NCAA Hockey 101: Will Canadian school join Div. 1?

Damon James Photography

College hockey has grown in the last few years, with Penn State and then Arizona State adding Div. 1 NCAA programs.

So far, both have been fairly successful at least insofar as establishing their spot in the sport, and seem to be well-supported. And possibly as a result of how well those schools have transitioned from club hockey to the highest level of the college game, others are starting to dream bigger as well.

Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, and Minot State University in Minot, North Dakota, are both now reportedly considering a jump to Div. 1 as well.

As far as bonafides go, it's important to note that Minot State and Simon Fraser are both NCAA Div. 2 participants right now. SFU, despite being located in Canada, was admitted back in 2009 and competes in the Greater Northwest Athletic Conference. Minot has been in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference since 2012 (the same conference as Bemidji State, Minnesota-Duluth, Minnesota State, and St. Cloud).

However, Div. 2 does not really exist in college hockey (except for the Northeast-10, a small New England-based conference), so Simon Fraser competes in BCIHL — Canada's NCAA equivalent — while Minot only has a club team.

What you have to remember about why Penn State and Arizona State have made the transition is simple: The Pegula family cut Penn State a check for $102 million to start both a men's and women's program, and build a rink. Meanwhile, ASU's athletic department is richer than Croesus but still required donations totaling about $32 million to elevate its club team to Div. 1, and still doesn't have a rink of its own.

To that point, we must consider the words of Minot State athletic director Rick Hedberg, who told the Associated Press, “If finances weren’t a part of it, it’s a no-brainer.”

That is, obviously, a massive “if.” Right now, it seems that the only one really and truly pushing for such a jump is Minot State coach and director of hockey ops Wade Regier. To be fair, Regier has brought the Beavers to the ACHA's club hockey national quarterfinals in each of the last four years. And the school has actually accumulated a number of sizable donations — totaling somewhere between $5 million a $10 million, which is obviously a big gap even in estimate — to put toward getting the program off the ground. But again, $30 million or more is usually seen as the benchmark just to get to the point at which you can start giving out scholarships reliably. And that's just for one program. Minot might also need to add a women's team for Title IX purposes. And it would almost certainly need to renovate its rink — a small arena that also houses an NAHL team and local clubs — to meet NCAA standards.

Getting the cash together is also the problem for Simon Fraser, the only non-US college in NCAA competition at any level. While the Clan has been a decent BCIHL team for a while now, and the idea of having a Div. 1 school in the hockey-dense Vancouver area is attractive, one must consider that SFU only spends about $11.5 million on NCAA athletics annually right now and only wants to expand that to “$20 million or more within the next five to 10 years.” Hockey could be part of that, but again, where does the money to get things off the ground come from?

The school is now putting together a consultation to help figure that out and give the athletic department a business model to follow going forward, and should have an answer in the next several months. It certainly seems like the market is at least viable.

In the past, SFU has made noise on this front, but it was really only from the program's coach, not higher-ups in the athletic administration. Several years ago, the school rather informally looked at how it might make a move to Div. 1 but these were extremely preliminary and ended up mostly in tire-spinning. That athletic director Theresa Hanson has now thrown her weight behind this — and seems to be enthusiastic about the prospect of the move — is a step forward, but not one that necessarily guarantees success. Spending money on a consultation at least indicates the school is far more serious about this than it has been in the past.

But now the bad news: Schools have gone down this path before and all the enthusiasm in the world didn't end up being worth $32 million. The AP article on Minot specifically cites the efforts of Minnesota State-Moorhead back in 2009, which quietly raised about $15 million of the $37 million it needed to start its own Div. 1 program. When it announced in 2011 it had raised that much money, it was hoping more people would be encouraged and follow suit with large donations. They never really came. About a year later, the school's athletic department said the effort was dead.

That, then, is the big issue. Your local market can love the hell out of hockey — and both Minot and Simon Fraser can reasonably say that's the case — but being able to come up with tens of millions of dollar is always the stumbling block. You need a Pegula family, or at least a small team of people willing to cut you a check for millions of dollars each, to even consider it.

Were I to handicap it, I'd say Simon Fraser is far more likely to get a program started in the next decade than Minot State. People in college hockey had been talking about the possibility of Penn State adding a program for at least that long, and nothing ever came of it until Terry Pegula sold his natural gas company for billions. So this is always going to be one of those “I'll believe it when they have the press conference” situations. There's no other rational way to approach it.

Again, Penn State is in good shape because it got a rink and a program shuttled into a ready-made conference after a year of being independent. Arizona State still doesn't have a building of its own, and played at both the Coyotes' arena and what was effectively a local high school rink. There have been rumblings that the city of Phoenix would try to build an arena to house both the Sun Devils and Coyotes at some point, but that's a ways off even if the plans got pushed through tomorrow, which obviously isn't close to happening either.

The idea of adding more college hockey programs all over North America is obviously an attractive one that's good for the sport as a whole (imagine how well a British Columbia-based program does in recruiting!) but right now neither of these efforts seem to be much more than some particularly hopeful angling.

It's too bad, but it's reality: Until you have the money, you can talk about it all you want.

(Photo via SFU Hockey)

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist and also covers the NCAA for College Hockey News. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

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Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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