Is History About to Repeat Itself?
Could Hockey East's Formation 27 Years Ago Be a Glimpse Into the Future, Too?
by Mike Machnik/CHN Senior Editor
Astute NCAA hockey historians will recall that the formation of Hockey East 27 years ago was spurred — some would say forced — by the planned departure of a number of league schools for a new conference.
Is history about to repeat itself?
Comments by Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez make it clear that the addition of Penn State today to the NCAA Division I hockey landscape will result in Big Ten hockey in the very near future. Yesterday, Alvarez told Andy Baggot (Wisconsin State Journal), "I don't know the logistics - how long it takes to get out of a league, all of that - but I sense that we will move in that direction."
That means the WCHA and CCHA will lose five schools between them — Minnesota and Wisconsin from the WCHA (leaving 10 schools), and Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State from the CCHA (leaving 8 schools).
Given that the Big Ten shoe is about to drop, the next question is, do the rest of the Western schools wait for it to hit the floor?
In 1983, rumors were strong that the six Ivy League schools that played hockey were about to leave the ECAC and form their own conference. The Ivies were quite powerful in Eastern hockey, having sent Harvard to the NCAA title game that year and with Frozen Four appearances in the previous 10-12 years by Dartmouth, Brown and Cornell. At the time, the ECAC had 17 schools in three divisions plus Independent affiliate Army. Lowell was also about to join, moving up from Division II.
Rather than wait to see what happened, however, the athletic directors of five of the other ECAC schools — Boston College, Boston University, New Hampshire, Northeastern and Providence — took pre-emptive action and announced the formation of a new league, the Hockey East Association. Those schools had comprised the ECAC's East Region, along with Maine, who in addition to Lowell, agreed to join the other five later that summer and start play in the fall of 1984.
The rest, as they say, is history. The Ivy-only conference never came to fruition — perhaps because the issues that divided the ECAC schools went away as the schools that were left agreed to join together with the Ivies and follow a common set of regulations covering academics and admissions.
But without the threat of the ECAC splintering, which at the time was very real, it's possible that Hockey East would not exist.
We may be able to draw a parallel with the developing Big Ten situation today. Things are clearly happening fast for the five current Big Ten schools playing Division I hockey. Does it make sense for the rest of the Western schools (including Alabama-Huntsville) to sit back as spectators to this whole thing?
I don't think so. More so, I don't think they think so. You've got some pretty smart people running those programs and leagues. I wouldn't be surprised if talks are already under way regarding the landscape of a post-Big Ten college hockey world.
I don't know what that landscape will look like right now, and I doubt anyone does. There are programs in both leagues that have reason to stay together, or be interested in getting together again — remember that Northern Michigan and Notre Dame used to be in the WCHA, for instance. And Michigan Tech, which took the MacNaughton Cup from the WCHA to the CCHA and back again. Not to mention the ties that bind schools in their all-sports conferences in the Midwest. Those conferences could get involved, and the WCHA and CCHA as we know them could cease to exist.
But whatever happens, there's no question in my mind that the other 19 Western programs that are affected need to be — and probably already are — working on this thing now. There's too much at stake.
And they only have to look at Hockey East for a precedent.