Big Ten Hockey: Good for the College Game?

The college hockey landscape, for better or for worse, is changing. Yesterday, the Big Ten announced this little bit of news:

The directors of athletics of Big Ten institutions which sponsor men’s ice hockey unanimously announce their intention to recommend to the Big Ten Council of Presidents/Chancellors in June the establishment of men’s ice hockey as an official conference sport for the 2013-14 academic year with participation by Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin.

It was a move that we all saw coming, so it wasn’t a surprise. The addition of Penn State to give the conference six teams turned the discussion from “if” to “when”.

Whether it’s good news to you or not, it’s huge news for college hockey. My knee jerk reaction was that I felt this was going to be good for the college game. A fair amount of people don’t feel the same way, particularly those that cover/root for the WCHA and CCHA institutions not part of the Big Ten. Understandably so.

Coming up after the jump, a look at why this might be good for the college game, some fun with expansion talk and a whole lot of Big Ten links.

This news brings a hell of a lot of uncertainty for the WCHA and CCHA. The WCHA loses it’s two biggest schools in Wisconsin and Minnesota. The CCHA takes a blow by losing three solid teams in Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State. Are those blows fatal? I would say no.

What college hockey has to do first, once the Big Ten starts play, is stabilize itself. Much of the work to do that has to start now. Getting a scheduling agreement in place with other conferences is of paramount importance to the health of college hockey and the sanity of non-Big Ten ADs.

It’s then up to the WCHA and CCHA to sort things out amongst themselves. Do they keep the status quo? If so, for how long? Do they look for new schools to jump into the mix? Do they poach existing schools from each other or other conferences? Everyone will eventually have to get together for a few days and really sort this out.

I’m fully aware that this move has potential to go either way, but I am leaning towards this being a huge positive for college hockey as a whole.

To the dissenters that feel this move is going to destroy college hockey at schools like Northern Michigan, Lake Superior State, Alaska, Minnesota State and St. Cloud State (just using these for examples), I say… Come on. Really?

Now I know they get a boost from having ole Michigan or Minnesota come to town once a year, but these are schools with deep hockey traditions. The hockey team is the biggest thing going at those institutions, regardless of who they play. They will survive.

Besides, with only 20 in-conference games, the Big Ten schools have plenty of room to schedule non-conference games with its traditional rivals. Don’t expect Minnesota or Wisconsin to go more than a season without the Fighting Sioux or Denver Pioneers on their docket. I also wouldn’t expect the Gophers to leave its fellow state schools in the cold either. When the higher ups with the Big Ten say they want a scheduling agreement with the other conferences, I have no reason to doubt it. Not yet at least.

The WCHA schools are going to be just fine, as some of the strongest programs will remain. The CCHA has a bit of a job to do, but I don’t expect them to fall apart with the likes of Notre Dame and Miami holding down the fort. If those two leave the CCHA… well, that’d make things interesting. For the sake of argument, we’ll just assume they stay.

The moment I heard about the announcement, I jumped on Twitter to gauge the response, but to also throw in my two cents. I wanted to wait to write this post to make sure I still felt the way I did when I tweeted this:

The Big Ten adding hockey is a good thing for the college game. I feel strongly that it will breed expansion rather than contraction in D-I.

After giving it time to marinate a little bit, I do still feel the same way. It’s not going to be immediate, but I feel that this opens a lot of doors rather than closing many. This was one of those seismic events that could pave the way for college hockey expansion into bigger name schools, which could further expand the reach of the college game.

First off, now that it is a Big Ten sponsored sport, there are going to be six schools that went from having very little reason to start a hockey program to at least having added incentive now.

If any Big Ten school’s previous argument for not fielding a Division I hockey team included that it was not a Big Ten sport, well… there’s one less excuse now. Additionally, Big Ten schools are renowned for and pride themselves on their vast athletic departments with a variety of offerings to both student-athletes and the student body. Will there be a little more of an attempt for the non-hockey schools to “keep up with the Joneses”? Possibly.

