NIAGARA FALLS — The common perception when the Niagara University men’s hockey team moved from College Hockey America to Atlantic Hockey was the program was taking a small step down.
Recent history, however, suggests otherwise.
With a top-heavy group of programs, the Purple Eagles will have their hands full in the league’s Western “pod,” which includes former CHA foe Robert Morris, archrival Canisius, up-and-coming Mercyhurst, and recent juggernauts RIT and Air Force. Niagara will meet each of these teams three times, while the Purple Eagles will do battle with the teams from the Western pod — American International, Army, Bentley, Connecticut, Holy Cross and Sacred Heart — two times apiece.
RIT is hoping to ride a wave after last season’s improbable run to the Frozen Four, in which the Tigers beat national powerhouses Denver and New Hampshire.
“We’re excited for a new year and know we have to prove ourselves all over again,” said RIT coach Wayne Wilson, who was named the Division I coach of the year last season. “We know we will have a target on our back.”
There are holes to fill, however, as Atlantic Hockey rookie of the year Chris Tanev signed with Vancouver while all-league goalie Jared DeMichiel and conference defenseman of the year Dan Ringwald are both gone as well.
Still, with forwards Cameron Burt and Adrew Favot, RIT is the clearcut favorite in what could be an interesting mix of teams.
Here’s a look at the other squads, in order of the preseason coaches poll:
• Mercyhurst (15-20-3, 15-10-3 AHA in 2009-10): With underwhelming but effectve Mike Gurtler, the Lakers can tangle with anyone, as was evidenced by a 4-4 tie at Michigan on Oct. 2.
• Air Force (16-15-6 overall; 14-8-6 AHA): After three straight trips to the NCAA Tournament, the Falcons watched RIT grab national headlines with a Frozen Four run. The non-conference schedule is brutal, but former Hobey Baker candidate Jacques Lamoureux leads a solid bunch.