COMMENTARY: Welcome to the Jungle
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
In most ways, the rapidly shifting landscape in college hockey was inevitable. In many ways, it could turn out good. And, over the last week, in further pondering the motivations for the "Super 6" to form a new conference, more of it makes some sense.
With Minnesota and Wisconsin set to leave for the Big Ten, the other WCHA powers (the ones leaving to form the new conference) came to believe their causes would be hamstrung by the "small five." With less revenue committed to those programs, the "big five" believed the "small five" may repeatedly block votes to improve the league through financial investment in various initiatives.
Meanwhile, various programs had become less than enamored with WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod's efforts, but had been unable to ouster him. Apparently, many schools tried, but the setup is more complex than to allow the athletic directors to simply vote him out.
So, with the desire to try to "keep up with the Jonses" — i.e. the Big Ten — the "big five" believed they could not accept the status quo.
While these reasons have merit, the way it all came down remains lamentable. And the potential for negative consequences remains.
I don't consider myself naive or polyanna, but to a large extent, we had come to expect over the years that college hockey was, largely, a group that had at least one eye on the greater good.
But more and more, that's no longer the case.
In 2009, the WCHA aggressively poached Nebraska-Omaha from the CCHA as a way to bring Bemidji State in, while at the same time proclaiming how great it was for hockey. Meanwhile, the CCHA turned down bids from Wayne State and Alabama-Huntsville, doing what was in the league's best interest as a whole, albeit jeopardizing those programs. Wayne State now no longer exists.
In 2010, after Penn State's announcement to start a D-I program, the Big Ten rapidly formed while, at the same time, claiming that what they were doing was great for hockey. It was done without a conversation with the whole as to how to minimize the negative consequences.
Now, the formation of another 6-team splinter conference, made up of the strongest programs from the remaining Western conferences, is the most brazen move of all, being done behind everyone's back and leaving a number of programs stranded.
Give the new "super 6" credit, it has not even pretended — not yet — that what it's doing is good for college hockey. It's clearly doing what's best for themselves. And, to a large degree, there's nothing wrong with that.
Of course, it's hard to feel sorry for the WCHA "Remainders." This week, I was set to write an article saying the time had come for the WCHA and CCHA leftovers to work together to figure out what was best for everyone. It would've been the opportunity for someone to finally do something in the cooperative spirit.
But barely before the laments had time to come out of McLeod's mouth, the WCHA was already hard at work pulling Northern Michigan and Alaska from the CCHA.
The CCHA did its part, asking the WCHA to meet to discuss the situation. Deplorably, the WCHA has decided to wait until Friday's meeting among the "small five" athletic directors to decide whether to accept the invitiation. Why? It should be a no-brainer.
Similarly, the WCHA previously turned down repeated requests from then-CCHA commissioner Tom Anastos to have a meeting prior to Nebraska-Omaha's move to the WCHA.
Meanwhile, the CCHA isn't sitting idle. Not surprisingly, it's already having "discussions," at the very least, with Niagara, Canisius, Robert Morris and Mercyhurst for them to switch from Atlantic Hockey. This is not surprising because this block of schools all wants to play with 18 scholarships, but is limited to 12 by Atlantic Hockey. RMU and Niagara previously were able to do that in the CHA, while Mercyhurst and Canisius are nearby schools who have long expressed their preference for doing so. It makes geographic and logical sense.
Has the CCHA hierarchy informed the Atlantic Hockey hierarchy of these discussions? Who knows.
Maybe all of this is a sign of progress. The conferences, as steeped in tradition as they are, have long been a precarious union of programs mish-moshed from D-I, D-II and D-III, with various types of athletic departments and budgets. This is becoming painfully obvious now.
Of course, in many ways, this was also the charm of college hockey. But it was a charm borne out of necessity, not because of anyone's romantic grand vision. The fact that everyone — and I mean everyone — is acting out of extreme selfishness should not be a surprise, nor is it necessarily evil.
I love tradition and admire loyalty, but I don't think I'm a slave to it. Change is inevitable, and change can be good. Keeps the juices flowing. Snaps people out of complacency.
As the money has grown over the years, the gap between "big" and "small" has become more pronounced. This process happened many years earlier in football and basketball, but has also been happening in hockey over the last two decades.
Without a "commissioner" of all of college hockey, it makes the re-organization painful and not very orderly. But it was nevertheless inevitable. Consequently, everyone ought to just embrace it and make the best of it. After all, the ability for these smaller schools to compete in a conference among themselves, could indeed be a very real positive. And now, if there comes a day when new programs want to be formed, they can more easily find a home in a myriad of conferences.
But there is a right way and wrong way to do things, and it's always worth questioning motivations and reasons.
Are things like common courtesy and respect of peers nothing more than quaint notions?
Everything here is a gamble. The "super 6" are certainly all very good in hockey right now, but they are not powerful institutions. Miami, as great as the program has been, has a new arena that is still only 3200 seats. Colorado College is a D-III institution. And so on. Are these institutions that superior to the "Remainders"? Twenty-five years ago, Michigan Tech, Lake Superior State and Bowling Green would've been among the "powerhouses."
And so, for that gamble, the Gang of Five has decided to blow up a storied league, blow up long-standing relationships, and send five programs twisting in the wind.
Not very neighborly at all. Although not unusual anymore.