The Ever-Changing College Hockey Landscape And You

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard that five schools from the WCHA and one from the CCHA (possibly more) will be leaving their respective conferences to form one of their own starting in 2013-14, when the new Big Ten hockey conference begins play. After Thursday’s report, the seceding six released a statement Saturday essentially saying, “Yep, this is happening.”

So North Dakota, Colorado College, Denver, Minnesota-Duluth, Nebraska-Omaha and Miami University will be out on their own. There is hope that Notre Dame, and a yet-to-be-decided eighth team would join. The thought behind the conference is that this would allow the teams within it better exposure and an attractive, competitive schedule for recruiting, among other things.

Here were some of my initial thoughts when I heard this was all going down. These are also the opinions I still hold after letting this sit for a weekend:

Whether or not this league can work out a TV deal that is better than or at least similar to what the Big Ten has with its own network remains to be seen. Versus has been mentioned in articles regarding this new conference. However, without Notre Dame, which could just as easily join Hockey East, I don’t know that there’s much to gain from Versus’ perspective despite the fact the quality of hockey would be pretty good. The name recognition to a broad audience will not be so good for the schools in the new conference.

Notre Dame holds a whole bunch of power right now within college hockey. That power is largely based in the exposure, or at least perceived exposure, that a school of Notre Dame’s stature brings.

Which leads me to my next point. We know that this conference was going to happen with or without Notre Dame, but why make the announcement until you know for sure? Should Notre Dame choose Hockey East over the new conference, the optics are not good for the newbies.

What Notre Dame does is going to be based entirely on how much exposure a move would bring them. If ND chooses Hockey East, it would be an indication that the school did not believe playing in this new conference (that was formed partially for more exposure) was going to hold enough of the public’s interest. It’s a substantial stumble for the conference before it even drops the puck.

All eyes will be on Notre Dame. If they sign on to this conference and the teams get that coveted exposure, this thing makes all the sense in the world. If not, it makes less sense, but in the end still makes sense. I just don’t know why you’d make this announcement now.

As far as the recruiting benefits of this move, I honestly don’t see how any of these teams have made significant gains, with the exception of Miami, which was about to head into a more-depleted CCHA in 2013-14. The allure of playing top-level teams certainly helps big time in recruiting, but the only way to nab the elite players is to prove that those players can be developed for pro hockey at school, not whether they’ll be playing North Dakota on a regular basis.

From a recruiting standpoint, these six teams have only marginally improved their stock. They may still lose kids to Big Ten schools, but I don’t think it will be many less than what they already would have lost by staying in their current situation (Miami excluded).

All that said, the league’s formation is understandable. Anyone who faults a school for doing anything beyond what they feel is in their best individual interest is living in a dream world. It is not the job of athletic directors of one school to worry about the athletic departments of another school. It would be nice if they did, but it’s a tough landscape to navigate and it’s become every man for himself.

The ever-changing college hockey landscape requires forward progress. Standing still might kill a program, and it appears these schools felt the best way to move forward and prosper was to separate themselves from the current conferences. According to the Grand Forks Herald’s Brad Elliot Schlossman (who broke this story Thursday), a big factor in this move was dissatisfaction with the WCHA’s leadership.

It wasn’t just dissatisfaction with WCHA administration, but the inability of the small schools to spend like the big boys. That’s kind of always been a problem in college hockey. The separating schools, as Schlossman reports, feel as though they are “like-minded” institutions. So essentially, the big schools felt like the little guys were dragging them down and had to shed them.

I don’t love this realignment too much, but I understand it. Despite understanding it, the turmoil this is going to cause is greatly concerning to me. I’ve read a ton of opinions on both sides and the reviews have been entirely mixed. I wanted to take the weekend to think about this before I fully weighed in and have a few additional thoughts about things that have crept up as this news continued to develop.

To those saying that everything will be fine and this isn’t going to hurt college hockey… You’re kind of like a quarter, to maybe half right. There is very good reason for the folks being left behind (for those scoring at home that would include: Minnesota State Mankato, St. Cloud State, Bemidji State, Alaska Anchorage and Michigan Tech in the WCHA; Lake Superior State, Northern Michigan, Ferris State, Western Michigan, Bowling Green and Alaska Fairbanks. This could also potentially affect Alabama-Huntsville.) to be nervous. Why do they have reason to freak out?

Well, first off, they’re already all hit by the effect that they’ve lost their biggest-name opponents with the Big Ten’s formation. Whatever “names” they had left on their conference schedule just left the building. Then factor in that some of these schools are already experiencing tight financial times, shrinking attendance and perhaps even apathy among fans, alumni and students.

With a seismic shift in conference landscape, the “leftovers” lost a lot. The teams that are your traditional rivals, the teams your fans have grown familiar with. Some have said, well look at the bright side, you won’t be doormats anymore! Yeah, that’s true, and I’ll address that again in a bit.

However, also consider that this move is partially born from a lack of confidence in league leadership. Now those same leaders that have been essentially undressed by this shift are going to be asked to steer a much murkier course. Well, then.

So where do we go from here?

The first thing that needs to happen is that the WCHA and CCHA need to get it together, like… yesterday. At this point, it’s not looking very good, particularly for the CCHA, which was essentially severely wounded already by the Big Ten and its commissioner quitting to take the Michigan State head coaching job.

With Miami gone and Notre Dame choosing between two conferences that aren’t the CCHA, the league is left with Western Michigan as it’s biggest school. But wait… Western Michigan is promoting itself for a new conference. In fact, you can see the school’s presentation, “Why Western!” made over the summer, in which WMU doesn’t ask, but exclaims why you should let them join your conference. I’ve heard conflicting reports on whether or not Western will be invited to join the new conference. Probably all depends on Notre Dame in a “you go, we go” situation (Always wanted to work in a Backdraft reference on a post, self high five).

