College Hockey’s Drama-Filled Summer Rides On

Another week, another dramatic announcement in college hockey. The WCHA has extended invitations to five remaining schools in the CCHA (Alaska, Bowling Green, Ferris State, Lake Superior State and Western Michigan), essentially merging the two conferences devastated by the Big Ten and National Collegiate Hockey Conference, starting in 2013-14.

So far, Alaska and Lake Superior State [UPDATED: and Ferris State] have already accepted the invitations. Ferris State and Western Michigan have each issued statements acknowledging that they’ve been invited, but have no definitive language as to what they’ll do. Bowling Green hasn’t said anything publicly, but it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which BGSU and Ferris wouldn’t join the WCHA.

WMU is likely holding out until Notre Dame makes a move, so the Broncos are no lock for the WCHA, but to be honest, they’re not a lock for anywhere right now. At this point, the WCHA is Western’s “safety” if the NCHC says no. Broncos AD Kathy Beauregard has essentially been shamelessly shouting from the mountaintops WHY WESTERN! WOW! WESTERN!, or in other words, “you really need to be adding us to your conference.”

So despite all of the drama we’ve already experienced over this turbulent summer, it isn’t over yet. Notre Dame is expected to announce its intentions for the 2013-14 season at the end of August. There are consistent rumblings that the Irish may go the independent route, which would be an interesting, and perhaps foolish move. They can go to NCHC or Hockey East and be far better off than staying independent. I wouldn’t expect them to go it alone.

While this merger or absorption or whatever brings the demise of an entire conference, it may have saved several hockey programs from extinction, at least in the short-term. However, there is one school that today’s announcement may effectively kill. The University of Alabama Huntsville.

It never looked good for the Chargers. Having spent the last season as an independent, UAH played a 32-game slate against solid Division I opponents, with a mere 10 home games all season. The Chargers won four games all year. Hardly the type of season that would attract conference suitors, but the realignment at least left hope, albeit a mere glimmer of hope.

Should Huntsville maintain an aggressive and competitive Division I schedule as an independent and perhaps swing a few more home games, things might work out, but Thursday’s announcement makes it awfully tough to see how that’s possible. Without the possibility of ever joining a conference, can the school’s athletic department keep fighting the good fight? Is it even a fair fight anymore? Was it ever fair?

At the end of the day, this was something that simply had to happen. The CCHA was hanging by a thread with just five teams after the departure of Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State to the Big Ten, Miami to the NCHC, Northern Michigan to the WCHA and Notre Dame looking like they’d rather be independent than play in the CCHA. Then throw in the uncertainty surrounding Western Michigan and you’re looking at a four-team conference.

It doesn’t take much to figure out that a four-team CCHA wouldn’t have lasted long, if at all. So this appears to have been the only option, even though the CCHA attempted to woo four teams from Atlantic Hockey. In hindsight, it was a terrific idea for Robert Morris, Niagara, Canisius and Mercyhurst to stand pat. They would have been leaving a stable conference and familiar opponents for an outfit that was basically throwing a Hail Mary to stay alive.

By joining the WCHA, the CCHA’s left-behinds give each team a fresh start and a chance to be competitive, which might be enough for fans to hold on to and keep them interested. It will have to be.

When the Big Ten announced it was adding hockey, everyone knew it would change the landscape, but is there any way any of us could have foreseen such a drastic overhaul of college hockey in its entirety?

Back when the Big Ten announcement was made, I wrote about the potential good that could come out of it. Growth, expansion, added exposure, increased fan interest and, in turn, stability. That was all based on the assumption that the existing conferences, under steadfast leadership would find a way to whether the storm and come out no worse for the wear on the other side. Then all hell broke loose.

Tom Anastos, the CCHA’s influential commissioner shocked the hockey world by taking the head coaching job at Michigan State. At the time, many quipped it was signaling that Anastos was simply jumping from the sinking ship. Perhaps not so surprisingly anymore, the ship sank Thursday.

Next up, the NCHC was formed due, in part, to the defecting WCHA schools dissatisfaction with its conference’s leadership.

So one commissioner quit, the other couldn’t hold it together (how’s that for steadfast leadership?) and now here we are. Say what you want about WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod. The five WCHA teams that fled for the NCHC may have been at least partially his fault, but at least he found a way to keep his conference alive in the aftermath. So, I guess that counts for something at least…

The WCHA absorbing the CCHA’s survivors was a necessity now, but how will it affect college hockey in the long-term. With the WCHA moving to at least 10 teams (11 if WMU unexpectedly joins), there’s not much room for expansion. There’s no way Alabama Huntsville gets an invite, but Minnesota Moorhead, which is currently exploring the option of adding Division I hockey would have a shot at being that 12th team, assuming WMU signs on.

If you’re the WCHA, you don’t mind an established Division I team, one that’s on the rise, no less giving you an uneven number of teams, thus causing a scheduling headache. You’ll allow that. However, should Western decline, does it make much sense for the WCHA to make that same exception for a smaller school, with no Division I recognition and an uphill battle to ever being relevant? Ehhh…. no.

The only way college hockey grows any further than Minnesota Moorhead (a positive, but not entirely exciting addition, if they even get a chance), is if Big Ten schools add it.

Whether or not Notre Dame and Western Michigan join the NCHC, the chances of that league expanding further are quite slim. The Irish and Broncos would make it an eight-team conference, which is probably sufficient. If those two don’t join, there wouldn’t be too many schools rushing to form a program and join a league in which most of the teams are not household names in basketball or football. Additionally, other schools potentially looking to add hockey wouldn’t be too keen on basement dwelling for an extended period of time, which would be likely in a conference as strong as the NCHC looks to be. It’s a tough sell.

There is still a chance other Big Ten schools could add hockey. All eyes will be on Penn State to see how they fare, though. There’s also that small issue of money, but with hockey being a Big Ten-sponsored sport, there’s at least more incentive than before.

The current configuration is not looking too expansion friendly outside of that conference, which is fine. The likelihood of more “big” schools adding the sport is perhaps lower now, not that it was very high to begin with.

If the new landscape (coming to a rink near you in 2013-14) can bring more exposure to the college game, then this will all be forgotten. However, it is still hard to tell whether or not the college game will be better off in the future than it has been in the recent past.

With three power conferences (NCHC, Big Ten and Hockey East), and the once-proud and traditionally excellent WCHA shrinking into mid-major status with the ECAC and Atlantic Hockey, will it work? There’s really no choice at this point. It has to.

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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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