So let’s get to the fun part: SPECULATION!

Like I said, expansion, if it happens in any way, it will likely be a slow process. It’s not going to be a massive flood of teams, but I do feel that the NCAA will continue to grow hockey and it’s going to end up in some pretty interesting spots. Issues such as money and Title IX are going to stand in the way, but if there is a donor who wants it badly enough or if a school thinks it can work, they’ll do what they can to make it happen. So let’s get to the fun part.

First off, if there is going to be one team that will have several advantages if it added hockey now that a Big Ten Hockey Conference is basically a reality, it’s the University of Iowa.

WHAT!? IOWA!?

Yep. Iowa. Here’s why: First off, the University of Iowa is located in Iowa City, a great college town with a ton of character and many of the comforts coveted by a young student-athlete. A young recruit looking for the “college experience” will easily get that at Iowa. (As an Iowa State alum, I can’t believe I just typed that paragraph.)

Next, Iowa is located in the heart of USHL country. Cedar Rapids, Des Moines, Waterloo and Dubuque are all easy drives from campus. The recruiting travel budget for that team is going to be minuscule. Additionally, Iowa City is roughly 4 hours from Minneapolis-St. Paul and about the same distance to Chicago. Illinois and Minnesota natives won’t have to be terribly far from home if they play for the Hawkeys. The same goes for players from Wisconsin and Missouri.

As a Cyclone fan, in the heart of Hawkeye country, I can tell you that the Iowa fan base is blindly loyal. Eastern Iowa is black and gold to the bone. Put a Hawkeye logo on it and they will support it. Iowa’s students would embrace hockey, too, I’d think.

If it would be willing to sink some money into forming a hockey team, I don’t think it would take very long for the University of Iowa to become a competitive hockey program.

Remember, this is speculation. The school currently has no plans to field a Division I hockey team, but should the other schools, particularly Penn State, have success anything is possible.

A look at the other non-hockey Big Ten schools:

The University of Nebraska is the exact program I had in mind with my “keeping up with the Joneses” line. I think their main focus will be getting competitive in the traditional Big Ten sports first, but soon after they may look to give hockey a shot. With four USHL teams in short driving range (Lincoln, Omaha, Tri-City and Sioux City), recruiting trips would be easy. Nebraska’s fan base is like Iowa’s, only on steroids. Loyal to a fault. If it’s got a big red N attached to it… WOOOOWEEE! GO ‘SKERS!

Northwestern is located right near Chicago, which is a hockey-crazy town right now. Due to the fact that it’s a bit of a saturated market for hockey with three professional teams (NHL, AHL, ECHL) starting next season, it might not be the best spot. The University of Illinois Chicago used to be part of the CCHA and didn’t draw too well. I think Northwestern would have a better shot at success than UIC did, due to its name recognition and it’s constant push to become more a part of the Chicago sports landscape. I’d love to see Chicago become a viable college hockey market, and I know college hockey would too. I wouldn’t rule it out altogether, but this could be a tough sell for a while.

The University of Illinois immediately said Monday it has no plans to add hockey. Despite a rich ACHA hockey tradition in the quirkiest rink set up you will ever see, there doesn’t seem to be much push for the Illini to elevate it’s program. It’s looking like it could be five-10 years before the Illini are even in a position to consider hockey. An Illini spokesman told the Journal-Standard that if it were to ever add hockey, women’s would come first due to gender equity issues. As of right now, the Big Ten does not have plans for women’s hockey as only four of the six schools will offer the sport. If that’s the hurdle for Illinois (which is the same hurdle for everyone else) it’s a fairly big and expensive one.

Indiana University and Purdue would both also offer interesting entries. Indiana has only been a part of ACHA Division I for a few years and has had some success at that level. Purdue’s had a successful ACHA Division II club team. I think selling hockey in Indiana would be the toughest place of any of the Big Ten states, though not impossible. The Indiana Ice have had a good run in a variety of leagues over the years from USHL to CHL to IHL. The team has kept a good part of its fan base despite the turnover. I haven’t really seen or heard anything about either of these schools that indicate either would jump in at any time, so for now, I’d consider them awfully long shots.

