It's true. They matter to players. They matter to coaches. And, maybe most of all, they matter to programs and schools as a whole.
|UMass Boston cracked the
D3hockey.com Men's Top 15 for the first time ever this week.
As Langella contends, that matters.
Die-hard fans like to point out that national polls are meaningless aside from the discussion they create. After all, they have no bearing on league standings, playoff seedings, or NCAA tournament rankings or selections. All of that is true, of course, at least on the surface, but polls mean much, much more on a deep and far-reaching level -- much more than anyone currently involved with our favorite programs would like to admit.
As a player, especially playing for a school highly ranked in the polls, those numbers can serve as an incredible learning experience. It's hard to play with a target on your back. There's a lot of pressure. You have to mature fast to succeed and you can't get cocky. You have to use the ranking to build a mystique around your team. You have to use the ranking to your advantage. You have to work harder. You have to let it help you become a winner.
Now, I was lucky. I played on great teams. I don't know the actual numbers, but I think I only played a few weeks at the beginning of my freshman year at Trinity unranked, and even then we were still in the "others receiving votes" category until we won a couple of big games and never looked back on our way to a NESCAC championship.
During my years at Norwich, I don't think we ever fell out of the top ten, and we rarely ended up out of the top five. Like I said, I was lucky. It definitely made me a better player and a more mature person because being highly-ranked carries with it a certain amount of responsibility. Responsibility you can let seep into your bones and save for down the road when you might need it for something other than hockey, but that doesn't mean the learning process of playing on a highly-ranked team wasn't a difficult grind at times.
Players follow the rankings, and they want to knock off the top teams when they show up on the schedule. I'm not trying to say that some teams don't bring their best effort every night, but it's only natural for teams to highlight certain games.
Using the rankings to do it makes sense. I've seen signs on many campuses using the rankings to draw a bigger crowd to a certain game. Heck, I've made some of the signs myself. A number symbol next to a team's name on a sign, especially if that number happens to be in the top five or ten, can do wonders for attendance figures -- even at a place with a great fan following like Norwich.
However, at a place like Trinity (like when we were playing in the old rink at Kingswood-Oxford School), it can turn a usually bare arena into a raucous main event. It can make teams win. It can make teams come together and play better than they ever thought they could. It can create a momentum that can carry teams to a place they never imagined, and I don't think any of that is an exaggeration. Big wins over ranked teams can change seasons. String a few together and programs can change. They really can.
That brings me to what the rankings mean to coaches and programs. When I was the assistant coach at Williams and I was trying to recruit the best student-athletes I could find, our fairly high ranking was one of the first things I talked about with prospects. It's not because I thought it was more important than some of the other things I could have talked about, and it's not because I was trying to impress them; it's because it was one of the only things they knew about our program, and so it gave us a common talking point.
They followed the scores and stats and rankings. The rankings meant something to them. They felt good about being recruited by a great school with a hockey team that was ranked every week. That year (2009-10), we rose as high as No. 6, but we couldn't take the pressure. We got a little too cocky and we lost to a couple of teams we shouldn't have lost to. We learned from that, though, and we tied Plattsburgh and beat undefeated and top-ranked Norwich within a couple of weeks of each other. We climbed the rankings again, and we were able to get commitments from a couple of the recruits we really wanted to land. We helped solidify the future of the program with a couple of big wins and a boost in the rankings.
Many fans are right. The polls don't mean much when it comes to the NCAA's, but they're wrong to think they don't mean anything at all. Because behind the scenes, in at least a few coaches' offices and lockerrooms across the country, those little numbers are playing a pretty big role in shaping who will be there when the dust settles at end of the season. Or maybe two or three seasons down the line...
And, come on, you can't tell me you aren't more excited when the #1 team comes to your town. I know I am.
Peter Langella played at Trinity College and Norwich University and has also coached at Williams. He is now a writer and librarian in central Vermont.