May 24, 2011 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Strange Days

Big Ten Ramifications Have Only Just Begun

by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor

The actual ramifications of the Big Ten Hockey Conference's formation will be realized over the next two years or more.

But the chatter about it already sounds like a sonic boom.

And in reality, the wheels are already in motion for many other schools, as the residual effect of the Big Ten decision begins to take shape. While nothing is public yet, and nothing is set in stone yet, things could start happening sooner than you think. That's because a) no one wants to be left holding the bag when the chips start falling; and b) conferences have agreements where any team that wants to move, must give a certain amount of advance notice, typically around a year and a half.

In many ways, the spinning wheels are reminiscent of the decision by five schools to break from the ECAC to form Hockey East, in 1984. That was also a pre-emptive move, preventing those schools from being weakened by a potential Ivy League split, and instead creating a conference of strength.

While anything done now won't be pre-emptive of a Big Ten decision, per se, these schools are thinking pro-actively, at least, about what can be done to strengthen their hand now, before their hand is forced is two years.

Even with a somewhat educated best guess on how all of this could shake down, there are so many unanswered questions.

It all starts with Notre Dame. (Well, it all started with Penn State and the Big Ten, but that's already happened.) Think about it — you're Notre Dame's president. Your sports teams all play in the Big East, or, in the case of football, is the most storied program in college sports. You fire up CHN's iPhone app one morning to check the hockey standings, and what do you see? You see Notre Dame competing against some MAC and D-II schools. You recoil. This is not what Notre Dame does. This is not what Notre Dame is.

That is not a knock on the other schools, it's just reality. There is no way that Notre Dame is staying put. That means that the CCHA is certain to lose its remaining powerhouse (from an institutional, NCAA-wide standpoint), and fall further to seven teams. That means the CCHA is in trouble, as a whole.

Notre Dame's options are limited, then, to spearheading the formation of a "super conference," akin to what Hockey East did, or joining an existing conference.

It's so hard to say right now, with so many variables still out there, but the most likely scenario sees Notre Dame joining Hockey East. Is Hockey East necessarily actively looking to add a team? No. Would Hockey East turn down Notre Dame? Heck no. No one would. The WCHA and ECAC would salivate over it as well. But Hockey East already consists of several "like minded schools." Providence is in the Big East, just like Notre Dame is in every sport except hockey and football. There's also Boston College, a fellow Catholic school and former Big East member, whose football team still plays Notre Dame regularly. There's also Merrimack, another Catholic school.

If that occurs, the remaining CCHA schools are officially in scramble mode. In fact, because they already know this has a good chance of happening, they are already scrambling.

The CCHA, and presumably the WCHA as well, will get together to figure out how to compete against the Big Ten. Of course, what that will mean is money. Which schools are willing to boost their budgets to offset the loss of revenue from the Big Ten schools leaving, the diminished conference tournament revenue, and so on? Which will upgrade the budgets to maintain competitive coaching salaries, television contracts and recruiting budgets?

When that shakes down, you will find out which schools are likely to play together, in two chunks — the haves and have nots.

Now, the common question I hear is, why wouldn't Miami go with Notre Dame to Hockey East?

We can't say it's impossible, but it's a lot harder. As great as Miami has become in hockey, it's not Notre Dame institutionally. Miami may not have the budget that it would require to play in Hockey East. People forget that Miami's arena, as beautiful as it is, only seats 3,600. In fact, that makes it too small to meet the WCHA's minimium requirements, should Miami be thinking in that direction. Will the WCHA relax those requirements under the changed landscape? It's too early to say.

So, now what do we have? We have Notre Dame in Hockey East — and Miami, Bowling Green and Western Michigan the most likely remaining CCHA "haves." That leaves Northern Michigan, Alaska, Ferris State and Lake Superior State.

It's possible one of them will pony up to be with the "haves," but assuming not, a mad scramble will take place. Northern Michigan and/or Alaska could go to the WCHA. That would leave Ferris State and Lake Superior State in dire straits. The best option at that point would be to formulate a conference with the likes of Robert Morris, Mercyhurst, Canisius, Niagara and RIT — and perhaps Air Force. Yes, that's basically the six "Western" Atlantic Hockey schools. These are the schools that would play with 18 scholarships if they have the choice, but right now are restricted to 12 by Atlantic Hockey rules.

If such a move "solves" a problem for those eight schools — and eight is a nice number for a new conference — it creates a massive one for the six remaining Atlantic Hockey schools (Bentley, Holy Cross, Sacred Heart, Army, AIC and Connecticut). You're looking at some schools there that could drop the sport, and the others would have nowhere to go.

The other option is that Atlantic Hockey strengthens, and allows their "haves" to increase the scholarship limit, while then welcoming Lake Superior and Ferris State in, and perhaps create an East/West conference concept. Atlantic Hockey officials recently met to discuss the options.

In fact, every conference is meeting to discuss its options. The problem is, it's hard to tell what to do until someone makes a move. It's like one big Mexican standoff. Everything discussed here is inter-dependent. Notre Dame could start the wheels in motion, or some other group may make a pre-emptive maneuver.

Meanwhile, in case you haven't noticed, we have Miami, Bowling Green and Western Michigan sitting in the wilderness. It's great if these schools decide they want to compete with the Big Ten from a hockey standpoint, but how exactly are they going to do this while sitting out by themselves? This leaves these programs between a rock and a hard place.

So, if anyone will be pushing hard for the "Super Conference" idea, it's those three, particularly Miami. Then again, their travel issues aren't necessarily better under that scenario for Miami than they would be in Hockey East. So again — rock and a hard place.

And while a conference with Colorado College, Denver, North Dakota and Miami would be a nice starting point, it's not easy starting a new conference from scratch. There are a lot of logistical concerns. So, ultimately, keeping all programs within the existing structure somehow, may be more plausible.

What are Miami's options without a "Super Conference," and without Hockey East? I haven't a clue. Maybe Miami, Bowling Green and Western Michigan are forced to stay in a seven-team CCHA, and try to add on Niagara, Mercyhurst and/or Robert Morris, etc... —throw Alabama-Huntsville back into that mix as well — and make the most of it.

The only conference ultimately untouched is the ECAC.

Strange days indeed.

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