Keep in mind, this is all speculation, mainly because I think it’s fun to talk about. I think we’re years away from any of this becoming a possibility, but it’s kind of nice to dream a little bit.

Which leads me to my next point. After losing the Big Ten schools, would the WCHA and CCHA look into finding regional “football conference” schools to make the jump?

Now, I don’t know if they will, but if they did these are the schools I would target:

Biased pick first: Iowa State for the WCHA. Why: Many of the same reasons as Iowa. Centrally located, rich ACHA hockey tradition (much like PSU), a Big 12 school with a very strong alumni base, of which I am included. Hurdles: An AD that wants to focus on making the other school sports more competitive (which could take a long time). No other Big 12 schools are involved in the hockey discussion. Money. Title IX.

Colorado for the WCHA: Why: The University of Colorado is the key to the West. The pipe dream of Pac 12 schools adding hockey shouldn’t even start without having the Buffs (joining the new Pac 12 next fall) in the discussion. It gives Denver and Colorado College a natural rival with a big name. As hockey grows in the state of Colorado, is it time for it’s biggest school to make the jump? There are also fans very vocal about raising the funds necessary to start hockey at CU. Hurdles: The departure of Minnesota and Wisconsin makes the WCHA less alluring. Money. Title IX.

Ohio University for the CCHA: Why: A former Division I hockey school, Ohio has maintained a rich hockey tradition with it’s ACHA team. Bowling Green, Western Michigan and Miami offer Ohio some MAC or in-state rivals. Hurdles: There is a small rink directly on campus right now, which isn’t big enough for D-I and doesn’t appear to have room for expansion. What they have now works and it’s cheap. Money. Title IX.

Syracuse for the CCHA: Why: Hockey in a decent sized market. Big-name school. Currently fields a Division I women’s hockey team. Hurdles: Would be the eastern-most team in the conference. Not much of a hockey tradition. Local AHL team for competition. Money.

Good friend of the blog, Ryan S. Clark of the Fargo Forum and Slightly Chilled had his own speculative list before this Big Ten announcement even came down. Check it out.

Again, this is purely speculation and just some general ideas. I realize some of these schools might not do anything for some people, but they could provide a shot in the arm for the college game and expand the footprint of college hockey a little bit.

While it was fun to talk about expansion, we clearly have to focus first on what we have right now in college hockey.

We all have to go right into wait and see mode. Big Ten hockey could be a big deal for college hockey as a whole. If it leads to added exposure and grows interest in college hockey, then that’s great. If it leads to the contraction of other schools… well… that’s not so good.

I still feel that college hockey’s current non-Big Ten teams are going to be no worse for the wear when all is said and done. If this does, in fact, open the door for more schools to add the sport, then bully.

If anything, this is an exciting time for the game. Interest in hockey is continually growing and this move shows that the Big Ten, a power conference in the NCAA, believes in ice hockey as a legitimate college sport. One that it just had to have it’s stamp on. Can’t fault them for making that move.

Big Ten Links:

Barry Alvarez told the AP that the Big Ten Network will commit to airing 40 hockey games per season. That’s just one of many nuggets of positive info in Dave Campbell’s piece, which also includes a dissenting voice from inside the WCHA: Dean Blais.

John Shipley of the Pioneer Press caught up with Minnesota head coach Don Lucia and Big Ten associate commissioner Jennifer Heppel.

Are the non-Big Ten teams worried about their future? Let’s see: Miami: Nope. Bowling Green: Not at all. Lake Superior State and Ferris State: Nah (Great quotes from LSSU coach Jim Roque). Western Michigan: Not really. Minnesota State Mankato: Not entirely. Notre Dame: Maybe just a tiny bit. Alabama-Huntsville: Cautiously optimistic? Northern Michigan: Not “crying” about it. Nebraska-Omaha: Not worried, just not too happy. (Pretty much everybody is saying the same things. I’d imagine (hope?) we’ll have a much better idea about a plan after the American Hockey Coaches Association meetings over the summer.)