Let’s take a look at it from the leftover teams’ point of view. Most of the remaining schools are only Division I in men’s hockey. So, that’s the big sport on campus. When you effectively take away almost every conference opponent that is nationally identified as a Division I institution, all of the sudden hockey doesn’t feel so Division I-y anymore does it? Not until the national tournament.

Here is where a marginal positive can be found. With the big dogs out of the conference, competition just got a whole lot more wide open. So it could be like a basketball situation where Lake Superior State or Mankato becomes the Butler or George Mason of college hockey, similar to how RIT and Bemidji have done it out of small conferences in the past, and goes on a nice run to win its conference and earn an auto-bid to the national tournament (assuming the WCHA and CCHA are able to merge, or each possess at least six teams). When you get to the tournament, anything can happen.

Next up, the CCHA and WCHA’s remaining schools have to be insistent upon a scheduling agreement with both the Big Ten and the new conference, which will be easier said than done. The odds of Michigan going to Lake Superior State on a November weekend is unlikely. If the leftovers aren’t adamant about scheduling, they’re going to get walked on and will have a delightful non-con schedule featuring American International College and the University of Windsor.

This isn’t just about attendance either. It’s mostly about competition. The more attractive these leftover schools can make their non-conference schedule, the better it is for recruiting and obviously could potentially help attendance.

So that’s where the ADs of the Big Ten and new conference schools have to maybe play nice with some of the schools they’ve left behind. Unfortunately, there are so many of them that even some of the leftovers are going to be, well, leftover again come scheduling time.

So can college hockey work with three elite conferences (Big Ten, Hockey East, New Conference of Splendor) and a series of “mid-majors” (ECAC – the grandest mid-major of them all, WCHA/CCHA Graveyard and Atlantic Hockey)? It potentially could, but I would not be comfortable enough to say it will absolutely work. Considering we still don’t know how these leftover schools will realign, it’s hard to determine anything. Chris Dilks had a very intriguing take of how these schools could realign at Western College Hockey Blog.

Will winning cure all woes in this new college hockey world? I am not convinced it will, though I cannot rule out that it is a possibility and secretly hope it does. Schlossman also a had a “when life gives you lemons…” column about this very fact.

I think the biggest issue I’ve had this entire time is the uncertainty this new landscape brings. Perhaps that’s why I’ve had such mixed reactions. Does anyone really know what the hell is going on right now? Reading every column on this topic, I think not.

One thing is for sure, I will be watching and waiting pretty nervously. However, I’m not a college AD or coach or commissioner. I can afford to be pessimistic, they cannot. The ADs of the leftovers are going to have to keep an open mind, but diligently and quickly find a solution for their current situation. Now that they’ve been left behind, it’s either dust off time or potential death.

If we do lose college programs because of this, it will be sad. However, we just don’t know what comes next yet. The more I try to make sense of what will come, the less sense it makes. Let’s just hope the people in charge are a lot better at this than I am.

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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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4 Responses to The Ever-Changing College Hockey Landscape And You

  1. Al says:

    I know that ESPN was interested in Hockey before the NHL decided to do the new ten year-2B dollar deal with NBC. I know the BIG 10 has its own network but why doesn’t ESPN get involved with College Hockey in a big way? I thought that the remaining schools from the WCHA, CCHA and Alabama-Huntsville could go to ESPN and say lets work together, what would be a best case scenario for you?

    I still dont understand that if College Hockey loses all these “lesser” schools how that will be a good thing. With fewer schools does that mean that the teams and fans will have to see the same teams Ad Nauseum? Variety is the spice of life, no? Another head shaker is that is extremely difficult to simply add new schools. I often thought that Syracuse and Penn State should get a team. Perhaps have some type of BIG 12 or PAC 10 conference formation (dreaming). When it was announced that Penn State was going to get a team and what it was going to take it was startling, a Penn State alum was going to donate 88M. If that’s what it takes, then simply losing schools at a drop of a hat over alignment issues seems unthinkable.

  2. Razor says:

    I think once Illinois, Iowa, and maybe Indiana catch wind of how much the Big 10 will pay schools for hockey, dumping a non-revenue sport for hockey could make sense. Illinois gets 1k fans for a club hockey game.

    This is starting to look like the college football landscape, the haves and have nots, the big TV contract or almost nothing, your either in a BCS conference or you have to go un-defeated to get noticed.

    Just on a side note I think Penn State is going to have a killer program.

  3. Samboni says:

    Razor…the Big 6 (er 10 er 12) is not paying any of the schools any more money to have their hockey programs under the conference banner. The Big 10/12/6 network, which already pays out around $8 million per year pushed the conference to have the six schools play in one conference inorder to provide more live content for their channel. The only way…only way…another Big 6/10/12 school will add hockey is if they have a Terry Pegula-type step up and write a big, big check.

    ESPN has no interest in carrying college hockey. They have little interest in carrying the games that they are required to carry due to their contract with the NCAA. Versus, if they are interested, would be a nice outlet. College hockey would not be that much of a stretch for them, first they are the NHL’s outlet, and secondly, they are not afraid of broadcasting “fringe” sports that have smaller viewing audiences; i.e. bull riding, cycling, outdoors shows, etc.

    In terms of the realignment of the remaining schools, the only questions left are does Notre Dame join the new conference, does Western Michigan join them and what becomes of the leftovers, Lake State, Ferris State, Bowling Green and Huntsville.

  4. Millsy says:

    I hope the CCHA and WCHA can somehow find a way to stay solvent as two seperate leagues and keep their autobids out of the at large bid pool, therefore out of the hands of these new conferences.

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