NCAA hockey landscape seeing seismic shift

The old saying goes that you can’t tell the players apart without buying a program.
But if you are a hard-core supporter of NCAA Division I hockey, or even just a casual follower, you might not be able to tell who your favourite team’s conferences rival are without having a map or a flow chart at your disposal.
Starting with the 2013-14 season, two new conferences—the Big Ten and the National Collegiate Hockey Conference—will begin play, which will see many of the top programs in the sport leaving their current conferences (such as the WCHA and the CCHA).
That, in turn, is creating of a summer uncertainty in the collegiate ranks.
“This is, by far, the craziest summer I’ve ever seen as far as college hockey is concerned,” said Brad Coccimiglio, a freelance hockey reporter who covers both the OHL and NCAA in Sault Ste. Marie.
“Everyone right now is making a big deal of the de-commitments [by a number of NCAA recruits who instead have elected to play in the CHL this season],” he noted. “But in all honesty, that’s overshadowing the fact that the entire college hockey landscape is going to look completely different in 2013.
“With all the news involving which schools are moving where and everything like that, it’s tough at times to almost keep up with it all,” Coccimiglio added.
The realignment saga really started last September when Penn State University announced it would transition into the Division I hockey ranks for the 2012 season, leading some to wonder if they would join the CCHA to become the 12th member of that conference.
However, the Big Ten conference, which is the home to Penn State most notably in football and basketball, announced it would be forming its own hockey conference starting in 2013, which would see Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State move over from the CCHA, and Minnesota and Wisconsin jump ship from the WCHA, to join the Nittany Lions.
In response to those moves, the NCHC was formed, which saw Miami (Ohio) move from the CCHA and WCHA members Denver, Colorado College, Minnesota-Duluth, North Dakota, and Nebraska-Omaha all coming over to join the new conference.
The WCHA, meanwhile, picked up Northern Michigan from the CCHA.
While it may seem that the shift happened rather quickly, Jim Connelly, the senior writer for U.S. College Hockey Online, said this is something that’s been talked about for a number of years.
“The discussion of making large conferences into smaller ones goes back to when Atlantic Hockey was being formed early in the last decade,” Connelly explained.
“When College Hockey America folded in 2010, there was a lot of discussion with those in Atlantic Hockey going, ‘Hey, if we can get two six-school leagues out of this, we would have a chance to get more automatic berths into the NCAA tournament,’ which is very attractive for those programs.
“That was something that was talked about for a while but Atlantic Hockey didn’t want to upset the apple cart,” Connelly said.
“With the Big Ten conference, you have six very solid teams that will be there for a long time with no chance of folding, and now you are just seeing a domino effect right down the line,” he added.
At first glance, it appears it may be a case of the “haves” and the “have-nots” when the Big Ten and the NCHC begin play in two years’ time, with many of the most successful programs in collegiate hockey history residing in those two conferences.
However, when you talk to some of the players who are involved in the game at the moment, they feel the talent level among different conferences still will be competitive.
“When you take a look at each conference, they are all really strong and there are a lot of great players that are moving onto the NHL,” explained Fort Frances native Joe Basaraba, who is set to start his sophomore season with the UMD Bulldogs.
“I’m only going to be there for a couple of seasons before the big switch occurs, but I’m really looking forward to facing teams that I wouldn’t have otherwise,” noted local goalie Ryan Faragher, who will be attending St. Cloud State this fall.
But while the players feel things still will be fine, Coccimiglio feels that in the long run, those bigger name schools might have even more of an advantage when drawing in new players.
“At the end of the day, if you are a Tier II player and you got Minnesota and Bemidji State both knocking on your door, I think for a lot of kids they will end up wanting to go to the bigger name school,” he reasoned.
“That’s nothing against Bemidji or those programs that are like them, as they are all quality schools, but I’m sure for a lot of those players, they feel that those big name schools are where they are going to get noticed,” Coccimiglio stressed.
On the other hand, with smaller fields to go up against in the WCHA, with many of those top programs no longer vying for that conference berth for the NCAA tournament, the upcoming realignment could give those smaller programs a chance to build up their exposure and help them in the long-term, such as what has happened with Miami (Ohio) during its rise over the last few seasons.
“All of a sudden, the good thing for those smaller schools in all of this is that there could be a chance for them to get into the tournament more often,” Coccimiglio said.
“If you’re a program like Bemidji State or Lake Superior State, two years from now you can have a regular chance of getting into the NCAA tournament. And in getting there, you could bring in those higher-end players to your school if someone like Minnesota or Michigan has a down year in their conferences,” he reasoned.
“There’s no doubt that having your program achieve success by reaching the national tournament year in and year out does wonders for your team.
“If that means being in the WCHA, where those traditional powers are gone, and now a program like Bemidji State or Northern Michigan has a chance to step up and reach the tournament three years in a row, it’s proven in the past that it has worked for many schools,” Connelly continued.
“Getting into the ‘Frozen Four’ is something that you can’t put a dollar value on in terms of marketing and the publicity that you get for the schools, and it is the only time for some of those players that they will be on ESPN or ESPN2 in their entire careers,” he remarked.
Although those positives obviously are good for those smaller schools, Connelly does fear a number of those programs might be left in the dust if they don’t adapt to the changing college hockey landscape, especially since they won’t have the guaranteed gate receipts they would get from playing those big-name schools in conference games any more.
“People do worry about what will happen to those teams like Bowling Green and Lake Superior State,” Connelly admitted. “These are both storied programs who are former national champions, and if they don’t adapt or remain financially stable, they might be out on the street.
“And that’s a scary reality to this whole restructuring process.
“It’s great to bring a program like Penn State and have these new conferences, but at same time you don’t want to start cannibalizing and killing off those smaller programs,” Connelly warned.
“I think that’s a delicate balance that hasn’t been talked about enough, in my opinion.”
There still are a number of things that need to be worked out in regards for the realignment process in 2013, with the biggest being where current CCHA members Notre Dame and Western Michigan will decide to end up.
Once those schools decide where they will play in two years’ time, a number of different scenarios have been thrown around, including seeing the four remaining CCHA schools—Alaska-Fairbanks, Bowling Green, Ferris State, and Lake Superior State—join the WCHA.
“In our heads we have these ideas on what we think will happen in a pretty logical order, but you just never know what will happen,” Connelly said. “And sometimes the dominos end up going in different directions.
“I don’t think anyone saw the NCHC coming out of nowhere like it did, and it’s those shocking moves like those that change the way that things go sometimes,” he added.
“Personally, when all is said and done, I just hope that we have more programs playing college hockey and not less programs, which is something I do fear more than anything.”

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