College Hockey: Shaken, Not Stirred

A Tumultuous Offseason Leads To Dramatic Changes In The College Hockey Landscape
By: 
Jess Myers

A generous donation from Terry and Kim Pegula to Penn State University helped pave the way for the creation of a new Big 10 hockey conference.A generous donation from Terry and Kim Pegula to Penn State University helped pave the way for the creation of a new Big 10 hockey conference.

When you think about the college hockey programs that have shaped the landscape of the game over the years, most of them did so by fielding a team that brought something new and innovative to the rink – something that had never been seen or done before.

However, a decade from now, we will likely look back and remark about how the college hockey program at Penn State changed the landscape of the Div. I game forever. And amazingly, the Nittany Lions did so without ever throwing a check, making a save or firing a shot on goal.

As the 2011-12 season gets underway, one would think that the biggest stories would come from places like Duluth, Minn., where the defending national champion Bulldogs will attempt to become the first repeat titlists of this decade. Instead, for the past year, much of the news and ground-altering change in the game has come from a town in the hills of central Pennsylvania, wedged in between the rabid NHL fan bases of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, and more known for a legendary football coach than for sticks and pucks. There, one generous donor’s gift set off an amazing chain of events.

It was close to a year ago that Terry and Kim Pegula, owners of the Buffalo Sabres, announced an $88 million gift to Penn State for the construction of a hockey rink. Subsequently, the school announced it was adding varsity hockey, giving the Big Ten six hockey-playing schools (Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Ohio State and Wisconsin are the others).

The folks who wrote “Schoolhouse Rock” many years ago will tell you that three is a magic number. But in the eyes of the NCAA higher-ups who govern collegiate hockey, you need twice that many teams to gain an automatic entry into the 16-team NCAA tournament.

Thus, the game’s first big shake-up was imminently predictable. In March, the Big Ten announced that starting in the 2013-14 season, those six teams would compete for a conference hockey title. That meant that Minnesota and Wisconsin would be leaving the Western Collegiate Hockey Association – where they competed for more than 40 years. And Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State would be departing the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, which was home to that trio for the past three decades.

A few months later, another seismic jolt hit the game, when representatives from six prominent hockey-playing schools – Colorado College, Denver, Miami (Ohio), Minnesota Duluth, Nebraska-Omaha and North Dakota – met on the grounds of the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs. Not far from the birthplace of the NCAA Frozen Four, that sextet announced the formation of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference.

The loss of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University dealt a huge blow to the Central Collegiate Hockey Association.The loss of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University dealt a huge blow to the Central Collegiate Hockey Association.

 

According to those on the inside, the NCHC concept was considered for a long time and borne out of the challenge presented by the Big Ten, both in terms of recruiting and economic impact, primarily from television revenue.

“It was an idea that has taken a long time to percolate,” said Denver coach George Gwozdecky, noting that it was also about giving hockey-playing schools more options. “It certainly wasn’t a rushed decision.”

Unfortunately, in the eyes of many, the formation of the NCHC created a perceived division between those moving to a new conference and those “left behind” in what remained of the WCHA and CCHA.

Left with just five teams (Alaska Anchorage, Bemidji State, Michigan Tech, Minnesota State-Mankato and St. Cloud State), the WCHA first recruited Northern Michigan to come west, once again giving the conference the six-team minimum.

Then, after representatives from both conferences met in August, the WCHA extended invitations to five more CCHA teams (Alaska, Bowling Green, Ferris State, Lake Superior State and Western Michigan). Three of those – Alaska, Ferris State and Lake Superior State – accepted almost immediately, meaning that two years from now the WCHA likely will have at least nine teams, and the CCHA will officially disband after a run of 40-plus years and eight national championships.

In the spring, Tom Anastos left his post as commissioner of the CCHA after 13 years to become head coach at Michigan State. Like many, he thinks that the changes will be good for the game in the long term, as programs with similar resources seem to be aligning in the new conference makeup and may be able to compete on a more level playing field.

