By Dan Rubin
The dominoes are already beginning to fall in college hockey’s realignment and reshaping. Within the next three-years, the nation’s college hockey landscape will look absolutely nothing like it will in the upcoming season, as teams are shifting and changing conferences with the air of desperation that was expected when Big Ten Hockey formed.
Here’s a look at the second part of hockey’s realignment that no doubt will continue throughout the summer and into the next season.
The National Collegiate Hockey Conference was made official last Wednesday in a press conference in Colorado. The league, beginning in the 2013-2014 season will comprise, as expected, Denver, North Dakota, Nebraska-Omaha, Minnesota-Duluth, and Miami University. During the press conference, the league made it clear that they were open to further expansion. Notre Dame, (who we discussed at length in Part One and will discuss again later here in Part Two) is examining membership, and Western Michigan is also expressing interest. Recent reports are surfacing that both Boston College and Boston University were approached by the future NCHC about joining, which were denied by the new league. BC and BU compete in Hockey East and are logistically nowhere near the NCHC schools.
In the immediate aftermath of the announcement, Northern Michigan announced it was seeking membership in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA). Two days after the announcement, the WCHA, which lost all of the NCHC schools except for Miami, (who was in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, or CCHA), accepted the Wildcats as its sixth member. The move will ensure the WCHA as a viable hockey conference with the six-school minimum guaranteed. As a side note, NMU has a history of shifting between the WCHA and CCHA, starting out in the central league in the 1970s before moving to the WCHA with Michigan Tech in the 1984. 13-years later, NMU rejoined the CCHA, making the NCAA tournament in 2010. Now, they’ll head back to the WCHA.
With the new conferences starting to create lower numbers, it became apparent that there now existed several new slots as they fight for survival. Minnesota State-Moorhead became the first school to jump on the opportunity, announcing it was roughly 40% through a goal to endow a Division I program. The chaos of the shifting conferences opened up some open slots for the conferences to fill, and the Dragons are securing their position to join the schools. It’s possible both the CCHA and WCHA could add the school, which will play its home games over state borders in nearby Fargo, North Dakota. The Minnesota State University system already sponsors hockey in Mankato, playing in the WCHA. The state itself is at the heart of the realignment chaos, with the heralded Minnesota Golden Gophers in the Big Ten and Minnesota-Duluth leaving for the new conference.
Rumors continue to abound for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. The Irish are not staying in the CCHA, which is beginning to look more and more like the league that will be the biggest casualty. The WCHA and the NCHC have made general overtures to Notre Dame, but it’s starting to become very apparent that Hockey East is the likely landing spot. That potential move joins the school with Catholic rivals Boston College and Providence.
Sources close to Noontime Sports are reporting that, if Notre Dame decides to explore Hockey East, they would be accepted by the conference. That move brings the league to 11 teams, and while the reports say that the league doesn’t want to add a 12th team right away, they do want to keep the league at an even number. But, after Notre Dame, there isn’t really the type of quality opponent that Hockey East is looking for. The targets are boiling down to one of the six ECAC teams not considered Ivy League schools, a target from Atlantic Hockey or Bowling Green.
Bowling Green is a quirky, yet attractive offer that could be used to entice Notre Dame even more into looking east. One of the Irish’s major hang-ups is travel, since the move would place the school in a conference with schools that are not within a bus drive. But pulling Bowling Green into the league allows Notre Dame a “west coast” travel partner for Hockey East. According to BC Interruption.com, this, along with the fact that BGSU doesn’t need to raise scholarship numbers, factor into this possible decision. Furthermore, BGSU wouldn’t compete for a top slot in the league, which would keep the top slots secure for the traditional Hockey East powers, at least in the short term.
I heard a rumor about the CCHA. Bear in mind that it’s only a rumor, and that it’s neither confirmed nor reported anywhere else, so please don’t give this anymore credence outside of being a rumor. I heard that CCHA is looking at, specifically, Canisius, Mercyhurst, and Niagara from Atlantic Hockey. Niagara left College Hockey America for Atlantic Hockey as a reactionary move to the conference falling apart, when CCHA didn’t want it two years ago. Canisius, in Buffalo, NY, and Mercyhurst, in Erie, PA, are possible landing spots because they want to raise their scholarship limit from the Atlantic Hockey-maximum of 12, a move the eastern schools in the league essentially blocked. They could also bring a heated rivalry with one another developed over years spent in the MAAC, which became Atlantic Hockey.
Alabama-Huntsville is going somewhere. Nobody has any idea, but essentially, they’ll end up as a “stop-gap” for some conference that needs to fill a slot. The Chargers struggled last year to a [4-26-2] record, a year after they won the CHA Tournament. They would benefit from having guaranteed games against opponents, and it would ensure more home games for the team. Last year, they played only 12 home games compared with 18 road games, and the teams they played were predominantly power opponents such as Wisconsin, Ohio State, Cornell, Bemidji State, Colorado College, and Nebraska-Omaha. If they get any chance to join a conference, they’ll bite at the opportunity.