Commentary: College Hockey ... Different, But Not
by Joe Meloni/Senior Writer
It made sense the first time I heard a fan bemoan realignment. It was change, of course, and college hockey wasn't necessarily in need of any, especially in terms of its conferences. Change is never really positive or negative. It always just is — the reality it creates is where we decide if it was good or bad.
The initial concerns came from major programs desperate to cling to the rivalries and status that made them great. For smaller, less-renowned programs, realignment meant more work — more dates to fill, more money to find. Those issues are still very much problems for schools and fans, but they will be solved eventually.
Last week's announcement that North Dakota and Minnesota will reignite the rivalry in a couple years, mollified the public to an extent. It almost seems inevitable that these teams will meet in an NCAA Tournament in the next year or two, but that's probably besides the point.
This Friday, Boston College heads down Commonwealth Avenue in Boston for its first meeting of the season with Boston University. Realignment also meant one fewer game between BC and BU with Hockey East forced to drop seven league games from each team's schedule. Everyone plays its 10 conference opponents twice instead of its nine rivals three times. Even if it seems like they're playing every day, more installments of the B-Line Rivalry are good for college hockey.
The first round of the Beanpot guarantees a third this year, and there's a very good chance the clubs will meet at some point in the postseason. But realignment will, eventually, cost college hockey at least one game between BC and BU. However, it also gives us next Sunday's matchup with Army headed to the Heights to play BC. Realignment served as the impetus for the North Star College Cup, which will certainly become a massive point of the pride for the programs in Minnesota.
Invariably, these scheduling differences and losses of symbolically important games led to the type of politicking college hockey is better off without. It was this team's fault that these games weren't being played, which only led to further finger pointing and whining. Ultimately, losing certain games wasn't anyone's fault. Penn State wanted to play Division I hockey, and this is what we're left to watch. And, well, it's been just as compelling, perhaps even more so, than it used to be.
More non-conference games means an opportunity to start new rivalries, new chapters in the already remarkable history of our favorite programs. It's only been five weeks since this new era of college hockey that we anticipated with equal parts dread and intrigue began. The product hasn't suffered in the slightest.
The Big Ten/Hockey East challenge, poorly planned as it was, was just one example of the opportunities presented by realignment. There are four other conferences in the nation, and it's important that every chance to develop true, meaningful rivalries and legacies be explored and seized. It's not the same. But it's just as good. Not every experiment will work, but all of them are worth trying.
Minnesota travels to Notre Dame this weekend for two games in South Bend. Aside from the existing intrigue created by Don Lucia coaching against his son, Mario, and his alma mater, this is the type of non-conference game that should mean as much as any league game. The Gophers, true college hockey royalty, against the Fighting Irish, a program as successful as almost any in the last decade. Beyond that, there are countless other chances from programs, small and large, to expand their reach by finding new opponents to play, new traditions to start. The beauty of college hockey is that new rivalries have a way of developing on their own.
Massachusetts-Lowell and Providence, for example, have played a number of critically important games in the two seasons. With both teams ready to become perennial threats in Hockey East, these two programs — coaches, players and fans alike — are certain to play nothing but meaningful games in the future. For years, Hockey East fans seemed to wait only for BC, BU, New Hampshire or Maine to come to town. The emergence of UML and PC as contenders, along with the addition of Notre Dame, means more powerhouses to hate, more chances for an underdog program to knock off a championship-caliber club.
The last decade has brought nothing but change to college hockey. More high-quality programs and talent led to the parity that produced a Frozen Four with Yale, UML, Quinnipiac and St. Cloud State. It helped Ferris State advance to a national championship game. Even without realignment, college hockey was changing. Redrawing the lines as we did for this season was just another alteration.
It's different. It's still odd to look at Notre Dame's visit to Gutterson Fieldhouse in Vermont last weekend as a conference game. The same is true of the this weekend's games between St. Cloud State and Miami. The games, though, aren't any worse. The season hasn't been less surprising, less interesting.
In so many ways, college hockey seems so different. In just as many ways, those that truly matter, college hockey is just the same.