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NCAA hockey going with new “super conferences” a dangerous route to take

Jul 11, 2011, 12:18 AM EDT

Minnesota Duluth hockey team AP

With college hockey becoming more well known to mainstream sports fans with the proliferation of the Frozen Four and more games appearing on cable TV, many people around the NCAA feel like it’s their time to seize the day. The first shot in this happened when Terry Pegula gave Penn State $80 million to help start the varsity program there that will begin play in 2012.

Penn State joining the varsity ranks helped give rise to the Big Ten Conference in hockey, a group that will pull teams out of both the CCHA and WCHA to form their own little party as Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State will team up with Penn State to form their own league.

That drastic move that awaits in a few years meant that the WCHA lost two of their biggest earning and drawing teams and the CCHA essentially lost their lifeline with the two Michigan schools. Everyone else that will be left behind in 2013-2014 when the Big Ten comes to order would be left trying to figure out what in the world they’re going to do. As it turns out, six schools figured things out on their own and will form a “super conference” of their own that will see North Dakota, Denver, Colorado College, Nebraska-Omaha, Western Michigan, and Miami University form the Collegiate Hockey Conference that will start in 2013-2014 as well.

Left on the outside looking in are the rest of the teams from the soon-to-be-defunct WCHA and CCHA (St. Cloud, Mankato State, Bemidji State, Northern Michigan, Michigan Tech, Lake Superior State, Ferris State, Western Michigan, Alaska, Alaska-Anchorage; Alabama-Huntsville is already independent) with a future that is uncertain at best. Ryan Lambert from Yahoo’s! Puck Daddy says that the start-up of this new conference along with the Big Ten Conference means that pain is on the way to those who are left behind.

What they’ve essentially done is left other programs for dead. Far be it for me to advocate a welfare system in college hockey, but what the hell, one has existed for years anyway. The NCAA has been giving autobids to shall-we-say undeserving conferences for years, and how much good has it done them? Next to none. Teams and conferences have been folding left and right in the last few years, and no one seems particularly concerned about the state of the sport at the college except for people who want to write weepy eulogies to teams no one cared about at relatively small schools that can’t support the team without the money brought in by bigger teams. Imagine what a weekend’s worth of gate receipts against Minnesota or NoDak means to teams like Michigan Tech.

By creating this new conference, the six teams are ensuring their own insulation from the fallout created by the Big Ten by shoving smaller teams into its path.

On the opposite side of this view, there are those that think by doing things this way that college hockey can become more of a draw for television and that by breaking everyone into this odd sort of caste system will make life better for those who are able to keep up. Minnesota-Duluth radio play-by-play man and former Fanhouse writer Bruce Ciskie makes his case for why this isn’t the death knell for college hockey.

It’s a chance for the schools in Minnesota and upper Michigan to build new rivalries that will excite the fans. It’s a chance for all of them to get into a situation where they are battling peer schools for recruits, as opposed to trying to recruit against North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, or Michigan.

We could end up not losing programs, giving more teams a real chance of making the NCAA Tournament, and we are setting up a league structure that allows for future expansion if it becomes feasible for someone to add the sport. If this scenario plays out, tell me how this isn’t a good thing for college hockey, a sport that simply needs to find ways to expand.

The possibilities are there for this pan out well and pay off for college hockey, but by creating groups of “haves” and “have nots” which is what this new set up will do is dangerous for a sport that’s both expensive for schools to budget and one without a definitive television presence to help pay the bills. With these conferences all breaking off and doing their own thing, doing so and seemingly having it happen without regard to the schools struggling to stay afloat isn’t wise.

College hockey is the ultimate niche in what’s a niche sport as it is. With the NHL being fourth among the professional sports and college hockey being on very few radars, potentially losing programs to send players to reeks of cutting off the nose to spite the face. You can argue about the merits of the schools that might fail and disappear (Bowling Green and Alabama-Huntsville top the short list) but in a world that sees the number of FBS football programs slowly increasing and the number of D-I college basketball programs on the rise as well, having programs fail and reduce the playing field is brutally unwise.

Perhaps things will work out the way Ciskie sees it and things will work for the betterment of the game and see a rise in the number of programs and a rise in attention for the sport, but with so many things up in the air right now it’s hard to believe that smaller schools can withstand the blow of losing all of their big money conference rivals. Creating a second class in a sport that needs all the help it can get is a dicey proposition. For college hockey fans and supporters, they’ll have to wait to find out who’s right in the end. Here’s to hoping those in charge have their act together and aren’t looking for the neck-saving cash grab.

