Boston College celebrates a championship. © Elsa/Staff, Getty Images Sport via Getty Images
Penn State is about to reshape the NCAA Division I landscape. Last week, the university announced that Terry Pegula, ex-President and CEO of East Resources Inc., a natural gas exploration and drilling company, donated $88 million for the purpose of building a 6,000 seat hockey arena. The arena will be home to men's and women's hockey and Penn State officials say the team will be ready to play for the 2012-2013 season. The announcement was not a surprise, as Penn State's program has been one of the largest sources of college hockey gossip over the last two seasons. The donation was leaked to the media over one month ago and the rumors of a new building have been making the same rounds.
With the announcement, the drama that's been limited to hockey fan boards and blogs will be on full display. The addition of Penn State means that six Big 10 schools now have Division I hockey. That is significant because by NCAA by-laws, six is the minimum number of teams allowed to form a conference. The creation of the much-discussed Big Ten Hockey Conference seems like a foregone conclusion. From the Scranton Times Tribune article linked above:
There was no word on what league Penn State planned to join once the program is ready to play. But one thing is for sure: There will be plenty of suitors. Western Collegiate Hockey Association commissioner Bruce McLeod told Insidecollegehockey.com that he has had "direct contact" with Penn State. The Central Collegiate Hockey Association...also has expressed interest in adding the Nittany Lions as a 12th team, according to published reports. Mr. Curley, however, did not rule out the Nittany Lions being the driving force behind a new hockey league....The Big Ten has coveted hockey as another vehicle to help drive up the popularity of the Big Ten Network.
Western College Hockey Blog pointed out that Barry Alvarez, Athletic Director at the University of Wisconsin jumped on the news to talk about the new Big Ten Hockey Conference:
"I don’t know the logistics — how long it takes to get out of a league, all of that — but I sense that we will move in that direction."
The creation of a Big Ten Conference for hockey has been on the radar for the better part of a decade. Big Ten officials want their own conference, the schools involved, possibly except for Minnesota, also want a conference, but fans of those programs are split. Breaking up existing conferences means ending or dramatically curtailing long-standing rivalries, important to the lore of many programs. But, as the article mentioned, the possible dollars generated by and for the Big Ten Network is going to be too much to pass up.
The aforementioned drama is that nearly every other program and college hockey fan is against the Big Ten forming their own conference. Many are upset about the loss of traditional rivals, many are upset that the CCHA and WCHA are already desperately chasing Penn State after denying the University of Alabama-Huntsville entry into their club, and most think that a Big Ten Hockey Conference is nothing more than the rich getting richer and leaving behind some smaller schools with programs reliant on existing conferences and rivalries.
I believe that Penn State's arrival is going to remake the CCHA and WCHA and create two new conferences alongside the Big Ten which won't be ideal for some of those programs and fanbases, but it's best for hockey in the NCAA moving forward. Change is inevitable in college sports. Last season saw the demise of College Hockey America as Robert Morris and Niagara were absorbed into Atlantic Hockey and Bemidji State joined the WCHA. In college football, Nebraska and Colorado left what was considered a power conference in the Big 12 to join the Big 10 and Pac 10, respectively. Utah and Boise State are also on the move in search of a better situation and a bigger payday.
When we talked to Paul Kelly in May, one of the big topics of conversation was the expansion of Division I hockey within existing markets and into new markets. I asked him about the prospects of Division I hockey in California, and his response wasn't surprising:
Frankly, the first college or university that decides to add Division I hockey in California will have just an absolute bounty in front of it. They will have their pick of some of the most talented kids in the country and they've got some great young kids coming up. If we could ever convince USC or UCLA or Stanford or California to add a program, they would have such an immediate impact.
Given the talk that we've heard about Kelly's push westward, it's not a stretch to believe that California will have at least one, most likely two Division I programs within the next five-to-seven years. Even if Kelly's westward push doesn't land a pair of California teams, Washington is a possibility and Arizona State already has an excellent club program. The options for a larger western presence are there for a man who sees opportunity.
Kelly also talked about expanding both in the midwest and the mid-atlantic regions, two regions that might help fill out two smaller versions of the CCHA and WCHA.
