The Mercyhurst University men's hockey team, much like the Atlantic Hockey Association, has enjoyed fleeting glimpses in the same national spotlight that NCAA Division I hockey's most high-profile programs and conferences enjoy throughout each season.
They were eye-opening moments, many coming in the past decade, that forced those outside of Atlantic Hockey to take notice.
For me, they began with Rochester Institute of Technology's run to the Frozen Four in 2010 and back to the NCAA playoffs in 2015 and 2016, and Air Force Academy's epic battles — and wins — against big-name teams during a run of four NCAA berths in eight years. Last season alone, Mercyhurst (Penn State and Wisconsin) and Sacred Heart (Notre Dame) beat top-10 teams on the road.
It's time for those wins to stop making headlines.
"We expect to win those games," Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin said, both of his program and conference. "I think two, three, four years ago it was a big, big deal. When our league won out-of-conference games, I used to make a call to the coach or send a text (of) congratulations (saying), 'Great for you and your program, great for our league.' Now, I don't do that anymore."
Gotkin said he believes Atlantic Hockey is "viewed in very high regard" by those in conferences that have many more years of history and tradition than the Atlantic Hockey, which opened play in 1998. But Atlantic Hockey doesn't seem fully on par with Hockey East, ECAC, WCHA and even the relatively new Big Ten Conference and National Collegiate Hockey Conference, which feature programs that have been successful for years. Mercyhurst has the next big opportunity to continue altering that perception, which comes right after the Lakers failed to help the cause with an 8-2 season-opening loss to Bowling Green on home ice Saturday.
The Lakers are the first Atlantic Hockey school to host the annual Ice Breaker Tournament in the national event's 22-year history.
For years, the Lakers have left Erie in search of those statement games that force others outside of the conference to take notice, like wins at Penn State and Wisconsin last season that spearheaded the club's run to the AHA regular-season championship.
Now, Gotkin's club — and by association, Atlantic Hockey — will face second-ranked and 2017 national runner-up Notre Dame, fourth-ranked Providence and perennial power Miami (Ohio) on the same Erie Insurance Arena ice this weekend.
"Bowling Green, Notre Dame, Providence and Miami are great college hockey teams with great traditions," Gotkin said. "There's not an easy game in there. We're going to learn a lot about our team" — and the conference too.
Atlantic Hockey is a strong conference, and not simply because teams that win the conference championship have earned their place at the top because there are no pushovers from top to bottom. They have shown a knack for beating big-name programs in regular-season and postseason games.
"I think the other conferences without a doubt look at Atlantic Hockey in general as (a conference where) you better be on your toes because if you're not, you're going to get beat," Gotkin said.
The Lakers can enhance Atlantic Hockey's reputation by making that happen.
"Our conference is certainly starting to arrive, if it hasn't already," Gotkin said, "and we feel like we need to do our part."
This article is written by Victor Fernandes from Erie Times-News, Pa. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.