University of North Dakota Athletics Director Brian Faison, left, and University of Denver head coach George Gwozdecky unveil the newly formed National Collegiate Hockey Conference during a press conference in Colorado Springs.University of North Dakota Athletics Director Brian Faison, left, and University of Denver head coach George Gwozdecky unveil the newly formed National Collegiate Hockey Conference during a press conference in Colorado Springs.

 

“It’s been a pretty crazy summer,” Anastos said in late August, as he welcomed his first class of freshman recruits to East Lansing. “One positive thing all of the changes have done is they’ve forced every school with a hockey program to reexamine their commitment to the sport. This is an opportunity for them to make sure they’re positioned to compete at the highest levels of the game.”

Others are less optimistic, citing smaller schools with smaller budgets and the fiscal hit they might take if they no longer have annual home games versus high-profile conference rivals as magnets for ticket sales.

Bemidji State coach Tom Serratore admitted that at first there was a feeling of the rug being pulled out from under the Beavers when in-state rivals Minnesota and Minnesota Duluth left for other conferences. But upon reflection, he noted that the team’s schedule won’t change all that much; they’ll still be playing in one of the nation’s newest and nicest college hockey rinks, their recruiting model will remain the same and it’s not like kids are going to stop playing hockey during the long winters in norther Minnesota.

“The whole landscape of college sports has done a 360 in the past few years, and it finally hit college hockey this last summer,” Serratore said, comparing the game’s changes to the conference shake-ups seen elsewhere, with new members joining and/or leaving the Big Ten, Pac-10 (now Pac-12) and Big 12, to name a few examples.

For others who have been around the game for a few years, the conference shuffling is nothing they haven’t seen, and survived, before.

The hugely successful Hockey East association was born roughly 30 years ago when schools like Boston College and Boston University left the ECAC to form a conference of similar schools. And Anastos recalled recently getting a call from legendary Notre Dame coach Lefty Smith, who reflected back on 1980 when the Irish, along with Michigan and Michigan State, announced they would leave the WCHA and join the CCHA.

 

In-state rivals, Colorado College and the University of Denver, will be joined by Miami (Ohio) University, the University of North Dakota, the University of Minnesota-Duluth and the University of Nebraska-Omaha to form the NCHC.In-state rivals, Colorado College and the University of Denver, will be joined by Miami (Ohio) University, the University of North Dakota, the University of Minnesota-Duluth and the University of Nebraska-Omaha to form the NCHC.

 

That was another time when some believed the sky was falling, but the game survived, and grew in profile as a result.

“We don’t fully know yet whether all of this will be good or bad. But like anything, if you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward.”

And after all the seismic shifts of the summer of 2011, there will undoubtedly be more aftershocks to come. Before the puck drops on the current season, Notre Dame is expected to announce its intention to join either Hockey East or the NCHC in two years.

If the Irish go west, the NCHC will likely grab one more school (Western Michigan and St. Cloud State are the strongest possibilities) to form an eight-team league. That may also facilitate Alabama-Huntsville finding a conference home, which some say is key to the long-term survival of the Chargers’ hockey program.

Last winter, Nebraska-Omaha played its first season in the WCHA after a decade in the CCHA, and the Mavericks will join the NCHC in 24 months or so. Mavs coach Dean Blais jokes that three conferences in four years is a lot for his hockey program, but he is an optimist about the future of the game, saying he feels growth will be the lasting legacy of the changes we’ve seen this year.

“We already heard rumblings about other schools possibly adding hockey. I think that’s coming, but it will take time,” Blais said, referencing Minnesota State-Moorhead, which is raising money in hopes of fielding a D-I hockey program in the near future.

“We don’t fully know yet whether all of this will be good or bad. But like anything, if you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward.”

Jess Myers is an associate editor with InsideCollegeHockey.com.

Issue: 
2011-10

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