It was announced on Saturday that six of college hockey's best-known clubs will split away from long-standing committments to their current conferences in order to form a new so-called "super conference" beginning in 2013-14, furthering a massive shakeup of the college hockey landscape.
Denver, Colorado College, Miami (Ohio), Minnesota-Duluth, North Dakota and Nebraska-Omaha will make the switch to the newly-formed conference, and it's quite possible that Notre Dame and Western Michigan could jump ship and join in as well, although there are also rumors that the Irish would like to join Hockey East.
But no matter what the ultimate specifics turn out to be, the world of Division 1 ice hockey in the United States is about to change dramatically. This move by those six schools can only be seen as a response to the formation of the Big Ten Hockey Conference, which will see Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan State, Ohio State and new program Penn State join forces together in the same year, 2013-14.
The common wisdom seems to be that the absence of some of those big ticket names in the CCHA and WCHA is something that cannot be overcome, so six schools have decided to put themselves in the position to help themselves, forming a new league.
But what does that do to the schools left behind, a group that just so happens to be made up of some of collegiate hockey's smallest programs? The departure of the 12 schools from the CCHA and WCHA leaves only Alaska-Anchorage, Bemidji State, Michigan Tech, Minnesota State and St. Cloud State, all tiny schools, in the WCHA. Things are not much better in the CCHA, with Alaska-Fairbanks, Bowling Green, Ferris State, Lake Superior State and Northern Michigan left as the only realistic options to stay in the league.
Notre Dame is almost certainly on the move somewhere, and Western Michigan has very publicly announced that it doesn't want to be part of the CCHA in this new world order.
|Hockey East||ECAC||Atlantic||Big Ten||New Conf.||CCHA||WCHA|
|Boston College||Brown||Air Force||Minnesota||Colorado Col.||Alaska-Fairbanks||Alaska-Anchorage|
|Boston University||Clarkson||American Int'l||Michigan||Denver||Bowling Green||Bemidji State|
|Maine||Colgate||Army||Michigan St.||Miami (Ohio)||Ferris State||Michigan Tech|
|Massachusetts||Cornell||Bentley||Ohio State||Minn.-Duluth||Lake Superior St.||Minn. St.-Mankato|
|UMass-Lowell||Dartmouth||Canisius||Penn State||Neb.-Omaha||N. Michigan||St. Cloud State|
|Merrimack||Harvard||Connecticut||Wisconsin||North Dakota||Notre Dame|
|New Hampshire||Princeton||Holy Cross||W. Michigan|
|Vermont||St. Lawrence||Robert Morris|
Alabama-Huntsville is the lone independent.
We're left with two conferences that cannot stand on their own, as five teams each means no automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament. The quick solution would be to say "hey, they should just merge," but that's too simple a solution.
You'd have a big(ger) conference of 10 small schools that won't draw the big name, big money opponents. Think of the mid-majors in college basketball and you kind of start to get the idea. It's really not a solution.
As a result, there are still a ton of questions left to be answered as we move forward. What will be the future of the WCHA and CCHA? Will those small schools be able to compete? Overall, is this shakeup good or bad for college hockey?
Let's look at some of the talking points that have been scattered around this debate.
Smaller schools now have a better chance at making the NCAA Tournament.
Sure, right now, as those two conferences stand, neither will have an automatic bid. But whatever solution they come up with -- whether it's a straight up merger or some other fix -- there likely will be a conference of smaller schools battling for an auto-bid to the NCAA's. Again, think back to mid-major conferences in college basketball.
Are they on the same playing field as the big time schools? No, they're not. But does a good team in a mid major conference have a better crack at making the NCAA Tournament than a weak team in a power conference? They most certainly do. As SB Nation's Wisconsin blog, Bucky's 5th Quarter, put it...
I sincerely believe that teams like Alaska-Anchorage and Michigan Tech who will actually have a shot at making the NCAA tournament now are actually in a better position. What did their fans have to look forward to before? Getting their teeth kicked in every year? Tech fans went nuts when they finished in 6th place in the league a few years back, can you imagine if they actually made the NCAA tournament?
