College Hockey’s Latest Head Scratcher

Realignment. College athletics has been boiled down to one word this fall. It has completely overshadowed anything that’s been happening on the football field and will have a gigantic impact on the way basketball conferences look as well. Though the conferences go by different names and the financials might be a little smaller, the same is true in hockey. Since March, it’s pretty much been a non-stop soap opera. And like most (all?) soap operas, it really sucks.

Sweet font.

Late Tuesday night, Brad Schlossman tweeted that the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference, which if you’ve forgotten includes North Dakota, Denver, Colorado College, Miami, Minnesota Duluth and Nebraska Omaha, would be extending invitations to Western Michigan and… St. Cloud State? Yep. St. Cloud State, the same school that said if it had been invited to the NCHC, it would have said no, when this all started.

The next morning, the NCHC confirmed that invitations had been sent.

In breaking the rule in which you don’t call the pretty girl until at least 48 hours after she gives you her number, both Western Michigan and St. Cloud excitedly accepted via press conference Thursday. And just like the metaphorical boy(s) in this scenario, it makes both seem a touch desperate. Who can blame them? We’ve all been through rough patches.

That Western Michigan was invited and accepted is no surprise. They had essentially been begging pleading strongly campaigning for a better situation (WOW! WESTERN!). Of the eight teams within the league, there might not be a school that needed the NCHC more than Western. The school certainly needs the league more than the league needs it and its No. 41-ranked (WOW!) media market.

St. Cloud State is the surprise. It’s a bit of a heel turn for SCSU which sounded so committed to the WCHA. A school that was as sour as any when it wasn’t initially invited to the NCHC was leading the “you guys are meanies” charge. Well, apparently they’ve put down their torches and pitchforks and hopped the fence to that one side with the greener grass.

It probably shouldn’t surprise anyone that St. Cloud said yes when asked. St. Cloud probably had a chance to be a top dog in the WCHA, but playing in the NCHC will probably help recruiting and, in the eyes of the SCSU administration, validate the school as a “hockey power.” To everyone outside of the Husky fan base, the NCHC just got it’s doormat. It also leaves us wondering, what’s different now than when the league was formed and St. Cloud was decidedly not a “like-minded institution.”

One of these schools is not like the other, one of these schools is not the same. No, I’m not talking about Nebraska Omaha, but I can see where you might get that idea. Sorry, Husky fans, I love ya, but this just seems a bit off. SCSU brings a good fan base and gives the league a little more proximity to the Twin Cities… kinda. Thing is, SCSU had both of those features when the NCHC was formed. What changed?

The other major factor that leaves many scratching their heads is, what’s going on with Notre Dame? More on that in a bit.

There’s a whole other piece to this realignment puzzle that might make it tougher to solve. When the CCHA went boom, Bowling Green State was immediately offered a spot in the WCHA with the rest of the CCHA left-behinds. Northern Michigan (who was asked before the CCHA burst into flames), Lake Superior State, Ferris State, and Alaska Fairbanks all accepted that invitation. The Falcons have not… yet.

Later Thursday, news broke that Bowling Green had requested and received an extension on the WCHA’s proposed deadline for schools to accept their invite. That deadline was supposed to be today.

The WCHA, which really doesn’t have much reason to be picky anymore, has allowed BGSU until Oct. 7 to deliver an answer.

On the surface, it would appear that Bowling Green State, a Division I school with a rich hockey tradition, has but one option. Join the WCHA. There’s no pending invitation from the NCHC, there’s little talk of Bowling Green going to Atlantic Hockey (though there is some speculation the WCHA may look to cull a few teams from AHA to expand into a super-conference-type scenario… If that’s a super conference, God help us).

While the decision seems easy on the surface, it is anything but. A once proud hockey program is staring down a very unfamiliar and undesirable path. It is no disrespect to the many wonderful hockey institutions of the WCHA, but Bowling Green State is a Division I school. The 2013-14 WCHA, while Division I in category, has not a single school within it that is a nationally identifiable Division I institution. That, believe it or not, matters.

One of the terms that we constantly have heard throughout realignment is “like-minded schools.” Bowling Green has to question whether or not the WCHA possesses schools that are like-minded to it. From the outside looking in, they might not like what they’re seeing.

There is a potential escape hatch for Bowling Green and that hatch is the University of Notre Dame, which has yet to make it’s conference intentions known for its hockey program.

Despite the surprise addition of St. Cloud State to the NCHC, Notre Dame would undoubtedly still have an invitation on the table from the conference. In fact, you’d have to believe the NCHC was founded with the belief that Notre Dame would eventually be a part of it. Notre Dame’s decision for hockey has been delayed, presumably because of uncertainty surrounding the school’s non-football sports due to defections of Pittsburgh and Syracuse from the Big East.

Should Notre Dame choose to stay independent in football (and therefore quash any chances of joining the Big Ten), which is a distinct possibility, perhaps probability, it would make the most sense for Notre Dame’s hockey program to go ahead and join the NCHC. Hockey East was a real possibility for the Irish, but based on chats with multiple people in the know, that possibility has slimmed down a bunch.

If Notre Dame signs on, that leaves the NCHC with nine teams. Nine is an odd number, if you’ve yet to pass primary school. An odd number is not a good thing for an athletic conference. It would make all the sense in the world to add a 10th team and, if you’ve decided to let St. Cloud and Western Michigan in, Bowling Green makes a whole bunch of sense at that point.

The most desirable outcome for Bowling Green, and this has to be a reason for asking for an extension (in my mind), would likely be the NCHC moving to 10 teams and the Falcons being one of those 10.

Bowling Green is no lock to get asked, and Notre Dame is no lock to join. So this is purely a hypothetical situation, but one that seems incredibly possible, mainly because who saw any of this stuff coming? Anything can happen, right?

However, if this scenario does not play out, Bowling Green has another potential option. It can shutter the hockey program.

Does joining the WCHA make good business sense for the athletic department? Plain and simple, that’s the question the school has to ask itself. Will hockey be viable at Bowling Green in what amounts to a mid-major conference in a mid-major sport? If the answer is no, a program shutdown is not completely out of the question (not that I’d ever want to see that).

This is the situation. It’s not being mean to the WCHA by saying a team would rather fold than join it, it’s simply the nature of big business college athletics.

The second the Big Ten added hockey, Bowling Green became one of the most vulnerable hockey programs. The athletic department has continually reaffirmed its commitment to hockey, but with each change to the landscape, the situation changes and that commitment can wane. The next two weeks could be life and death for hockey at Bowling Green State University.

The question that keeps cropping up is, will the outcome of all this benefit college hockey? With each move, the belief that college hockey has positioned itself for a stronger future holds less water. The CCHA is gone. Alabama-Huntsville? Probably dunzo. The WCHA, perhaps the greatest conference in college hockey right now, will be a shell of it’s current self in 2013-14. The NCHC, while rife with solid hockey programs, still does not posses the star power required of a conference worthy of national exposure (Notre Dame can change that, if only a bit). Those fellas out East and the Big Ten are sitting pretty, though. To this point, realignment has done zilch to Hockey East, the ECAC and Atlantic Hockey. Must be nice.

The reaction to the formation of the Big Ten’s hockey conference was frantic, at best. Every reactionary decision set off a ripple effect that we are all still feeling and the ripples aren’t finished. There’s still more to be ironed out.

If this off-season has taught us anything about college hockey it’s this…

No one has a clue what the hell they’re doing. No one.

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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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