It’s a rather ominous headline, I know. However, I can’t seem to feel as college hockey opens in earnest this weekend it is the end of an era. In a few months the college hockey landscape will be forever altered and if you’re a traditionalist (or a fan of a smaller school) this season will be bittersweet to say the least.
This is the final season of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, a conference that provided some of the most exciting teams in college hockey history. No longer will the Western Collegiate Hockey Association be able to call itself the best conference in the country without a heartier snicker from the peanut gallery. Some decades old conference rivalries will come to a screeching halt.
Next year, new conferences will take hold, featuring some of the most storied programs in college hockey. The Big Ten will be the first “BCS” conference to adopt the sport as one of its own. The fledgling National Collegiate Hockey Conference will step into uncharted waters in 2013-14 amid some controversy surrounding how it was formed. Notre Dame heads to Hockey East. Then in 2014-15 UConn will join the Irish, stepping into the big leagues, committing unprecedented funding to its hockey program. The passion and excitement of college hockey will remain the same, but for many across the country, change will be hard.
With each change, the future remains uncertain for smaller schools forced to give it a go in mid-major conferences without the draw of big-name opponents at least every other year. Perhaps they’ll be better off in a more competitive environment, but the risk of no longer playing alongside the Michigans and Minnesotas of the world could lead to a lack of interest from students and casual fans.
As the first weekend of widespread regular-season hockey opens tonight with games from Lowell, Mass., to Huntsville, Ala., to Green Bay, Wis., to Anchorage, Alaska, it is, in a way, the beginning of the end. College hockey as we know it will never be the same. It may be better next year, it may not. Fact is, we don’t know.
What we can look forward to is this current configuration to go out with a bang. Who will be the last CCHA champion? Will the WCHA’s left-behind teams push soon-to-depart Minnesota and North Dakota? What memories will be made in 2012-13? Whatever they may be, they’ll carry more weight as the last highlights of an incredibly successful era of the college game.
This year also marks simply the beginning for Penn State. The first major Division I school to add hockey in decades, Penn State’s arrival may be the tipping point of college hockey’s upheaval, but its entry into the Division I fray is important. It very well could lead to further expansion down the line.
In fact, Penn State’s arrival might be one of the greatest samples from which other athletic departments can examine. The success of the Nittany Lions hockey program, or lack there of, is going to go a long way in inspiring or detracting other big schools to give it a shot.
But even without all those extra expectations, Penn State’s arrival is welcome. It expands college hockey’s footprint and exposes the game to one of the largest student bodies and alumni bases in the country. It helped bring college hockey to the Big Ten and it’s just plain fun to have fresh blood.
The Nittany Lions can’t have too lofty expectations placed on them just yet. Going it as an independent this year will come with ups and downs, but you have to start somewhere and it shouldn’t take long for this program to gain steady footing. Penn State will open its first Division I season Friday night in Happy Valley against AIC.
This will also be a historic season on the coaching front as Boston College’s Jerry York, one of the most respected men in the coaching profession, will assuredly become the all-time winningest coach in Division I college hockey, needing just 12 wins to pass Ron Mason’s 924. BC’s string of dominance over the last seven years has been truly remarkable. When York passes the mark, there shouldn’t be a single college hockey fan that doesn’t celebrate right along with him (yeah, even you, BU fans).
So yes, this is certain to be an incredible year one way or another, how ever bittersweet it may be.
Regardless of your feelings on realignment, this is a season to be celebrated. Though traditions may soon be lost, they’re not lost yet. There’s no reason this can’t be the greatest season in the history of Division I college hockey. Now it’s up to the players, coaches and fans to decide just how incredible it can be.