College Hockey Roundup: Notre Dame To Hockey East; Merrill Suspended; CIS Upsets

College Hockey Roundup is the newest regular feature on United States of Hockey, covering the biggest news off the ice in the NCAA.

There might be a point during this college hockey season when we can all just focus on hockey, but that point may not be reached for a few more weeks. With the college season starting over the weekend, there has been very little chatter about anything happening on the ice. There’s simply too much going on off of it.

In this week’s College Hockey Roundup: A look at Notre Dame’s reported move to Hockey East, what to make of Michigan’s suspension of top prospect Jon Merrill and a few of college hockey’s elites getting taken down by Canadian universities on opening weekend.

Notre Dame Heading East

Curiously, on a Sunday, the National Collegiate Hockey Conference sent out a press release stating that the league would launch with eight teams in 2013-14, meaning the league was moving on without Notre Dame.

Later that day, news broke that the Fighting Irish, which last week stated independence was not an option, was poised to join Hockey East. Mike McMahon, who’s been all over Notre Dame to Hockey East for the Eagle Tribune and his Warrior Rink Rat blog, is reporting that announcement will come Wednesday. McMahon and others are also reporting that Hockey East is likely to add a 12th team, with most indications pointing to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI).

Instead of getting into all of the unrest a team leaving the ECAC for Hockey East will cause, let’s focus on Notre Dame, Hockey East and the NCHC.

After the news broke Sunday, I tweeted that not being able to bring in Notre Dame was a significant failure by the NCHC athletic directors. When one of the biggest names in college athletics is available and you’re an upstart conference, you do everything in your power to make that school part of your league. It appears the major hang up was Notre Dame’s desire for it’s own television deal. (UPDATE: A deal Notre Dame apparently got according to McMahon’s sources, as the school has worked out its own deal with NBC Sports Network, currently known as Versus, to air Notre Dame hockey games nationally The note about Notre Dame’s TV deal was printed in error and has since been retracted).

There are some concessions you make and some you don’t. Apparently that was a concession the NCHC was unwilling to make. However, without the Irish, the NCHC’s best known school, at least on a national college athletics level, is either Miami or Western Michigan. Best of luck with that national television contract.

Hockey East on the other hand merely gets stronger. With Boston College and Notre Dame right at the top of the food chain, Hockey East made itself an incredibly desirable conference for a new television deal with a national outlet. Throw in college hockey powers of Boston University, New Hampshire and Maine, and you’ve got yourself a pretty impressive conference.

Hockey East didn’t need Notre Dame. The NCHC did, whether those ADs believe it or not.

When talks seemingly broke down between HEA and Notre Dame a few weeks back, it appeared that the NCHC was going to easily lock up the Fighting Irish. How they didn’t when they had the chance is where they’ve failed. At that point the NCHC was in competition with only itself.

With Hockey East seemingly off the table for Notre Dame, it should have been a no-brainer. However, the NCHC, would not give Notre Dame what it wanted. Good for them for sticking to their guns, but now they’re stuck with an eight team conference with moderate regional appeal. And good for the Irish for sticking to what they want. Sure, it’s a rich get richer situation, but clearly the school has ended up with the best situation for their hockey program. Either conference would have been fine, but now both Notre Dame and Hockey East will reap mutual benefits, undoubtedly.

When it comes to national recognition, no league has the brand power of the Big Ten in hockey. It’s just that simple. However, by attracting Notre Dame, Hockey East has certainly strengthened theirs. The NCHC, as a new league doesn’t have any brand recognition yet, heck they don’t even have a logo. If you’re a college hockey fan, you know North Dakota, Colorado College, Denver and such, but if you’re a college athletics fan, you probably don’t. There isn’t a sports-watching soul that can’t identify Notre Dame.

The Irish would have helped legitimize the NCHC a little bit more. At the very least it would have made the move to leave the WCHA seem smart as opposed to selfish. It leaves the rest of us questioning whether or not the schools that left for the NCHC significantly improved their situations by leaving the WCHA.

The WCHA could have done much more to keep these schools from leaving, no question. A failure of leadership and foresight might have killed the WCHA as we know it. There are still many questions to be answered, and with the NCHC failing to gain one of the richest athletic departments in college sports, the answers may be harder to come by.

