July 09, 2011
It was revealed this week that at least six teams from the WCHA and CCHA will break off from their conferences and create their own "super-conference" in the 2013-14 season, the same year that the new Big Ten Hockey Conference will be launched.
Between the two new conferences, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, North Dakota, Denver, Colorado College, Nebraska-Omaha, Minnesota-Duluth and Miami will be moving on. Newly-formed Penn State will join them. Arguably all (save for UNO and obviously Penn State) are titans of college hockey, historic programs with more NCAA titles under their belts than all other 47 teams in the nation combined.
(UPDATE: Colorado College, Denver, Miami, Minnesota-Duluth, Nebraska-Omaha and North Dakota have announced their intentions to form a new conference in 2013-14)
That leaves five teams each from the CCHA and WCHA to fend for themselves in the wilderness. Now, that probably means that the leagues will merge, leaving a relatively weak 10-team conference. With all due respect, one doesn't imagine that a conference headlined by Notre Dame and also featuring the likes of Alaska, Alaska-Anchorage, Bemidji, Bowling Green, Ferris State, Lake Superior State, Michigan Tech, Mankato, Northern Michigan, St. Cloud and Western Michigan will quite be a juggernaut.
Especially if all those rumors about Notre Dame wanting to jump to Hockey East are true. And from what I've heard, that very well could happen.
This is, unequivocally, horrible for college hockey. Further, it's selfish, greedy and shortsighted on the parts of all 11 teams leaving for the new super-conferences. However, the teams forming the as-yet-unnamed conference are far worse.
One supposes the Big Ten Conference — while certainly bad for college hockey — was in some ways inevitable. Fans have been wondering about it for years and it probably behooves the teams involved to join the athletic conference that the rest of its teams already participate in.
But this new group of deserters? They're going to be the death of college hockey as we know it.
They're ensuring that their chances of regularly sending a handful of teams to the NCAA tournament remains intact, sure, and lots of people will show up to see them play each other. But it's not like those teams were doing badly to begin with, on the ice, at the box office or in the souvenir shop. Try to throw a rock without hitting at least three people in Grand Forks without a Sioux jersey or season ticket. They're probably Gopher fans.
What they've essentially done is left other programs for dead. Far be it for me to advocate a welfare system in college hockey, but what the hell, one has existed for years anyway. The NCAA has been giving autobids to shall-we-say undeserving conferences for years, and how much good has it done them? Next to none. Teams and conferences have been folding left and right in the last few years, and no one seems particularly concerned about the state of the sport at the college except for people who want to write weepy eulogies to teams no one cared about at relatively small schools that can't support the team without the money brought in by bigger teams. Imagine what a weekend's worth of gate receipts against Minnesota or NoDak means to teams like Michigan Tech.
By creating this new conference, the six teams are ensuring their own insulation from the fallout created by the Big Ten by shoving smaller teams into its path.
And yeah, there's been talk about the Big Ten forming an interlocking schedule with the WCHA and CCHA, but that was before the second conference came into being. What we have now is a very good chance for the two new conferences to have those interlocking schedules while teams like UAA and WMU go wanting for games against teams that have made the NCAA tournament in the past decade.
There are bigger implications for the rest of college hockey too, of course. What's to now stop Eastern powers like Cornell, BC, BU, Yale, UNH and Maine from making another super-conference?
In effect, these titans of college hockey, the names most associated with the sport, owe it something. Just as the NHL sees itself as a sort of international steward of the sport of hockey, those bigger schools have some sort of duty to ensure the overall health of the sport at the Division 1 level.
Breaking off into little cliques is not the way to do it, as it does nothing to promote or grow an already-insular and provincial sport. In fact, it's probably fair to say that their doing so actively prevents new programs from starting (unless they get tens of millions of dollars in donations from a rich alum, right Penn State?).
Unless something changes, dominoes are going to keep falling like this for the foreseeable future and college hockey is headed for an unhappy and uncertain future.