Commentary: Into the Unknown
Big Ten Hockey Will Set off Chain Reaction
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
The cataclysm is here.
Or is it?
That's a question that will be debated for years.
But the official word that the Big Ten will form a hockey conference beginning in 2013-14 — pulling powers Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio State and Michigan State out of their current conferences — is clearly the most seismic shift to the college hockey landscape since five teams left the ECAC to form Hockey East in 1984. That was 27 years ago, for those keeping score at home.
I was on record as far back as four years ago saying that the Big Ten was inevitable, and that we should just all embrace it instead of resisting it. I figured that it could be good — it would allow the remaining schools to have a better shot at NCAA autobids, and maybe that was actually better for those programs.
But now that it's here, the worry wart in me is concerned.
In particular, though, I'm most concerned about the lack of regard the Big Ten had for the other conferences. Sure, everyone at Penn State and the Big Ten said it was concerned about the overall well being of college hockey. But what has it done to show that?
This announcement was made before any sort of scheduling deal was made — if there is, in fact, one ever coming. I've been told that the Big Ten may have expedited the announcement in order to give everyone else more time to figure out where the dust will settle. If so, OK, but it still would've be nice to take some time and figure out how to be the good soldier they've talked about.
I love the idea of Penn State hockey, and I feel great for a guy like Joe Battista, the former club coach and current associate AD at PSU, who had been determined for years to get it and had started to give up hope. And in many ways, adding Penn State to the hockey family is a great thing. But it's not going to be great if it comes at the expense of existing programs.
Of course, that's not all on Penn State, and nothing should stop them from forming a program. But Penn State talks about how great this is for college hockey, yet there's nothing being done by anyone in the Big Ten to prevent a possible catastrophe — i.e. seeing other programs disappear. If everyone were just honest, it would feel better. Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez — and he's not the only one — trumpets how this will get college hockey "more exposure" on television. But, no, it won't give college hockey more exposure — it will give the Big Ten college hockey schools more exposure. Others may suffer.
It reminds me of when the WCHA was excited to poach Nebraska-Omaha from the CCHA and add Bemidji State. They said it was a great day because Bemidji State was saved. But it only added BSU after finding a 12th team in UNO. So it wasn't a great day for the CCHA; saving Bemidji State came at the expense of the CCHA.
The remaining 10 programs in the WCHA will most likely be fine, once it figures out where the Final Five will wind up. Although it's losing its top TV market, and a team that was on television every single game. Who will be jumping to televise the WCHA Tournament the way Fox Sports North does every year?
Even still, the WCHA will be better off than the CCHA, also losing its biggest market. The CCHA is in some trouble. It will be down to eight teams. The revenue that Michigan, in particular, helped bring to the league, will be gone. The revenue from the conference tournament at Joe Louis Arena, largely driven by Michigan fans, will be gone. Where will the tournament even go?
Miami and Notre Dame are strong, of course, but can that be sustained? Bowling Green and Western Michigan just got their programs back on solid ground. They say they are prepared, but will revenues be there? And what about Ferris State, Lake Superior State and Northern Michigan? Smaller schools without much margin for error.
And for those saying this now gives Alabama-Huntsville a second chance for admission to the CCHA — actually there is even less of a chance now. The biggest reason why UAH was not admitted was because of the cost of traveling to Huntsville. Well, costs are going to be an even bigger concern now.
In and of itself, I'm not so much worried about the ability of Big Ten schools to stockpile players. They'll still only be allowed to give 18 scholarships, and we've seen what happens when those teams try to just stockpile blue chippers — it often backfires.
The concern is moreso the money — the money that the left-behinders will lose, the impact that will have on their own recruiting budgets, a potential drain on attendance and more revenue loss, and a snowball effect.
Another thought ... all of the other five conferences are single-sport conferences. This is great for accessibility, to fans and media. This is great for all of them collaborating on at least some base level of cooperation. The current conferences are filled with passionate hockey people. The Big Ten office, on the other hand, has to deal with 25 men's and women's sports, and has a commissioner in Jim Delaney who is a powerful guy, but is way out there on his own pedastal compared to the current commissioners group. There is no "hockey guy" in there, and no plans to get one. The Big Ten works more like the NCAA behemoth than it does the homespun Hockey East home office, for example.
If the creation of Big Ten Hockey leads to the other Big Ten schools from jumping on board, then that would be fun — Iowa, Northwestern, Illinois. But that's a big if, and if it comes at the expense of other programs, it's a wash.
Everyone is saying nice things publicly. All systems go.
But I wouldn't be so sure.
So what hell hath we wrought?
Maybe nothing. Perhaps it all starts benefiting Eastern schools, which will be able to get more of the high end players coming their way. Perhaps the left-behinders will adapt, keep up on the recruiting trail, and be perfectly fine. Maybe it's a lot of hand wringing over nothing. It's definitely possible it all works out great.
But these are the issues to ponder.
There will be a big chain reaction, of that you can be sure. The possibilities are limitless right now, and will be sorted out over the next few months and years.
As we all ponder the possibilities, however, please remember — there is no grand poobah of college hockey. No one is going to draw up realignment and figure out where everyone goes. It will be a painstaking school by school process, and it might get messy. No matter how much everyone says they want to do what's best for college hockey — and I genuinely believe most everyone wants to — it almost always comes down to each school's best interests. That's because, even those with the best of intentions, soon realize how unwieldy it is trying to get everyone to agree on anything. So, schools just go do what's best for them, and let the chips fall where they may. And maybe that's OK.
Consider some of the possibilities:
The remaining conferences stay as is, but with a scheduling arrangement with Big Ten schools.
Pro: This would be very helpful and nice
Con: When push comes to shove, I don't see everyone working out the details of this sufficiently enough to formalize it (see above about doing what's in their own best interests). There's probably not even enough leftover games for Wisconsin and Minnesota to squeeze in the WCHA teams. How would it do that? "There are some concerns about not having those kinds of programs coming into your building," Minnesota State AD Kevin Buisman told the Mankato Free Press today. "But we're still working on a possible scheduling arrangement with those schools. I'm optimistic that our schedule would not be tremendously different than it is now." ... I don't see it.
The WCHA and CCHA combine, and then split into divisions
Pro: Consolidating power will help everyone
Con: An 18-team conference is unwieldy, and will be hard to get everyone on the same page
Notre Dame and Miami join the WCHA
Pro: It will be great for Notre Dame and Miami
Con: It will be the end of the CCHA, which, if it's going to happen anyway, might be necessary. The other possibility is that, after Notre Dame and Miami leave, Niagara and Mercyhurst jump to the CCHA from Atlantic Hockey. Those schools have long wanted to play with 18 scholarships. That will just extend the ripple effect.
Notre Dame and Miami join Hockey East
Pro: Kinda interesting. Crazier things have happened. Marquette and Depaul are in the Big East, and Boston College is in the ACC.
Con: Again, bye bye CCHA
Alaska and Air Force join the WCHA
Pro: This helps Alaska get off a potentially sinking ship, and play league games against Anchorage. And Air Force would get to be with Denver and CC.
Con: Would the WCHA want those teams, even now?
This is like Wheel of Fortune. And where the wheel stops, nobody knows. Let's hope it's not on "Bankrupt."