By Dan Rubin
The summer of 2011 will arguably be remembered as one of the biggest shake-ups in college hockey.
As teams shifted from one league to another, it turned from a fringe sport into a national talking piece, and it also gave rise to changing faces of the game. Yet, what was once a homegrown sport with conferences that felt like families have now changed forever.
College hockey used to differ from every other Division I college sports. In fact, it was the one place where schools with less funding could compete, yet, however, over the past decade, schools such as, RIT, (Rochester Institute of Technology) beat major powerhouses en route to NCAA semi-final appearances. Boston College won two national championships in three seasons, but happened to lose their first tournament game in 2011 to Colorado College, which happens to be a school that primarily is focused on Division III athletics.
During the past few months, new conferences formed and teams jockeyed for the limited slots available in the “sexier” conferences. When the dust settled, two traditional Division I conferences were left decimated.
Over the next two seasons, schools will play “lame-duck schedules” before the conference realignment shakes down in 2013-2014. Rivalries will become more intense by the visceral hatred. College hockey will plod along with the awkwardness that comes along with it, as some schools will play out their schedules before moving and others will use this as an audition for better conferences.
The last dominoes of the “Summer of Ice” fell when the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA) placed a deadline on a decision from four schools from the Atlantic Hockey Association. CCHA, the conference most plundered by the realignment, will definitively dip to six schools for the start of the 2013-2014 campaign. Of the six remaining schools, it is expected that Notre Dame, Western Michigan and Alaska-Fairbanks will leave the conference, which leaves only three teams – Bowling Green, Ferris State and Lake Superior State. The conference is hoping is to entice Robert Morris, Mercyhurst, Canisius and Niagara, which would give them at least seven schools to maintain an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
The four AHA schools are hesitant to make the jump; RMU and Niagara are in only their second season in the league after College Hockey America folded following the 2009-2010 season, but CCHA needs to ensure its survival if the three candidates do, indeed, bolt.
The Notre Dame situation is a direct correlation to all that’s happened in the college hockey universe. In an older time, suffering conferences were kept afloat by stronger teams, evidenced by teams’ willingness to schedule Alabama-Huntsville this past season. When the Chargers fell out of a conference when CHA folded, they played out the season as an independent. And while they had limited success, many teams in the Midwest showed a willingness to schedule them. Arguably, this kept the program afloat, especially with the draw of home games against teams like Air Force and Ohio State. Instead of pushing the program out, teams welcomed the chance to help their southern brethren in a show of good faith.
A story like that would make for great publicity for the game as it tries to build and foster itself throughout the nation. Instead, it’s overshadowed by the larger question of where Notre Dame is going to land.
On October 8-9 this year, the Bentley Falcons travel to fabled Yost Ice Arena to play the Michigan Wolverines. Normally, if you or I saw that on a schedule, we’d think Bentley was taking a paycheck to go to Ann Arbor and get murdered, much like they would in football. The Falcons are a D-I hockey-only school; their other teams play in the Division II Northeast-10 Conference. And unlike other schools in the same situation who play in power conferences, Bentley is in Atlantic Hockey. UMass-Lowell and Merrimack play in a conference where the smallest arena seats 3,000 fans; there are zero rinks in Atlantic Hockey crossing the 3,000-seat barrier. Additionally, attendance figures for the nation ranked a few AHA teams dead last, including the Falcons, who averaged roughly under 500 fans per home game. But this team will travel for a legitimate D-I game against a team with five Frozen Four appearances since the turn of 2000, a team that was last year’s national runner up, and a team with more household recognition than most colleges’ entire athletic programs.
Are we to say that college hockey won’t retain this in the future? It’s entirely possible that it will. But the new conference alignment will hinder that for at least a few years. Natural rivalries will no longer be conference rivalries, and in order to keep these big draws, the games will now become limited out-of-conference (OOC) events. Each school is limited in the amount of OOC’s it can schedule, as well as when they can schedule them. It’s possible a Bentley-Michigan matchup will become impossible in the future, when Michigan seeks OOC games against teams like Miami and Notre Dame, two teams currently in their conference.
The most telling sign of this whole realignment will come when holiday tournaments are released in the near future. Last year, Notre Dame hosted the Shillelagh Tournament over the Christmas holiday break. Joining the Irish were Boston University, Brown University and Minnesota State University. It was clear, the tournament sought a BU-ND championship game by having them play Brown and MSU, respectively, but after the underdogs crushed their respective opponents, ND-BU was relegated to third-place game status. If the non-conference format holds true, Brown and MSU are easily replaceable by the same Michigan and Miami opponents, creating a tournament of Miami, Notre Dame, Michigan, and Boston University. The drawing power there is immense, but it hurts the teams that otherwise are scheduling the Bentley’s and American International’s of the world.
All in all, regardless of how the summer shook out, there is still hockey to be played. Even though there will be a lingering uneasiness when players lace up their skates. The first official game of the NCAA season kicks off October 1, when Lake Superior State visits Alabama-Huntsville. Let the countdown begin.