Back on April 9, the University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs defeated the Michigan Wolverines 3-2 in overtime to claim their first-ever national championship. Dramatic a finish as it was, if you turned off your TV and went into hibernation for the next six months and are just now waking back up, you’re discovering a dramatically different college hockey landscape. Powers are shifting as teams realign in new conferences. This past offseason was such a tumultuous one, you need a handy guide like this one to tell you everything you slept through.
The first rumblings of what would become realignment were actually first felt back in September 2010. That was when Penn State alumnus Terrence Pegula made an $88 million donation to his alma mater in order to fund the construction of a new ice hockey arena. With the completion of the arena in time for the 2012-2013 season, the Nittany Lions would promote their club hockey program up to varsity level. And there was much rejoicing. But no one knew how many dominos would begin to fall.
Initially, there was talk that Penn would join the CCHA, bringing the league’s membership back up to 12 teams following the departure of Nebraska-Omaha to the WCHA one year prior. But someone out there did their math and realized that 1+2+3=6. That is to say, when you add Penn State to the WCHA’s Minnesota and Wisconsin and the CCHA’s Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State, you have six Big Ten schools playing varsity hockey. And since six is the minimum number of teams a conference must have to qualify for an automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament that meant the Big Ten could finally add ice hockey as a sponsored sport. In March 2011 the athletic directors of the six schools proposed the conference do just that, and shortly thereafter the Big Ten Hockey Conference (BTHC) was announced. Since schools must give two years notice prior to leaving a current league, the BTHC will not begin play until the 2013-2014 season, with Penn State competing as an independent until then.
Around that same time, then-CCHA Commissioner Tom Anastos resigned from his position in order to become the new head coach at his alma mater, Michigan State. Fred Pletsch was named the interim commissioner before being given the job on a permanent basis several weeks later. Obviously, the CCHA was in a state of transition.
So how would other schools react to this? There were talks that the CCHA and WCHA might merge together. But the prevalent rumors had the remaining big programs in these two conferences finding bigger ponds to swim in to better compete with the media monster the BTHC would be. And after months of speculation, that’s exactly what happened. In early July, Colorado College, Denver, Miami, Minnesota-Duluth, Nebraska-Omaha and North Dakota announced they would be forming a new conference for the start of the 2013-2014 season. At a press conference several days later the league was named: the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC).
Let’s take a breather and take a look at what we have here. 11 of the 23 schools in the WCHA and CCHA had just announced they would say goodbye to their longtime leagues, leaving the conferences’ memberships decimated. The WCHA was especially damaged, losing its top seven 2010-2011 regular season finishers, and dipping below the NCAA minimum of six teams. A CCHA-WCHA merger seemed the most likely scenario now, at least until Northern Michigan announced it would leave the CCHA and return to the WCHA, the league it had previously occupied (1984-1997). It was around this same time that Western Michigan launched a campaign website in order to promote itself to a new conference home.
Of course during all of this, Notre Dame stayed suspiciously quiet. In all the talk of big fish in small ponds, the Irish are a whale in a swimming pool, and it doesn’t make sense for them to stay behind after Michigan and Miami leave. To date, Notre Dame has yet to announce where it will play in 2013, but there isn’t a soul that believes it will be in the CCHA. The Irish remain the biggest “free agent” on the market, supposedly considering the NCHC, Hockey East and BTHC.
The CCHA wasn’t going to go quietly though. The league met with officials from Canisius, Mercyhurst, Niagara and Robert Morris (all of the Atlantic Hockey Association) about the possibility of them moving to the CCHA. The meetings ended without any decisions made, but it would seem a foundation had been laid.
The possibility of a WCHA-CCHA merger was brought back up when officials from the two leagues met in September. What came out of those meetings wasn’t a merger, but something quite close. Shortly thereafter the WCHA offered membership invitations to Alaska, Bowling Green, Ferris State, Lake Superior State and Western Michigan. Alaska, Ferris State and Lake Superior were all quick to accept, leaving the future of the CCHA very much in doubt.
But as the Falcons and Broncos continued to mull over their WCHA invitations, it came to light that they were entertaining other offers as well. The NCHC finally invited Western Michigan into its ranks just a few days ago, an offer heartily accepted. Invited along with the Broncos were the St. Cloud State Huskies (who accepted just as eagerly), which raised a few eyebrows. Why not the Irish? Still no public announcement, but it would seem Notre Dame has decided to pass on the NCHC. Perhaps the Irish will be an independent program for a year or two while contemplating an all-sport move to the Big Ten (a move fueled by the upheaval in the Big East, Notre Dame’s primary conference in other sports), or perhaps they will join Hockey East. So why not keep all the MAC programs together and invite Bowling Green into the NCHC? The Falcons apparently have been holding out this whole time, as just recently learned.
It seems that reports of the CCHA’s demise may have been premature. Bowling Green has reportedly been talking to fellow MAC school Buffalo about resurrecting the Bull’s varsity hockey program and having them join the CCHA along with the four AHA schools who have been considering jumping to the CCHA for months (Cansius, Mercyhurst, Niagara and Robert Morris).
So there you have the story so far. Even though the 2011-2012 season will begin in mere days, discussions still rage about the future of many different programs. The big question everyone wants an answer to is where Notre Dame will be playing in two years. But now we are wondering if the CCHA will be resurrected after all by the efforts of Bowling Green. The second question is more likely the one to be answered first, as the Falcons have been given a deadline of October 7 to decide whether or not they will accept the invitation to the WCHA.
Other free agents on the market are Alabama-Huntsville (still without a conference since College Hockey America folded after the 2009-2010 season) and Minnesota State-Moorhead (the Dragons supposedly are halfway to raising the funds necessary to make a move up to D-I). Those two teams could be wild cards for a league looking to increase its membership.
One thing is for sure: Realignment is far from over and once the dust settles, the landscape is going to be hardly recognizable, even if you were awake the entire time. Stay tuned for more moves as they happen.