Big Ten Hockey Looms, as Penn State Arena Ahead of Schedule
Super Conference Could Happen By 2013
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
There's few reasons to drive from Pennsylvania to Buffalo on a wintry February night.
But for Joe Battista, there's a very good one — he will be supporting Terry Pegula, who will be introduced Tuesday as the new owner of the Buffalo Sabres.
Just five months ago, Pegula was introduced to the college hockey universe as the benefactor whose $88 million donation allowed Penn State to build a new hockey arena and fund a Division I men's and women's hockey program — the start of seismic shift in the college hockey landscape.
No man was more thrilled by that news than Battista — the former coach of Penn State's club program, long-time school employee, and long-time dreamer that the day would finally come. And no person, besides Pegula, was more responsible for making it happen.
So Battista was, understandably, determined to be by Pegula's side for the latest news.
"I'm glad for him," Battista said. "It shows people what passion he has for this. ... Some of the people that were a little bit taken aback by the gift to Penn State will understand now, this is a guy totally committed to growing the sport."
Meanwhile, things march forward for Penn State. Battista is now the man in charge of overseeing everything — making sure the arena building process has its ducks in a row, guiding the school as it decides its future conference, and leading the coaching search.
The arena construction, Battista said, is ahead of schedule — and is now set to be complete in September 2013. That means Penn State, scheduled to begin play in 2012, will only have to play one season in the old arena.
Originally, the plan was for Penn State to play two seasons as an independent, then find a conference to join when the new arena was completed. That plan may be pushed up.
"There's a chance we may play in a conference earlier than we had thought," Battista said.
And, more than ever, that means the Big Ten.
Currently, the Big Ten is doing due diligence — a fact-finding study — on whether to form an official hockey conference. That process appears to be nothing but a formality at this point. For better or worse, a Big Ten Hockey Conference is on the way.
"I don't think it's any big secret that a Big Ten conference is certainly a very real possibility," Battista said. "But we've talked about, if that does occur, then we want to have scheduling agreements with the CCHA and WCHA that will allow for rivalries to be maintained.
"The commissioners of the WCHA and CCHA have been in touch with the ADs in the Big Ten, and (they are) aware we're trying to do the right thing. I'd anticipate a decision would be made on this within the next couple months. I would think no later than the coach's convention in late April.
"We really do want to be good stewards, and that's why we're trying to work with everybody here."
Still, 2013 might be too ambitious, Battista said. So even with the early finish to the arena, a Big Ten still may not begin until 2014. It's unlikely, however, Battista said, that Penn State would pursue joining the CCHA or WCHA as an interim step.
"The idea of playing in an existing conference for a couple of years and then having a Big Ten, it's been bandied about, and it's still a consideration," Battista said. "But our preference would be to join a Big Ten as soon as possible.
"We don't want to put ourselves at a competitive disadvantage by joining a league too early, but we're part of a bigger picture here. Change is never easy. I think ... if you're looking at the opportunities we have to grow the sport and maximize the exposure, having Penn State and the brand that it brings with it, is a positive thing."
There doesn't seem to be any obstacles to that happening at this point. As has been well-documented, this will cause enormous upheaval in college hockey, and surely the WCHA and CCHA powers-that-be are already planning for this. The conferences will lose some long-time dominant programs, and will need to decide how to react. The remaining schools could splinter into other new conferences, or team together somehow, or remain as is. Or something else. No one knows yet.
There has already been talk, however, of making sure there are scheduling arrangements in place when this happens — so that the remaining WCHA and CCHA programs aren't left completely on an island.
"Michigan has long-standing rivalries (in the CCHA) and they've tended to dominate, so it will push a lot of people outside their comfort zone," Battista said. "I understand, I empathize, but I believe in my heart any time you can add another nationally recognized school to the mix, it can only in the end mean good things.
"There may end up being smaller conferences that come out of this, which means more opportunity for automatic qualifiers."
"When it's all said and done, any of the members of the Big Ten know their conference affiliation on an athletic department basis is what allows their athletic departments to function. That revenue sharing from television and tickets is what pays for a lot of other sports. So that allegiance to the conference is important."
Battista said he expects to hear more after the Big Ten athletic directors meet the conference's basketball tournament in March.
Meanwhile, the coaching position has been posted, and resumes are already coming in.
There are also people Penn State wants to pursue, whether it be current Division I head coaches, or even personnel in the NHL. But Penn State will wait until teams' seasons are over before making any moves.
"What I promised is that we would not interrupt people during their seasons," Battista said. "We want to be very respectful of the fact that there is playoff preparation going on. I think we'll be evaluating applications that are coming in. ... (But) we want to keep people in the mix. We don't want to leave anyone out because they're still playing. We don't want to punish them for being successful."
Battista cautioned that Penn State will not break the bank for the biggest name out there, however.
"We're not going to pay Nick Saban, Tom Izzo kind of money," Battista said, referring to Alabama's and Michigan State's prominent football and basketball coach, respectively. "We're not going to suddenly be at the top of the pay scale in D-I. That's not the Penn State way. Joe Paterno is nowhere near the top paid coaches in football.
"But at the same time this will be one of the most sought after jobs. It's in a great location for a family, and we're going to be in a great recruiting area."