Adam Wodon of College Hockey News is a little bit concerned and takes a pretty comprehensive look at what college hockey may be dealing with.

Chris Dilks of the always on point Western College Hockey Blog provides some links of his own and has a pretty levelheaded reaction.

Penn State’s assistant AD for hockey and possibly the driving force behind getting Terry Pegula on board, Joe Battista, talks with PSU’s Daily Collegian about the new developments.

Roman Augustovitz of the Star Tribune caught up with Paul Kelly for his Goal Gophers blog. Kelly somewhat touches on expansion.

One of the best writers covering the WCHA, Brad Elliot Schlossman of the Grand Forks Herald, has his take.

Want more links? Just Google Big Ten + hockey and go through the hundreds of articles and blog posts. Very interesting reading out there.

Change is coming people. It’s not always easy and it usually comes with a heavy dose of uncertainty. However, the college game is, in my opinion, as healthy as it’s ever been. People are interested in the game and the interest continues to grow. I have a fair amount of trust in the people in charge to make the right moves for college hockey and not just the right moves for six teams. So let’s all just take a deep breath for now and hope for the best.

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About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
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8 Responses to Big Ten Hockey: Good for the College Game?

  1. yeti44 says:

    Not saying it could never happen, but Nebraska AD Tom Osborne said “no plans for hockey.”

    http://my.journalstar.com/post/Husker_Extra_Group/Husker_Extra/blog/osborne_no_plans_for_hockey.html

    • Chris Peters says:

      Thanks for sharing the link. Hadn’t seen that one yet. I think that’s been the company line from each of the current Big Ten teams without hockey. I don’t think any school is in a position at this point to add it. Doesn’t mean things can’t change over time. All eyes are going to be on Penn State for the first three years of their program, I’m sure. What they do could mean a lot to the growth of college hockey.

      • Yeti says:

        I agree. The current UNO Mavs athletic director (Trev Albers) is a former football player at UNL, and his name has come up quite a bit in terms of a replacement for Tom Osborne when he eventually retires. Wouldn’t surprised me at all if Trev proposes “Husker Hockey” years down the road when he is the AD at UNL.

  2. Big C says:

    Coyotes draw problems aside, Arizona State has a great ACHA program and would be a good fit for college hockey. It needs several more years and would take several west coast schools ready to go at around the same time so they can create a truly Western WCHA.

  3. Cory says:

    I think that with the creation of the Big 10 hockey conference there will have to be some changes in conference setup. The first thing I would like to see would be for Alaska-Fairbanks to switch to the WCHA, by having both Alaska schools in the same conference it allows for teams to plan a longer road trip up north and make it worth their time. After this it is up in the air to as what teams go where, frankly I would like to see a shift towards conferences that are more geographically based.

    As to Pac-12 hockey, only 1 school in the Pac-12 does not have hockey at any level and that is Oregon State. I think that the only thing stopping any of these schools from transitioning to NCAA from ACHA is funding. Title IX prevents many programs from funding NCAA hockey teams due to the fact that they don’t have the financial means or want to fund a women’s team in addition to their men’s team.

  4. Anonymous says:

    How about Wyoming/Colorado State/Utah/BYU for the WCHA? An invite for Air Force?

  5. Boyee says:

    The other six Big Ten members (Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Purdue, Northwestern and Nebraska) all have established ACHA club hockey programs, why doesn’t the Big Ten make them upgrade to NCAA Division I, so they can have a hockey conference with all the league’s members?

  6. Boyee says:

    It’s a shame Title IX has crippled NCAA men’s sports. The purpose of the law was to have equal access to sports for women, but in reality it has done that, along with the negative of stopping many men’s teams in non big 4 sports such as hockey and wrestling among others from being able to field an NCAA team. The law should be rewritten to include sports for women, but without cutting of men’s sports, due to the fact that there will always be more men playing sports.

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