is gorgeous and one of college hockey’s new jewels, regularly selling out its 6K capacity. The fans have been finding new ways to cheer and help define a program building its own culture entering its fifth year of D1 hockey.
On the ice, the Nittany Lions return several key players from a program-best finish last season. (Captain David Glen would on his own make for a good feature.) At the same time, head coach Guy Gadowsky’s team has a few position battles to work out after multiple departures. The sky's the limit for PSU yet the year could also be one of growing pains. With so many questions, seeing how it begins makes sense.
Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation mostly covering both the University of Minnesota and Big Ten. You can also follow him on Twitter -- Follow @gopherstate