Illinois is a place that we'd like to go. I've love to see programs at either Illinois or Illinois State, maybe Northwestern and even in the surrounding areas. We've talked to the University of Indiana, and Iowa State has expressed some interest. Moving farther east, we've talked to Penn State and Syracuse, which are in that Mid-Atlantic hockey belt, and we feel the Naval Academy in Annapolis is a natural fit. They have a very good club team.
Toss in rumors about Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Indiana State, Northern Illinois and Oklahoma and Kelly and the NCAA have a number of schools with the foundation for a Division I program. When I asked him about the long-term expansion targets, Kelly had some very specific ideas as to where the NCAA is headed. Penn State is just the beginning of this plan and in the end, it's highly doubtful that the WCHA and CCHA would survive.
I'd like to see it in the mid-sixties. The two geographical areas that we really need some help are in the southeast and in the west as we just talked about. What I'd really like to see is the creation of almost a Pacific Conference, if we could get Washington and a couple of the California schools, include Arizona State which has a tremendous club program and a great facility. If you could combine some of those western schools together, that would be terrific.
This is what most people are missing. While the hand-wringing over Penn State's effect on the college landscape is front-and-center right now, it's the long-term that people need to keep their eyes on. I believe that Kelly and College Hockey Inc., are just fine with a Big Ten Hockey Conference, and are likely going to support the creation and help to guide the rest of the NCAA through this, pointing towards a long-term plan that might look something like this:
- The Big Ten Hockey Conference will be formed with Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Ohio State, Penn State, and Wisconsin.
- Indiana or Illinois will follow Penn State's lead and create a program within the next five-to-seven years.
- Notre Dame will join the Big Ten Hockey Conference after being offered a somewhat significant payday based on the Big Ten Network.
- The CCHA and WCHA will re-align more geographically with new member schools, setting themselves up to envelop midwestern and western expansion schools
- Part of that realignment will see Air Force head to the WCHA/Western Hockey
- Michigan Tech will leave the WCHA for the new CCHA/Midwest Hockey
- Alabama-Huntsville will join the new CCHA/Midwest Hockey.
- CCHA/Midwest Hockey will add two of Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Oklahoma, Iowa State, Northern Illinois or Oklahoma over the next five-to-seven years.
- WCHA/Western Hockey will add three of Arizona State, California, Stanford, USC, UCLA, Weber State or Washington over the next five-to-seven years.
This sort of plan adds seven programs, bringing the total of Division I teams to sixty-six, or right in line with Kelly's "mid-sixties", the number he touched on during the interview. In the end, NCAA Division I hockey looks significantly different compared to today, but it would certainly be better for College Hockey as a whole.
|Big Ten||Atlantic Hockey|
|Ohio State||Holy Cross|
|CCHA/Midwest Conference||WCHA/Western Hockey|
|Bowling Green||Arizona State/Stanford|
|Ferris State||Bemidji State|
|Georgia Tech/Virginia Tech
|Iowa State/Illinois State
|Lake Superior||Minnesota State|
|Michigan Tech||North Dakota|
|Nebraska-Omaha||St. Cloud State|
The impact of a realignment like this is far-reaching. The Big Ten (8) now has room for any of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Northwestern or Purdue should they choose to add Division I hockey. The new Western Hockey/WCHA now has the room to take on the two-team California or Washington/Arizona State expansion that College Hockey Inc. so desperately wants. The new CCHA/Midwest Hockey is solidified with a Colorado-Minnesota-North Dakota foundation and could take two teams from a large geographical swath of the country and it would make sense. Atlantic Hockey has one more spot for the rumored Navy/Syracuse expansion and should Virginia Tech or Georgia Tech choose to add a program and not find a home in the CCHA/Midwest Hockey. they can very easily fit into Atlanta Hockey.
Though traditionalists are not going to be happy with any change, College Hockey Inc., is going to forge ahead with expansion. The Big Ten Hockey Conference might be self-motivated, but the extra exposure can do nothing but help the game and bring a new television audience to fifty other schools in possible out-of-conference games. A push in California and the heart of the country is going to result in tumult in nearly every conference. Planning for the Big Ten Conference now and rearranging the other conferences to accommodate future expansion makes sense. Rivalries may be lost, but in the end, it's hockey -- a hated new rival can be created in the span of one home-and-home series.