College hockey approaches a major shakeup
By: By Dave Campbell, AP Sports Writer, Superior Telegram
MINNEAPOLIS — The merry-go-round of major college football teams swapping conferences has left even the most obsessive fans dizzy.
So now imagine Alabama and Auburn leaving the Southeastern Conference to help form a new football league. Then Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, LSU, South Carolina and Tennessee bolting for an upstart conference of their own.
Put that all on ice, and it’s essentially what’s happening in college hockey.
Sure, the scale is smaller and the dominos are set up differently. But this tradition-rich sport — the most popular game in town on several small campuses along the country’s northern boundary — is on the verge of a seismic change. It rivals the recent league shuffling by the NCAA’s biggest football schools, driven predictably by profit and prestige.
At least 20 hockey teams will join a different conference before for the 2013-14 season. That’s more than one-third of the entire Division I stock. Penn State’s launch of a varsity program this fall will give the sport 59 schools.
“We have conducted our business in a very different way. Some people will say it’s kind of an old-time way and that you have to get beyond that if you’re ever going to grow,” said Bruce McLeod, the Western Collegiate Hockey Association commissioner. “It has to turn into more of a business. But we, as a group, have kind of resisted that.”
Until the last two years, when Penn State gave the Big Ten the sixth team it needed to form its own, long-rumored hockey league. Minnesota and Wisconsin will leave the WCHA, and Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State will exit the Central Collegiate Hockey Association. The other six Big Ten schools don’t have varsity programs.
WCHA powers like Colorado College, Denver and North Dakota could’ve had more room to rule with the Gophers and Badgers out of the picture. But they decided to break away, too, to create a brand of their own. Minnesota Duluth, Nebraska-Omaha and St. Cloud State (Minn.) will join the exodus next summer and form the National College Hockey Conference, with CCHA departures Miami (Ohio) and Western Michigan.
Notre Dame will leave the CCHA as well, and enter Hockey East.
To stay intact, the WCHA invited Alaska-Fairbanks, Bowling Green (Ohio) and Michigan rivals Ferris State, Lake Superior State and Northern Michigan to make a nine-team league with holdovers Alaska-Anchorage, Bemidji State (Minn.), Michigan Tech and Minnesota State, Mankato. The 40-year-old CCHA will go away, and the 60-year-old WCHA will lose a bunch of fierce rivalries and 28 national titles won by those departing teams.
McLeod lamented the erosion of that history and wondered aloud about the long-term effect.
Nebraska-Omaha freshman Josh Archibald, who grew up in Brainerd, Minn., with a father, Jim Archibald, who once played on a national championship team at North Dakota, said he was “a little sad” when he heard about the changes. Nebraska-Omaha will only have completed four seasons of WCHA membership when it joins the NCHC.
“Hopefully they can replicate what the WCHA was,” Archibald said. “Growing up as a kid, that was one of the big things: going to college and playing in the WCHA. Nobody wanted to play anywhere else but the WCHA.”
Soon, the NCHC or the Big Ten will be the dream of some 12-year-old rink rat in northern Minnesota.
“We didn’t decide on this. You look at Minnesota and Wisconsin leaving to join the Big Ten, it was a major move. Was it for the good of hockey? I don’t know. I don’t think it was for the good of hockey. I think it was for the good of their own programs,” said Nebraska-Omaha coach Dean Blais, who also played at Minnesota and previously coached at North Dakota.
Minnesota athletics director Joel Maturi hasn’t hidden his concerns, either. He has served at three other schools with Division I programs — Denver, Miami and Wisconsin — and harbors a special interest in hockey.
“I wish what happened didn’t happen, to be very honest with you, but the sport is solid and strong and it will survive,” Maturi said.
CBS Sports analyst Dave Starman said he feared a “disaster” for college hockey when the Big Ten first formed, but he’s since shifted his stance.
“Can you argue with the success of the WCHA? It might’ve been the best conference ever put together. But life is about change, and the door is wide open for something new,” Starman said.
Of the final six teams in this year’s WCHA tournament, five of them are on the exit list. Only Michigan Tech is sticking around. But coach Mel Pearson said he hasn’t talked about the issue with his team at all season.
“Anytime we’re taking the ice, it hasn’t had anything to do with any motivation as far as the league’s changing or not. We have enough issues with our team internally to worry about,” Pearson said.
Hockey is unique because several small schools with Division II or III athletics programs play Division I in this sport. All five of the current leagues are hockey-only. That makes it harder to find a voice on NCAA rules committees and thus forces more cooperation among competitors for the good of the game, one of many reasons why this tight-knit, niche sport is referred to often by its supporters as family.
So for any of the awkwardness or tension surrounding the approaching breakup, the focus is more on growth toward a healthy future, so more club teams can become varsity programs and the existing teams will survive.
Perhaps expansion can reach the south, where Alabama-Huntsville plays as an independent. Major markets like Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., where the NHL thrives, don’t yet have college teams to call their own.
The immediate priority is nonconference scheduling. On Michigan’s remote Upper Peninsula, teams like Lake Superior State need home games against Michigan to keep ticket sales up. The same goes for Bemidji State continuing to play Minnesota. Arranging annual rivalry games like Michigan-Notre Dame and Minnesota-North Dakota after the split will help maintain attention from mainstream sports fans — and regional cable networks.
“It’s just going to be interesting to see who schedules whom. My guess is there’s going to be some period of fences needing to be mended out West where people left certain leagues,” said Hockey East Commissioner Joe Bertagna.
Similar concerns about tradition lost and diluted interest spread about the sport in the mid-1980s when Hockey East formed from a breakup of the East Coast Athletic Conference, where Bertagna worked at the time. But both leagues are still strong more than a quarter-century later.
These days, of course, money matters weigh heavier than history when it comes to the evolution of college sports.
The lucrative Big Ten Network will have prime Friday night programming in the winter when Michigan plays Michigan State one weekend and Minnesota takes on Wisconsin the next. Notre Dame, which landed a cable TV deal with NBC Sports, now has a line into New England for recruiting and exposure. To stay strong financially into the future, sometimes a more natural fit must be sacrificed.
“You’ve got to go with change. That’s the way things happen. Whether it’s good or bad, we’ll see,” Blais said. “Ten years down the road we’ll have some answers.”