Now, with this move, there will be more moves. RPI likely becomes Hockey East’s 12th team. That opens the door for Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) to enter ECAC, as they reportedly have a desire to do.

We’re also still waiting to hear what the heck is going on with Bowling Green. If you’re wondering, their deadline to accept an invitation to the WCHA is Friday.

So as another move is made, expect several more. Expect more confusion. More frustration. More debate. More of just about everything… except actual hockey.

Sure, there will be games, but those games are only reminders that everything we know is going to be completely different in two years.

Michigan Suspends Top Defenseman Merrill 12 Games

Another bit of significant off-ice news came down Saturday when the University of Michigan hockey team announced it has suspended Jon Merrill for 12 games. Merrill, a second-round pick of New Jersey in 2010, was one of the best freshmen in all of college hockey last year and may be one of the most talented players on the entire Michigan squad this year.

Losing a player of that ability level for 12 games is a significant amount of time. This is not the first time Merrill’s been in trouble, as he served a lengthy suspension in his Under-18 year at the NTDP.

A 12-game suspension is essentially a quarter of the season. Whatever he did, it had to be pretty bad.

That said, after the suspension came down, a lot of people tweeted at me asking if this meant Merrill was going to leave Michigan. The answer is no.

The Devils are standing by the school’s decision to suspend Merrill according to Rich Chere of The Star-Ledger, meaning they won’t be pulling him out by signing him and sticking him in the AHL or getting him to go to Plymouth in the OHL.

Additionally, despite the discipline, Merrill has always been vehement about his going the college route. He wanted to play for the Wolverines. In fact, he committed when he was 14. They’ve stuck by him through all of his off-ice issues and he’s kept his commitment to them.

The other concern for the Devils is that Merrill’s perceived character issues have cropped up again. Merrill was expected to be an easy first-rounder in the 2010 Draft, but fell to the second. Many teams were reportedly scared away by his poor interviews at the scouting combine and his suspension at the NTDP. Everyone, but the Devils.

Lou Lamoriello knows the college game as a former head coach and athletic director at Providence. He’ll stick by Merrill and he’ll stick by the path Merrill is on. Accountability is something Merrill apparently needs to learn and this is a good way to do it.

As a side note, Merrill will lose significant time to impress the decision makers for the U.S. National Junior Team. He returns to the ice Nov. 11, which will likely give him just under a month before the December camp is announced. He was Team USA’s best defenseman in Buffalo last year and it’s hard to imagine a U.S. roster without him on it for Edmonton and Calgary. The people making the decisions on Merrill are closely familiar with his game. I’ll be shocked if he isn’t part of the WJC team, but this issue certainly doesn’t help.

CIS Schools Upset Some Big Names

If the Merrill news wasn’t bad enough for Michigan, the Maize and Blue lost to the Ontario Intsitute of Technology Saturday, 3-2. The Woverines out-shot OIT 56-28, but couldn’t get the bounces apparently. The following day, OIT got shelled by Bowling Green, 7-4. Ouch, Michigan.

Boston University also was on the losing end against a Canadian Interuniversity Sport team. The Terriers fell to St. Francis Xavier, 6-4. The next day, SFX waltzed into Northeastern and beat the Huskies, 8-4. Not a bad weekend for St. Francis Xavier. They got to hang out in the beautiful city of Boston and put up 12 goals against a pair of Hockey East schools.

NCAA Division 1 schools still won 29 of 34 games against CIS schools over the weekend, but to have a pair of nationally ranked teams go down in one weekend is not what you expect to see.

In unrelated news there were two REAL college hockey games, meaning a pair of games that counted in the national record. Lake Superior State played a pair of games down at Alabama Huntsville Saturday and Sunday.

Lake State came away with a weekend sweep, but both games were decided by one goal, 3-2 on Saturday and 2-1 on Sunday. The good folks in Huntsville deserve to see some thrilling hockey match ups after the summer they’ve had, even if they were losses for the Chargers.

However, more good news is that 2,485 was the reported attendance for the Saturday-night tilt, while 1,060 showed up for the Sunday afternoon contest. With the fear of losing their hockey team, maybe the people of Huntsville are making a statement. Great to see that many people out at a college hockey game in Alabama.

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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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