  1. greatminnesotasportsmind - Jul 11, 2011 at 2:14 AM

    I think it’s bad that Minnesota and Wisconsin both left the WCHA. It will kill the programs at Anchorage and Bemidji. Why start a Big 10 (actually 12 but that’s a whole other story) when only half have varsity hockey? Minnesota and Wisconsin will hurt too. WCHA only plays their games Friday and Saturday. It’s tradition. Now with Big 10 network, we will have games on Tuesday’s, Friday’s, Wednesday’s, etc. I can see student attendance dropping during weekday games. All Big 10 games might have to go up against NHL, NBA, college basketball games. That will dip into viewership as well.

    • mlauver - Jul 14, 2011 at 7:02 PM

      why start a big 10? the big 10 already exists. penn state adds hockey, and that makes 6 big 10 schools with hockey — they HAVE to start a big 10 hockey conference. nothing mn, wi, mi, msu, osu, or psu can do about that.

  2. sknut - Jul 11, 2011 at 9:32 AM

    this stinks, I always liked the smaller schools going against the big guys and 6 teams hardly a conference makes and we are all assuming Penn St. will succeed. this hurts college hockey in the long run but like everything else the powers that be are blinded by the money.

    • nikesparq - Jul 11, 2011 at 9:52 AM

      I loved seeing Minnesota State University play University of Minnesota. Those small schools vs big schools were always great games and competitive. Switching to the Big 10 will automatically make it the gold standard premier conference. Sadly UMD, BSU, MSU, were not invited and these rivalries that once were are no longer there.

  3. bigbear42 - Jul 11, 2011 at 11:39 AM

    My question is how is this going to affect automatic bids into the championship tournament?

  4. emperorzero - Jul 11, 2011 at 11:56 AM

    I assume we’ll see a conference with the remaining Minnesota schools, the Upper Peninsula teams and Western Michigan. However, Northern Michigan left the WCHA years ago because they couldn’t afford the travel. The Minnesota schools aren’t that far away (I feel at least) but we’ll see I guess.

  5. mjl3475 - Jul 11, 2011 at 2:58 PM

    The NCAA has been giving autobids to shall-we-say undeserving conferences for years, and how much good has it done them? Next to none.

    Does anyone remember RIT’s run to the Frozen Four? They were an auto-bid and beat out big names in college hockey Denver and New Hampshire to get to Detroit. Don’t count out the little guys.

    • wingsdjy - Jul 11, 2011 at 3:23 PM

      Agreed that RIT had a nice run, but has it helped the school finacially? That’s the root of the author’s argument IMHO.

      • mjl3475 - Jul 11, 2011 at 6:49 PM

        Other than selling out EVERY game last year including the Blue Cross Arena for homecoming weekend?

  6. mnsuhockeyfan - Jul 11, 2011 at 7:16 PM

    As a Minnesota State University, Mankato graduate (It hasn’t been Mankato State since 1999), I am appalled by this move. The biggest games of the year were when Minnesota or Wisconsin would come to town; the arena was standing-room only. It gave us pride knowing that we could compete with the big name schools. Now, we are losing two of our three biggest rivals to a conference to schools in states that can’t even keep ice on the ground on New Years (Ex: Winter Classic at Heinz Field). There is no reason for this to happen. The NCAA is taking the pride away from the small schools. Minnesota State will always be able to compete with the schools in the WCHA. How will Penn State and Ohio State ever be successful in the Big 10 conference??

  7. tlndma - Jul 11, 2011 at 9:47 PM

    Your article has WMU both in and out of the new conferences.
    Everyone should calm down. If Holy Cross can put together a team able to beat Minnesota in an NCAA tournament game, the remaining teams can form a conference capable of competing. Small schools can compete in hockey. (Merrimack, last year) Many of these teams have plenty of tradition and the facilities to do so.
    People have to realize when these new conferences are formed some teams will be the winners and others the losers. (hypothetically) Will a kid want to play for perennial door mat Penn St. or play for home town Northen Michigan, who went to the NCAA tourney last year?.. This will shake itself out.

    • greatminnesotasportsmind - Jul 12, 2011 at 12:53 AM

      Do you believe in miracles? Yes, yes I do! That still haunts me. Holy Cross grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr

  8. cliverush - Jul 12, 2011 at 3:08 PM

    The Big Ten Network is a cash cow so who can blame the big schools for banding togethor. Recruits to the school see themselves playing other major programs in packed areas on TV. Sorry for the small guys but they should survive. Look east at the ECAC vs. Hockey East. The smaller ECAC field competitive teams who make the tourney. The new super conference will build on their own merits.

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