Pittsburgh Hockey Digest

Robert Morris

Gajtka: RMU’s Shortsighted, Misguided Priorities Failed Hockey Teams

Brutally ironic, isn’t it?

The most headlines and attention Robert Morris hockey generated in years — maybe ever? — fall on the day university administration announced the men’s and women’s Division I programs would be cut.

Before I go any further, let me acknowledge that this commentary comes from place of personal bias. As a former multi-year member of the RMU athletic department, I served as the media contact and content producer for both hockey programs.

I personally know most the coaches suddenly left jobless. I know a lot of the players hung out to dry. I know all the boosters and behind-the-scenes staff that make game days go at Neville Island.

On top of that, part of the reason I no longer work at RMU is my frustration with the athletic department. I sensed a consistent hesitance to give hockey a real chance to be a flag-carrier for a university that, to be honest, could use more of a distinct identity.

Let’s just say I wouldn’t have given RMU much thought if it didn’t have ice hockey. Instead, I ended up working there twice, making progress toward a master’s degree and planting the Colonial Hockey flag in my heart for life.

So I write this completely understanding what head men’s coach Derek Schooley told our Alan Saunders on Wednesday, that he was devastated but not necessarily shocked by the news that came down from RMU president Chris Howard and athletic director Chris King.

You know that sparkling new arena on RMU’s campus? The UPMC Events Center? The fact that hockey wasn’t part of the plans for that facility indicated a clear pecking order in Moon Township.

Basketball — specifically the men’s team — was always going to come first with Howard and King, despite being an obvious No. 3 behind Pitt and Duquesne in a city where basketball is mainly a side dish on a diverse sports menu.

I’m not going to argue that RMU should ignore hoops. Quite the opposite, in fact. The programs have done well and qualifying for the NCAAs is a wonderful PR boost for the university, even if it’s not exactly something you can count on.

But why couldn’t hoops and hockey be equal partners in lifting RMU’s regional presence, even if they apparently couldn’t share a building? And why did, say, the school’s FCS football team get a pass when leadership was looking for expensive programs to cut?

This column is also not meant to denigrate the RMU Island Sports Center. It was suitable as a home base for the hockey teams from their twin births in 2004 and ’05, but they had long outgrown what is best described as a community rink.

Over the past decade, conference rivals for both the men and women passed the Colonials by in this category. In fact, the only school you could say RMU had the upper hand on in this area was in-state foe Mercyhurst, whose humble barn is at least on campus.

There were rumblings for the past couple years that a renovation of the Island Sports Center was coming down the pike. Per preliminary planning, the outdoor side of the building was to be converted into a legitimate arena-like setting, with a modest capacity of a couple thousand.

It would’ve taken investment, sure, the kind of resources RMU recently announced were going into sprucing up the decrepit track adjacent to the Island Sports Center. No offense to those athletes and coaches, but does anybody think track and field when they think Robert Morris?

For as much of a puck nut as I am, I could actually see a justification for pulling the plug on hockey if the teams weren’t successful in doing exactly what athletic programs are supposed to do: Advertise for the institution they represent.

For goodness sake, the women’s team just played in the NCAA tournament a couple of months ago, giving No. 1 Northeastern a battle in the national quarterfinals. That’s the closest RMU has ever come to a Division I national championship, and Paul Colontino’s team did it twice in five years. They even produced a U.S. Olympian in goalie Brianne McLaughlin-Bittle.

The men’s team experienced more than its share of heartbreak in the postseason, but it consistently contended, winning a couple of conference titles after a landmark trip to the NCAAs in 2014. Schooley’s program hosted the Frozen Four twice at PPG Paints Arena and introduced college hockey to many in the region with the seven-year run of the Three Rivers Classic.

Damn, I can’t believe I’m using the past tense for all these verbs. It just dawned on me that I’m writing a eulogy.

Look, I understand that hockey is expensive to sponsor, and there’s no puck equivalent to the short-lived sugar rush the university gets when basketball makes March Madness, but RMU hockey could have — should have — worked.

I tweeted this Wednesday, but if I’m university leadership, I ask myself: What’s our athletic niche? Where can we make an impact in a crowded sports market?

Well, hockey continues to be a growing sport in the region and RMU was the only college within a couple hundred miles with D-I teams on both sides of the aisle. The answer surely wasn’t to quit on both when time came to tighten the belt in a post-pandemic world.

What’s particularly unconscionable about the whole debacle is that there was no opportunity for the RMU hockey community to fundraise to save the programs. There’s no guarantee that would’ve worked to leadership’s satisfaction, but it seems on the outside like Howard, King and Co. didn’t care if their hockey teams went away.

Hockey was an asset to RMU, not a burden. It’s shortsighted to look at it any other way.

I just hope that, if some grassroots groundswell convinces RMU to rethink its rash decision, that all the people speaking up now actually support the programs tangibly in the future.

Another part of my frustration while working with the hockey teams was not getting enough support from the region’s sports community. Sure, they’d throw us a retweet or speak admirably about the programs, but attendance both at the Island and for the Three Rivers Classic consistently disappointed.

This goes, too, for all the media voices that came out of the woodwork Wednesday. Maybe cover the teams once in a while when they’re still around, instead of making a show of how upset you are after the programs are disbanded. I think many in the media took the teams for granted, knowing they’d be there to fill the content gap when other local newsmakers were quiet or dormant.

Just so you know, I count myself among those who have to wear this one. I never felt like any media initiatives I tried truly broke through the noise around here. Maybe it’s a failure of creativity or persistence, but it’s something I lament still.

In that way, I suppose we all failed the RMU hockey teams, but no one failed them more than the folks on University Boulevard.

That’s what stings the most. The biggest enemy was inside the gates.

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