September 28, 2011 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Notre Dame Decision Won't Be Last One

by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor

Notre Dame is nearing a decision on which conference it wants to join. And as reported early in the summer by CHN, its decision has hinged all along on which conference would allow them to best leverage a television deal. Notre Dame's goal is not the revenue from such a deal, but the exposure that it can bring to the program.

Before the NCHC was formed, we first wrote about Hockey East being a likely landing spot for Notre Dame. The NCHC's creation changed the dynamic. But the recent decision by Syracuse and Pitt to leave the Big East, the conference Notre Dame belongs to in all other sports except football, did not change the dynamic, despite speculation by some that the Big Ten could come into play. In reality, it's been Hockey East or NCHC all along.

Now there are indications Hockey East is the choice, although things aren't a done deal yet. Something could be announced, though, within a matter of days.

Things started to come together once Notre Dame finalized its television deal. It's not a "Notre Dame Network" that has been rumored — at least not yet (University of Texas starts its own network this fall) — but it's an agreement with a network to televise all home games.

A main reason why Notre Dame's football program remains independent is because it has its own national television package. It doesn't need a conference, and it would only get in the way. Notre Dame's hockey program is not as interested in being independent, so it needs to find a conference partner willing to accept its television package.

And that's where things stand.

The NCHC seems, at this point, to be less willing to acquiesce to Notre Dame, while Hockey East is a better fit. It's possible Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick could amend things a bit, since it's the school's belief that the West falls more into the team's recruiting footprint. And there's still some time to work that out.

If that doesn't happen, the Irish will happily play in Hockey East with fellow Catholic schools Boston College, Providence and Merrimack.

It's interesting that Notre Dame is sitting there, along with Bowling Green, as the only schools without a declared conference for 2013-14.

It seemed, in the spring, that future movement all hinged on Notre Dame. But, turns out everyone else decided not to stick around and wait for Notre Dame's decision. Fellow CCHA team Miami joined five WCHA schools to form the NCHC. They were eventually joined by St. Cloud State and Western Michigan, while the rest of the Western schools merged together in a new-look WCHA.

But Notre Dame's decision will not mark the end of the dominoes falling. It will just mark another round. This spring-into-summer-into-fall of tumult in college hockey is not over yet.

If Notre Dame goes to Hockey East, expect Hockey East to pursue adding a 12th team. Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna acknowledged Tuesday that he's been holding up scheduling for the 2013-14 season while waiting to hear from Notre Dame, and acknowledged that an even number of teams is a favorable scenario.

While many have speculated that Connecticut would be the natural fit — it would join fellow New England state schools Vermont, UMass, Lowell, New Hampshire and Maine — UConn currently has a tiny building and doesn't award any scholarships. While UConn has shown it can become a power in a sport when it decides to upgrade the program, there is no indication they are ready to do so with men's ice hockey.

The school that most likely fits in is Rensselaer. On the one hand, its academic profile and size — not to mention geography — more closely resembles its fellow ECAC schools. On the other hand, RPI was courted by Hockey East twice before, when it was formed in the early '80s, and again in the mid-'90s, ultimately deciding against it both times. And, most importantly, the idea is supported by its current administration, including head coach Seth Appert and athletic director Jim Knowlton (despite his lip service to the contrary, as was reported Tuesday by Ken Schott of the Schnectady Gazette).

If that happens, the dominoes will keep on falling. The ECAC will have an opening, and the most logical choice to switch leagues would be RIT. RIT instantly became a perennial power in Atlantic Hockey when it joined after moving its program up from Division I. Unable to give scholarships, because it's a Division III institution (RPI is also, but was grandfathered in), RIT fits in nicely with the ECAC schools in every way.

That possibility could put a serious monkey wrench into some other plans that could be brewing.

We didn't forget Bowling Green. The Falcons still haven't made a decision on whether to accept the WCHA's invitation to join. Why is that?

Bowling Green athletic director Greg Christopher, a sharp guy who pegged all of this tumult two years ago as he was trying to save his own hockey program, has turned down repeated requests for an interview. So we can only speculate on what's going on, although we do know there was another recent meeting with Atlantic Hockey schools.

It says here that Bowling Green would've most preferred an alliance between the remaining CCHA teams and four Atlantic Hockey schools — Mercyhurst, Canisius, Niagara and Robert Morris. He helped spearhead a meeting that was first reported by CHN during the summer.

Ultimately, Lake Superior State and Alaska stated a strong preference for the WCHA, leaving just Bowling Green, Ferris State and the four Atlantic schools. That was a too-precarious six-team alignment, so it fell through, and Ferris State grabbed the WCHA opportunity. But Bowling Green has not. Why?

Bowling Green will not get a crack at the NCHC. Eight is a good number for that league. It will go to nine for someone like Notre Dame — under the right terms, as we've seen — but not for Bowling Green.

So something must still be brewing with those Atlantic schools. The key is whether they can get a sixth school to join in, such as Air Force or RIT, or, as was reported late last week, a newcomer in Buffalo. It's also key that these schools feel comfortable enough having that few schools in the conference.

However, if RIT has its eyes on the ECAC, then it throws another wrinkle into things.

Of course, the clock is ticking on Bowling Green. It got an extension on the WCHA's invitation deadline to Oct. 7, but probably won't get another one.

Can all of this come together for yet another new league, or Atlantic Hockey sister league, in time for the Oct. 7 deadline? We're hearing that, yes, it's possible.

In the end, every corner of college hockey may be affected by the falling dominoes.

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