Smaller schools can't compete for recruits.
College hockey has made inroads against the Canadian Major Junior ranks in recent years, with their ability to offer a highly competitive hockey product alongside a college education. But if you're a young hockey player trying to make the decision on whether or not to go the Major Junior route or the college route, are you going to take an offer from say, Lake Superior State in a watered-down conference, or one from a CHL team?
SB Nation's Western College Hockey Blog offered up the example of Ben Johnson, an American player who played with the National Team Development Program in the USHL a year ago. After weighing an offer from Michigan Tech, and being put on a bit of a wait list by Michigan, Johnson ultimately decided to go with an offer from the Windsor Spitfires of the OHL. And that's with Tech playing in the WCHA, not some weak new conference.
Yes, they can.
For every Ben Johnson, however, there's the player that just wants the best chance to make it to the NCAA's. From the Bemidji State-based Up North Sports Report, here's writer Eric Stromgren.
A few years ago when the Beavers were playing in the four-team College Hockey America conference, I asked a BSU player on the John Glas Fieldhouse ice why he came to Bemidji. Among the reasons he listed was the CHA Tournament.
"At the end of the season it comes down to four teams, two games, two wins and the shortest route to the NCAA Tournament," he said.
Maybe smaller teams will be able to compete in this new landscape, after all. Ask RIT what happens when a small school makes a run at the Frozen Four.
This could happen in the East, too.
With the major powers aligning in the Western college landscape, who's to say this can't happen in the East, too? Lured by the money and the possibility of a big TV deal, better recruits and all of the other perks that come with dollar signs, why wouldn't the powers that be take a hint from their Western friends and form a super conference, leaving programs like Union and Quinnipiac and Providence behind to pick up the pieces?
New super conferences mean more TV exposure, money for college hockey.
Ultimately, this is why these schools have made this decision. Could Miami and Denver and North Dakota and those schools have survived in the WCHA and CCHA? Of course they could have. Losing the likes of Michigan and Minnesota and such obviously hurts those leagues, but they could have made it work.
At the end of the day, it's all about television dollars and more promotion. Big Ten Hockey Conference + Big Ten Network = $$$. It's been reported that this new conference has already talked internally about nationally televised collegiate hockey as well.
There have already been discussions with members of the new league and television executives about getting games nationally televised on Versus, which is expected to soon be re-branded as the NBC Sports Network.
Versus recently agreed to a 10-year contract extension to continue televising NHL games in the United States. The station typically broadcasts NHL games early in the week, which could leave the weekend open for college hockey.
Is that a plausible idea? Would Versus really be interested in televising college hockey games between North Dakota and Minnesota-Duluth? Does anybody on the East Coast or the West Coast, hockey fan or otherwise, care about either of those college programs? Is it realistic?
Smaller programs will have to fold without big program money.
And this is what it all comes down to. Is college hockey, on the whole, better off or worse off in this new system? It's a system where smaller programs will be on a different level than the bigger programs, and there won't be nearly as much crossover between the two. Can smaller programs survive without the bigger programs coming to their rinks to play two games each year?
On the surface, you'd think that no, they can't. The money that flows in to a school like Ferris State when the Michigan Wolverines come to town is just ridiculous, and when you get rid of it, you have programs that have a tough time treading water. But again, let's go back to Bucky's 5th Quarter, the Wisconsin blog that took the time to look at Bowling Green University's attendance numbers from last season.
BG hosted 16 games at home, 8 against big schools (Michigan, Notre Dame, Miami, Ohio State) and 8 against small (Al-Huntsville, Ferris St, Lake St, and Northern). Ticket sales for the 8 big games came to 18,628..for the small 8: 17,271. 1,357 tickets isn't going to make or break a program. Bowling Green actually sold more tickets for the Lake State series than the Michigan series last season.
That's fascinating news right there, but overall, does it add up?
It's hard to say that Bowling Green or Michigan Tech or any of the smaller schools left behind by realignment have the same draw in a weak conference than they do in a beefed up CCHA or WCHA, but the question is whether or not they can thrive in the new landscape of college hockey.
There are arguments both for and against that possibility. Which do you believe?