Big Ten Hockey a Looming Reality
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Big Ten Hockey Conference.
Just saying the name causes twitches among college hockey personnel and followers alike. For years, it was legend, myth, speculation — something to be feared. It might as well been Big Foot, not Big Ten.
The creation of the Big Ten TV Network, and its success, forced people to start taking the idea more seriously. And with that, the hand-wringing followed. Would a Big Ten Hockey Conference harm the rest of college hockey?
That never-ending debate was rendered moot with all five teams involved. But the announcement today that Penn State is finally adding a Division I program has put the issue front and center on college hockey's agenda. If you thought last summer's maneuverings — which resulted in Nebraska-Omaha shifting conferences — was big, then you ain't seen nothin' yet.
On the surface, the principles in today's news were quick to say that nothing was resolved yet. Penn State won't be playing until 2012, and won't even be looking to join a conference until its new arena is done in 2014. Penn State athletic director Tim Curley said at today's news conference that his school would be respectful of the situation, and make a decision after consultation with both Big Ten people and current college hockey people.
"We haven't had time yet to have those discussions," Penn State athletic director Tim Curley said. "Big Ten Hockey is just outstanding right now. So we look forward to having great competitions (with the current hockey-playing BT schools) and bringing them to Happy Valley once we open."
The Big Ten home office did anticipate the myriad of questions, and was ready with a statement that addressed the issue head on.
"Big Ten rules allow for a championship whenever there are six institutions sponsoring a program in any given sport," the statement read. "This leads to the presumption that there will be a Big Ten Men’s Ice Hockey Championship at some point in the future. A decision of that nature, however, cannot be made without a significant amount of discussion both internally with conference chancellors, presidents, administrators and coaches, and externally with the hockey community as a whole. Whatever we do, we will communicate in a respectful and responsible way as we endeavor to balance all of the unique interests in play."
Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis chimed in as well.
“Penn State’s announcement is outstanding for college ice hockey. Adding sports programs is out of the norm in today’s intercollegiate athletics world and I commend Penn State for this commitment," Holli said. "It is premature for anyone to speculate on Penn State’s transition process into Division I ice hockey. I look forward to working with Tim Curley and others in continuing to strengthen the sport nationally, a sport that is so important to the State of Michigan.”
But behind the scenes, the wheels are in motion. They have been ever since the Big Ten TV Network started and was proven successful, and they've been in faster motion since it was clear big news was coming from Penn State.
Wisconsin has been one school known eager to create a Big Ten Hockey Conference (heretofore: BTHC), and its athletic director, former football coach Barry Alvarez, all but let the cat out of the bag yesterday in an article published in the Wisconsin State Journal.
“I don’t know the logistics — how long it takes to get out of a league — but I sense that we will move in that direction (of a BTHC),” he said.
The Big Ten has a regularly-scheduled meeting slated for next month, where this issue is sure to be on the docket.
Most people in the hockey universe seem convinced that a Big Ten Hockey Conference is not just inevitable, but imminent.
“I can’t imagine Penn State going to the effort of adding hockey without the understanding it will be playing other Big Ten schools,” Minnesota coach Don Lucia told the Duluth News-Tribune.
In a statement, the CCHA said only this:
“We are excited to hear that Penn State has decided to launch Division I men’s and women’s hockey and will be making such a substantial commitment to the sport. The CCHA and our entire membership welcome them to the college hockey family and look forward to supporting their transition into Division I hockey over the next several years.
“The CCHA’s formation 40 years ago was based on the development of emerging programs and, as we set our sights on our next 40 years, we look forward to working with programs such as Penn State and hopefully others, in providing leadership that will increase the profile of college hockey and foster continued growth.”
The WCHA, in particular, has been bracing for the possibility of a Big Ten Conference becoming a reality. The league has already held many serious meetings over the last year about this possibility.
The implications for such a change could be minimal, or they could be enormous. It is hard to say at this point which way it shakes out. There are tons of possibilities, many of which probably haven't even been conceived yet.
The concern of many — and the reason for the twitches — is that consolidating six powerful schools in one hockey conference, with tons of many flowing in, will create a dominant powerhouse to the disadvantage of everyone else. And what would happen to all of the CCHA and WCHA schools that play now, especially the smaller ones like Lake Superior State, Michigan Tech, and so on, ones that struggle as it is?
Legitimate questions, but hard to say whether BTHC automatically means doom. Perhaps to some, but many strong hockey schools should expect to stay strong.
Penn State remains circumspect on the whole thing. It's clear Curley is sensitive to the issue.
"Our goal is to work with the hockey community to make sure we continue to advance the growth of the sport," Curley said. "We have no intention of hurting any conference or hurting college hockey. One of the reasons Terry was so passionate was not only to grow Penn State, but also to make this a transformational gift that impacts all of North American hockey. So we're sensitive to it."
But, as he said ...
"At the end of the day, we'll do what's best for everyone, but also obviously what's best for Penn State."