At noon EDT Friday in Hartford, Conn., administrators from Hockey East and the University of Connecticut will gather for a celebration and press conference to formally announce the details of the Huskies accepting an invitation to join the conference beginning in 2014-15.
UConn’s team currently competes in Atlantic Hockey and does not dole out scholarships for its Division I hockey team. Due to AHA’s by-laws, UConn won’t be able to join Hockey East next year when the rest of college hockey’s dizzying realignment takes hold. This may actually benefit the Huskies as they’ll be able to build some better recruiting classes with the allure of playing in Hockey East during recruits’ latter years in school.
While UConn might seem like an odd fit from a hockey standpoint currently, it makes all the sense in the world from both a business standpoint and could wildly benefit the long-term success of Hockey East in the Realignment Era.
UConn will have to meet the requirements of 18 scholarships, meaning the school will have to make an unprecedented commitment to its hockey program. The commitment to 18 scholarships will hopefully also be supplemented with the necessary upgrades to build a top hockey program.
Among the hurdles UConn will have to overcome is a lack of a tradition of championship success at the Division I level in hockey, and that is something that cannot be manufactured overnight.
Additionally, the Huskies will play all of their Hockey East games in Hartford at the XL Center, which is also the off-campus home of the Huskies basketball program and AHL’s Connecticut Whale. The facility itself is fine, but the 30- or 40-minute drive from campus might be a bit much. Non-conference games will be played in the 2,000-seat Freitas Ice Forum, where UConn plays home games for now.
It may take a little while to build a bigger fanbase and could be difficult to attract students away from campus on weekend nights, but there’s still potential there for this program to get competitive over a relatively short span.
College hockey does not have many “name” schools, and Connecticut certainly is one. Most casual hockey fans, and even a lot of college hockey fans, don’t even realize UConn has a DI team. Playing in Hockey East will change that.
Adding another big-name school that has had success in sports other than hockey will help attract players looking for that big-school experience with a strong and recognizable brand. The location is perfect in terms of attracting local talent out of the New England/Northeastern prep schools. Hartford’s proximity to the lush prospect grounds of New York, Massachusetts, and yes, right there in Connecticut, should help the ole recruiting budget, too.
In addition to the 18 scholarships, there’s going to have to be some commitment from the school to promote the hockey team and get students involved and excited about hockey. Something tells me the kids in Storrs and the people of Hartford will be a little more excited about UConn-Boston College than UConn-Sacred Heart.
It’s going to take some time for UConn to build the program that is starting a little bit behind due to its lack of scholarships right now, but at least their recruiting pitch changes immediately. They aren’t going to be competing for the elite prospects for a long time, but they’re going to find guys that get overlooked by BU, Maine, BC, and the like and with the college-bound player pool deepening by the year, the Huskies will likely be an entirely different program in the next five years. Probably not a championship team, but competitiveness is on the horizon.
In the long-term this is a big win for Hockey East as well. Getting Notre Dame and its NBC Sports Network television contract were a score for the league. Some have chided the television contract as giving Notre Dame too much control, but in college hockey, beggars cannot be choosers and college hockey is begging for attention. A national cable package that is unrivaled by any of the other conferences in terms of number of homes they’ll be in is a huge positive. Even though it will be mostly Notre Dame games on TV, that’s still a three-hour commercial for the conference.
Having UConn as the 12th team does a lot of good for the conference as well. The extra name recognition to connect with more of the casual fans is going to help. It also helps strengthen Hockey East’s foothold in the Hartford media market in the long term, probably not immediately.
As realignment has pressed onward furiously over the last year, it appears that the conference best positioned for the future is in fact Hockey East. With a well-established local brand and strong competition among its ranks, big-name schools, a high-exposure TV deal, it’s hard not to tip your hat to the folks at Hockey East.
In all honesty, the league didn’t have to do terribly much to seemingly come out ahead on realignment. By just letting things play out and adding Notre Dame, largely due to the league thanks to the National Collegiate Hockey Conference’s (seriously, that’s as hard to type as it is to say) lack of foresight and possibly arrogance, Hockey East took another significant step forward by attracting UConn.
Meanwhile the NCHC has very little name-recognition, and therefore a second-rate TV deal, a second-rate tournament venue, but a high level of on-ice competition. From a hockey standpoint, it’s a fantastic league, but that’s where it ends. That might be enough for you as a fan, but it’s not enough to lead me or anyone else to believe it’s going to be a great business long term.
The Big Ten Hockey Conference will have good exposure on the Big Ten Network, but it’s still merely a six-team league. Until a few more Big Ten schools step up for hockey, and there’s nothing to indicate that will happen anytime soon, the conference’s size doesn’t make for a lot of variety and excitement, though the rivalries should remain intense. Still, the exposure and brand recognition resonates with the casual fan.
Hockey East’s 12-team conference with members of varying competitiveness and exposure seems set up just like any other conference in college athletics. Which, to me at least, makes it seem like the most accessible hockey conference to the average college sports fan. Quite simply, by 2014-15, the league will make sense. Which is in direct contrast to almost everything else about college hockey’s realignment.
More than anything else, having UConn as a a relevant hockey school (someday) as opposed to an afterthought tucked away is great for the college game. When a school of UConn’s size and name-recognition takes its commitment to hockey to a higher level, it is simply another open door for college hockey to bring in new fans, create more scholarship opportunities for players and makes college hockey’s long-term growth seem feasible.
Huskies fans obviously are used to winning on the basketball court and are finding success on the football field as well. Success might not come immediately for the hockey program, but there’s little reason to believe it will take terribly long.
With two years to start recruiting for Hockey East, 18 scholarships, a large (albeit off-campus) venue and fertile recruiting grounds nearby, college hockey just got a whole lot more interesting with the UConn Huskies in the game for real.
UConn’s press conference will stream live at this link at noon EDT.