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Rensselaer's Man with a Plan

By Ed Weaver

Troy Record, May 25, 2003

TROY - Ken Ralph has a broad swimming background. He was a Division II All-American at the University of ALaska-Anchorage and later coached the sport at Georgetown and the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Don't get the idea, though, that Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's new, young athletic director won't favor men's hockey among the school's 23 varsity sports.

The 34-year old Ralph is a hockey fan and he's in tune with the importance of RPI hockey, both to the school and to the community.

It rankled him as much as any Engineer backer when the 2002-03 tean set a school record with 25 losses (10-25-3).

"This is our lone Division I program, it's our flagship sport," he said. We need to make sure we're treating it like a true Division I program."

Ralph quickly adds, "I'm not convinced we're doign that right now. We need to provide more support for Coach (Dan) Fridgen."

"It's something I realized after I arrived here, " he said. "I've always been a college hockey fan. And I think like so many others, I remember that 1985 (NCAA) championship season so vividly. And you always think, oh boy, they (the RPI program) must have everything. But quite frankly, we're lacking in a number of areas."

What are some of those areas?

"Well, our facility is a great ole barn," Ralph said of Houston Field House. "But it's an old building and it has its problems. The boards and glass have need to be replaced and we need to switch over to a freon-based coolant system for the ice. We have some Zamboni issues that we're going to clear up."

"It's just an older structure," he added, "and older structures have issues. So, that's the number one problem we face."

How about replacing Houston Field Houst totally?

"Down the road, I think that would be exciting to look at," he said. We would have to identify donors (because) we're not in a position as an institution right now to where we would be able to finance a new arena. So if one's going to be built, it's going to be done strictly on fund-raising dollars. And I think Dr. Jackson (school president Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson) would be very approachable on that idea."

"She has a report on her desk right now that outlines a lot of different building priorities and projects for athletics and I think she's excited about what we have out there for donors for athletics."

Ralph said that it's unlikely any part of the anonymous $360 million grant the school received in 2000 would be used for a new hockey rink or any other athletic endeavor.

"For the most part," he said. "You have to understand that the Institute has its priorities and right now biotech and bioinformatics are right at the top. Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center which is going to be a spectacular new building is right up there, as well as the Office of First-Year Experience. So those programs sit at the top of the priority list."

On the other hand, he did note that the school isn't prohibited from spending some of the $360 million on athletics, either.

Many RPI fans insist that the team needs a new building just to be among the contenders in the ECAC a yearly basis, let alone return to national prominence.

Ralph doesn't disagree.

"In a lot of respects, I think they're right," he said, "but the big thing you have to remember is that if you have a sheet of ice, you can be competitive."

"The team won 20 games (in 2001-02) and produced several NHL-caliber players," he said. "And when you lost (All-Americans) Matt Murley and Marc Cavosie in the same year, that's tough ... both of whom received a lot of recognition. We're attracting that kind of talent even with the facilities we have. And you've got to remember that Rensselaer's a fantastic academic institution and that alone is going to draw some folks and the past history of hockey greatness is going to draw a lot of good hockey players."

While Ralph's first statement may be true in theory, it must be pointed out that both Murley and Cavosie were local kids who wanted to play for RPI.

And while the late-season stretch run by the 2001-02 Engineers was impressive and exciting, no one connected with that team and/or who follows RPI hockey closely can credibly argue that the RPI teams of 2000, 2001 and '02, in general, underachieved; and, more specifically, failing to win one league title or earn one NCAA Tournament berth during the Murley-Cavosie era has to be considered a major disappointment.

Moreover, it's hard to argue that the key word in Ralph's last statement is 'past.

Despite the depth of talent they enjoyed from 1999 on, the Engineers' best finish in the ECAC was third place, eight points out of first place.

Rensselaer has not won an ECAC title since its string of upsets in the 1996 playoffs.

Regular season?

The Engineers haven't topped the ECAC - for 15 years regarded as the weakest of the four longtime college hockey conferences - over an entire season since the national championship season of 1985.

Ralph does admit, though, that the school needs to reaffirm its commitment to hockey excellence.

"But we do need to take better care of this team," he added. "It's something that's going to be a focus for me as I continue on here. This is going to be a marathon, not a sprint. There are no quick fixes. Too often, people make a quick fix and it goes wrong. I don't want to fall into that trap."

Attendance has certainly been a problem.

Ralph has some ideas to raise the turnstile numbers, but says that basically, winning games will bring people into the stands.

"Obviously, everyone wants to watch a winner," he said, "and if we go otu and win 25 games, you're going to see a big uptake in attendance."

"But what you're seeing right now is, our fan base is getting much older," Ralph said. "Our season ticket-holders are really aging, many of them are moving south or leaving the area for somewhere else. What we need to do is move some younger folks in to take up those seats and to back-fill those season ticket-holders and I want them to bring their families."

"College hockey", he added, "is phenomenal family entertainment. We need to introduce the kids of the area to this game. College hockey is exploding in popularity and youth hockey is growing like a weed, even for girls. So we want to really reach out to youth hockey leagues and get them in our building. If we can do that, we can get the average age of our season ticket-holders down a little bit and get some more excitement in the building and I think you'll see it go from there."

Rensselaer hockey fans literally expect that the team get favoritism from Ralph and the athletic department simply because hockey is the school's only Division I program.

And they make that point quite clear to him.

"Yeah, but that's also a fair assessment," he said. "It is the flagship sport and there's a lot of students at Rensselaer who first heard of Rensselaer because of it's hockey program. We do have 22 other sports (and) I don't want them overshadowed by what we're doing in hockey, but Division I programs are a lot more labor-intensive."

And then there's the budget. It's among the smallest in the nation, excluding teams from the two new conferences - the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference and College Hockey America.

"And it's even smaller than it appears," Ralph said, "because we rent our own ice."

That's right. The school owns Houston Field House, but the hockey program pays the Institute to use it.

Ralph says, simply, the budget in general, and Fridgen's all-important recruiting funds, both need major influxes of cash.

"Colorado College is Division III in other sports, as we are," Ralph said, "and their hockey budget is nearly twice what ours is. North Dakota (a perennial national power) is a Division II school (in all other sports) and their (hockey) budget nearly matches our entire (athletic department) opetaring budget."

To attract the top players, RPI's recruiting budget must be raised.

"Those need to be addressed," Ralph said of the budget concerns. "And soon."

rpihockey.net thanks Tom Reale for providing a print copy of this article.