The Bursting Bubble of College Hockey
By Dan Rubin
The long-standing universe of college hockey was rocked to its core recently, when six Midwest schools announced the formation of a “super league” to begin play during the 2013-2014 season. The announcement is the latest in a slow-moving line of realignment announcements that have drastically altered the landscape of Division I collegiate hockey.
The new conference will form from five teams from the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) and Miami University from the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA). Joining the Redhawks are North Dakota, Colorado College, Nebraska-Omaha, Denver, and defending national champion, Minnesota-Duluth. All six qualified for the 2011 NCAA Division I tournament, and two (Miami and North Dakota) were top seeds, with two schools participating in the Frozen Four (Dakota and Duluth).
The move will continue a drastic alteration of the college hockey conference alignment, coming on the heels of the Big Ten’s decision to sponsor hockey starting with the 2013-2014 season. It also comes following Penn State’s announcement that the Nittany Lions will begin competing at the Division I level in 2012-2013.
Prior to the recent realignment process, college hockey had six conferences at the Division I level – WCHA, CCHA, College Hockey America (CHA), East Coast Athletic Conference (ECAC), and Hockey East Association (usually shortened to just Hockey East).
Founded in 1999, the CHA was the first to undergo radical realignment when the University of Findlay dropped its hockey program in 2004. Even though the Oilers were gone, the CHA was able to stay afloat by adding Robert Morris University. But two years after losing Findlay and gaining the Colonials, Air Force bolted for the east coast’s Atlantic Hockey Association. The move, motivated by a desire to play in a conference with Army as the only two D-1 service academies, placed the Colorado-based academy in a conference with schools in New York and New England.
The Wayne State Warriors dropped hockey following the 2008 season, reducing the league to just four teams by the end of the decade. Lacking the six-program minimum to continue with an automatic bid, the CHA folded. Bemidji State joined the WCHA; RMU and Niagara joined the AHA, and Alabama-Huntsville relegated itself to the only team in Division 1 with independent status.
Following Penn State’s introduction of hockey, speculation began as to what might start happening in college hockey. Without a Big Ten hockey conference, power schools that otherwise would have been contractually obligated to play each other were instead scattered amongst the WCHA and CCHA. It allowed for a certain type of parity between the two remaining “western conferences,” since Minnesota and Wisconsin were in one conference and Michigan and Michigan State were in the other. Ohio State stood as the only other Big Ten school sponsoring hockey, which still left the conference once shy of the six-team minimum.
And so entered the Nittany Lions. When Penn State elevates its program, six Big Ten schools will be playing college hockey. That gave the conference the boost it needed, and it announced shortly following the Frozen Four that the conference would merge and form for 2013-2014. That left the rest of college hockey in flux, as the so-called “power teams” from both western conferences bolted and threatened to leave a situation where the talent discrepancy was too great for competitive hockey.
Over the past few months, the blogosphere speculated as to what exactly would happen. Rumors had Canisius, Niagara, and Mercyhurst all leaving AHA for greener pastures (all three are located on the Great Lakes), and St. Lawrence and Clarkson also popped up amongst realignment rumors. Hockey East announced it would be open to further expansion beyond its 12-team brigade, and several eastern programs began to fall under a microscope of how they expected to compete in the new world of high-finance college hockey.
The situation was not dissimilar to the 1984 split of ECAC that formed Hockey East. At the time, the six Ivy League hockey institutions mulled forming their own conference behind Dartmouth, Brown, Harvard, Yale, Cornell, and Princeton (Columbia and Penn do not have varsity hockey). As a precautionary move, six high-powered schools departed to form the Hockey East Association – Boston University, Boston College, Providence, Northeastern, New Hampshire, and (a few months after the initial split) Maine. At the time, the conference had 18 teams, and the original succession of teams still left a formidable core. When the Ivy League failed to materialize, the leagues stayed largely intact, with Hockey East retaining its Boston-based core of BC, BU, and Northeastern, while the ECAC ultimately retained its Ivy League institutions.
But this time instead of a precautionary move, the move by these six schools represents a reactionary move. The Big Ten will, indeed, become a super conference on par with Hockey East, when it takes five national power teams into one grouping and combines them with the financial windfall of Penn State. In response, the six schools forming this new western league were ultimately left looking out for themselves, which led to the formation of this second super-power conference.
What’s left in its wake is the shell of two conferences that long dominated the national scene. The WCHA will be left with five schools that do not sponsor any other Division I sports besides hockey, and the CCHA will be left with Notre Dame and a number of schools that financially cannot compete with the Irish. It’s expected that the Big Ten might use their hockey conference as a way to woo the Irish, especially since the Irish nearly joined the Big Ten in 2003. Due to arguments from both the Big East Conference (which doesn’t sponsor hockey but which Notre Dame is an affiliate of in every other sport except football) and the Big Ten, both want the school’s football program, and it’s unlikely Notre Dame would be able to join Big Ten Hockey on a hockey only basis.
That leaves Notre Dame to head for Hockey East, which most believe might happen. Hockey East features Catholic schools in Providence and Boston College, and it’s likely that further expansion might draw Holy Cross (another Catholic-sponsored institution) into Hockey East. Holy Cross, remember, is one of the larger names in Atlantic Hockey with a large name recognition in New England. It also provides Notre Dame with schools more likely to compete with it on a financial level, as opposed to Minnesota State-Mankato and Ferris State.
That would leave Western Michigan and Alabama-Huntsville as the question marks to join the new Midwestern conference, with Alabama looking to get conference affiliation despite its southern location, and WMU as the team good enough to compete in the new western conference but ultimately left out.
If Notre Dame doesn’t head for Hockey East, the only other eastern conference that will be truly affected might end up as the first conference to start realignment. The ECAC, the league that split back in the ‘80s, will be one of the league’s hurting the most by this shift in culture. If the anticipated merger of remaining WCHA and CCHA schools happen, the NCAA landscape will end up back at a six-conference division, meaning one more at-large bid will be doled out to the national tournament. That means one less fringe team on the bubble is pushed out of the at-large spot.
The ECAC typically can sport two teams that can go to the tournament and cause damage. Their league regular season champion is usually a top-ranked school, and with a conference lineup boasting good teams like Yale, RPI, Union, and historic powers like Harvard and Cornell, one of those teams that have a good year will be pushed out. It’s unlikely the ECAC would receive three at-large bids in that climate without going head-to-head against the new western conference, with Hockey East and Big Ten ruling the top of the mountain. That third at-large bid means more money for the conference, more exposure for its teams, and a chance at a national championship.
It’s possible that college hockey hasn’t seen its last days of realignment. Historically, the hockey world rallied around teams considered less than desirable or considered upstart. It’s a world where teams like Michigan, with its dozens of tournament wins and historic cathedral of an arena, can host Bentley, a small New England university playing its home games in a municipal rink it shares with two high schools. It’s what makes the sport so great, but, as the past, present, and future will show, it’s one not immune to the big budget, the quest for glittery publicity, or the boardroom chess games found throughout the collegiate landscape.