'Do We Talk About It Regularly? Yes'
NCHC Commissioner on Arizona State, and More
by Avash Kalra/Senior Writer
The National Collegiate Hockey Conference is already almost three years old, and it's safe to say that the conference — which formally began play in the 2013-14 season — has stayed well ahead of its growth curve.
Last year, after all, six of the conference's eight teams advanced to the NCAA tournament, tying the record for the most teams to make the 16-team field from one conference in the same season (WCHA, 2008), and the league is well-positioned for a similar national presence this year. Currently, four of the top nine teams in the Pairwise are NCHC squads — St. Cloud State (No. 2), North Dakota (No. 3), Denver (No. 8), and Nebraska-Omaha (No. 9).
And on the eve of a highly-anticipated outdoor showcase featuring one of the league's biggest rivalries, the esprit de corps among the NCHC brass appears to be high.
"We had a nice run in non-conference action," said Josh Fenton, the NCHC's first and only commissioner thus far, "and it seems as though we are appropriately positioned."
Indeed, NCHC teams finished non-conference play this season with a combined record of 48-26-10, and that .631 winning percentage leads all six conferences for the second consecutive season. The NCHC has been particularly dominant against the Big 10, sporting a 14-1-1 mark against Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State, Ohio State, Minnesota, and Wisconsin this season.
Still, "status quo" is an unfamiliar concept in college hockey, as change — whether in reference to conference alignment, rules changes, coaching changes, and more — is much more the norm. And indeed, while it would be easy for Fenton and the NCHC to rest on the laurels of their success so far, they're still looking to the future, both immediate and distant.
First, in the immediate future, is an outdoor showcase scheduled for tomorrow evening, when Denver and Colorado College continue their traditional in-state rivalry with a game at the Colorado Rockies' home stadium, Coors Field. It's the only outdoor men's college hockey game this season, and comes just two days after Denver toppled CC, 4-1, in Colorado Springs.
"It's tremendous," said Fenton, who noted that the game is approaching 25,000 ticket sales. "It's a credit and a testament to one of the most historic rivalries in college hockey. More than the league, it's about the schools and the student-athletes participating. "
Denver and CC, of course, have been on opposite trajectories during the NCHC's existence thus far. While the Pioneers have advanced to the NCAA tournament each season (and even won the inaugural playoff championship), CC has struggled to keep up with its conference colleagues.
Fenton, though recognizing the Tigers' struggles, expects that — sooner or later — the narrative will change.
"It's not unique to one particular member [of the league]," said Fenton. "I think that it's cyclical. We knew it was going to be competitive in conference play. Someone will finish first, and someone will finish last. These are high-achieving programs, and the strength of a conference competitively is measured by home many teams go to the tournament.
"The teams at the top today may not necessarily be at the top next year, or the year after."
Fenton, certainly, has the best interests of the entire league in mind — and has since he became Commissioner prior to the inaugural campaign. On the ice changes have included a revolutionary (for college hockey) three-on-three overtime format. Whether other leagues incorporate the format remains to be seen.
"The Big 10 has the shootout, so they're maybe open to it," said Fenton. "I hope there's a discussion nationally about overtime, how we can best approach it."
Off the ice, in addition to improving the financial status of the league, Fenton has led the way for a successful playoff tournament, the "Frozen Faceoff" that's held each March at the Target Center in Minneapolis, and for the launch of NCHC.tv, the first single-sport conference digital network to have been developed across all other NCAA single-sport conferences.
Importantly, under Fenton's guidance, the NCHC has also been a leader in ensuring appropriate Concussion Management Protocols at each member school.
Looking further to the future, an obvious question is whether there's room for additional growth — beyond the current eight members. Naturally, one potential future move could include the addition of Arizona State, currently playing as an independent program in its first year as a Division-I hockey program.
Arizona State, by the way, would fit the NCHC's current geographical model of including member schools from, generally speaking, the center of the country, and geography — to Fenton — is critical.
"There's a lot to be said about geography," said Fenton. "We got away from it with realignment, but geography should absolutely be considered. There are cost and other expenditures that go into it."
As for Arizona State?
"We don't necessarily have a specific plan in place. Do we talk about it regularly? Yes we do. We want to have these discussions, but nothing has been decided. From a holistic, college hockey point of view, we have to continue to discuss what's in the best interest in college hockey.
"We've had conversations with them generally over the last few months. It's been just that. They're probably focused on playing their first Division I season, and rightfully so, and they're focused on developing plans for a new facility. We've been able to give them feedback on some things when they've asked, but it's been nothing further."