July 8, 2011 PRINT Bookmark and Share

This is What You Want, This is What You Get

by Mike Machnik/CHN Senior Editor

For longtime observers of college hockey, word of the new Western "Super League" is just the latest — and far from the only — sign that the game we all grew up watching and appreciating has changed. For good. And not necessarily for the better.

"Baseball...reminds us of all that was good and could be again," said James Earl Jones' character in Field of Dreams, Terence Mann. He could have been talking about college hockey.

A big part of the allure of college hockey over the years has been that hometown feel, that if you played or coached the game, or are a fan or journalist, you share a special kinship. You don't need any more proof of this than to see the way people from all different places and schools interact each year at the Frozen Four. It isn't just three games over three days to decide who gets to take home a trophy. It's a celebration of the game, and of everything we love about it.

Of late, it seems like there's been more to be concerned about, however.

Not that this latest news comes as a surprise. We even surmised that it could happen back in the fall, when news of Penn State's arrival on the scene became official.

In the "old days", we saw the sport rally around programs that needed help. For example, in the early 1990s, as the number of independents dwindled and the Alaska schools were about to be left without a home — and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament — the CCHA and WCHA agreed to each take one of the schools to keep them alive. Without such a tremendous display of teamwork, it's likely that neither program would be around today.

The same desire to grow the sport and help out programs in need also led to the creation of the MAAC (and its evolving into Atlantic Hockey) and CHA, the invitations extended over two decades ago to programs such as Kent State and Notre Dame (CCHA), Merrimack (Hockey East), and more recently, Bemidji State (WCHA), Niagara and Robert Morris (AHA). And the college hockey community rallied around Bowling Green just a few years ago when it appeared the Falcon program was on the verge of being disbanded.

Going back further, when Colorado College was considered the "old guard" and Wisconsin was new, then-CC coach Jeff Sauer made sure to schedule the new guys, just to help them out. Over the years, that became a common practice between the old and the new.

Yet over time, the "every man for himself" mentality has continued to grow, even at the same time as some of these other moves were being made.

Alabama-Huntsville remains a nomad, trying to make a go of it alone as the only independent after being denied acceptance into the CCHA. That followed on the heels of the decision of Wayne State to drop hockey when it could not gain conference membership. Niagara tried to get into Hockey East over a decade ago and failed — although the emergence of the CHA at the time did provide them a viable alternative.

Those decisions, though difficult to understand for some, still made sense to some extent. But we couldn't help but notice as time went by, that the idea of college hockey helping its own was becoming less and less of a driving factor.

Over the years, we've always heard the desire by many to have the game grow more and more. What we loved about the game, we wanted more to see and appreciate. And it has happened. The last two decades have brought us sold out Frozen Fours, national media coverage, attendance numbers like never before, and palatial arenas for many of our programs to play in.

All of which means one thing. Follow the money. Costs are higher than ever before, at a time when many colleges and universities are feeling it like never before. And the money coming in is greater than it ever was.

But this isn't professional sports. There's no revenue sharing, no caps on expenditures. The schools and programs that have the money don't want to give it up, and in fact they want and in many ways need to maximize their own revenues even further.

There's a lot at stake. It's ultimately why we will have Big Ten Hockey, and why the "Super League" is becoming a reality.

And it's hard to sit here and criticize any of the schools for making the decision they have made. They have to do what is best for them.

But it's also hard not to think back to so many times when "doing what's best for me" seemed to take a back seat to doing what was best for all of the game as a whole.

Over the last year we've heard so many people in the game talk about the changing landscape and a desire to keep "the good of the game" at the forefront.

Maybe this is what's best for the game. It almost certainly will lead to more exposure, more interest, more revenue for the programs in the new leagues. And as the better recruits gravitate towards those leagues and programs, it should give us some pretty good hockey.

But we can't help but think about all the programs whose futures are left hanging in the balance. The hope is that they'll be able to band together somehow and forge a new identity that will work for them. Reality, however, indicates that some may have to scale back their investment and support. And some may have no choice but to stop playing.

We're not looking to lay blame here with anyone in particular. No one is to blame.

But when you look at it as a whole, everyone is to blame.

This is what we wanted, for so many years.

Now we've got it.

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