Mailbag! Of College Hockey Expansion

Submitted by Brian on February 17th, 2009 at 4:53 PM

Just one question this time, because I figure it's a pretty specialized one most will care not at all about.

So we've been following the successful and mildly popular club hockey team at Penn State for some time now.  Well the boosters have been relentless and the optimism surrounding a jump to D1 increased significantly with the announcement of a 'study' commissioned for a new rink.
So the question, if things do in fact pan out, is where Penn State might belong.  Hockey has it's own set of traditions and powerhouses, not to mention recent realignment.  With the current shake up, is there even room in the current system for a new major program?
And regardless of that answer, do you think the Big Ten schools would be willing to give up their current rivals and history for a Big Ten hockey conference, similar to a move the Big East recently made in lacrosse?  Right off the bat there is the possibility for a six team league, perhaps small enough to allow for a large set of traditional non-BT games to be played.  It might also help spur Illinois to make the jump, as they are currently in a similar situation to Penn State.
I'll hang up and listen.  Thanks.

-Kevin @
Black Shoe Diaries

Kevin's stumbled onto one of the most controversial topics in college hockey: a Big Ten hockey conference, and more generally realignment. With the dissolution of the always-unstable CHA and the flight of its members to safe havens—Robert Morris and Niagara will bring Atlantic Hockey to 12 members, Bemijdi State looks like it will squeeze into the WCHA, and Alabama-Huntsville is trying to get into the CCHA—college hockey finds itself hopelessly gridlocked. Any school looking to start a new program has no place to go, as every conference save Hockey East is full, and Hockey East doesn't seem inclined to expand.

Any program willing to take up the daunting task of starting an expensive sport and balancing the Title IX implications out would face a near-pointless life as an independent. Much cost, no benefit, no expansion.

The obvious solution is to carve up the two western conferences into three eight-team entities, and the most obvious way to do that is to yank the Big Ten teams out with a couple tag-alongs and create a Big Ten hockey conference. However, the problems with that are numerous and severe:

  • Only five Big Ten schools currently field hockey teams; the minimum is six. Adding Penn State would solve that issue that but even a six-team conference is pretty slim. And I'm not sure about this but I don't think you could actually add non-Big Ten schools to the conference and still call it the Big Ten.
  • Removing Michigan, Ohio State, and Michigan State from the CCHA would gut that league, hurting the bottom line of the various small Michigan schools in it. That could lead to programs folding. The recent rise of Miami and Notre Dame may make this less of an issue.
  • Wisconsin and Minnesota have longstanding rivalries with North Dakota, Colorado College, and Denver they would be loathe to give up. Minnesota also serves in a similar capacity as M and MSU do to the wide variety of Minnesota schools that populate the WCHA.
  • Minnesota, Michigan, Michigan State, and Wisconsin are all traditional powerhouses. The gap between those four and the remainder of the league would likely be severe. Penn State and any other ambitious Big Ten school, far from traditional recruiting grounds and bereft of D-I history, would likely be signing up to play doormat.
  • I think this would be offset by the increased interest and revenue, but travel costs would go up significantly.

I'd love to see it happen. Four games against each opponent would leave the departed powers with plenty of nonconference opportunities (14) to visit schools left in the cold by the move. The WCHA would be just fine anchored by North Dakota, CC, and DU—all extremely strong, established programs. The CCHA could do okay, too, as long as Jeff Jackson and Enrico Blasi stay put.

However, it would be a cataclysmic change and seems highly unlikely. The best hope for college hockey expansion appears to be the far-off idea that a cluster of Canadian universities will join the NCAA a few years down the road and ramp up D-I hockey programs, possibly taking the Alaska teams with them and opening up a couple slots for new programs.

The other option for Penn State is for it to form the basis of a new conference. Niagara and Robert Morris would probably leap at the opportunity, as Atlantic Hockey has restrictions on scholarship numbers below that of the NCAA. Huntsville would sign up, too, but then you've got to find two more schools from somewhere. That was the problem the CHA had: teams would come and go and come and go and the league's future was never assured. A Penn State-anchored league wouldn't have that problem, if only because teams in it would have no other options.

The bottom line is this: the current landscape in college hockey is exceptionally unfriendly to expansion and Penn State is probably going to find it unfeasible unless it can find another major state school (Illinois? Syracuse?) willing to start up a program at the same time and be the co-anchor of a new conference. Unless someone very weird and very rich and very into college hockey expansion dies, I don't see that happening.


February 17th, 2009 at 5:13 PM ^

You put powers Michigan, MSU, Wisconsin, and Minnesota in a 6 team conference and suddenly they are not all the powers they once were. Some slip to relative bottom feeder status as wins get harder, tourney bids get less frequent, and recruiting dips.

I think a BigTen hockey conference can only exist if we get enough BigTen schools to join D1 and fill those bottom feeder spots.


February 17th, 2009 at 5:29 PM ^

You forgot about the 14 non-conference games when those teams traditionally beat the crap out of lesser teams.

With the NCAA's strict adherence to a mathematical formula for the hockey tournament and that conference's absurd strength of schedule, there would be at least four tournament bids for the conference every year (out of 16 total spots). Add in the exposure that the comes with the Big Ten name and you get a conference that towers over all others (like what the SEC wishes they were in football). With the recruiting advantages from this situation, it would be much more likely that those teams move even further ahead of the pack than they currently are.


February 17th, 2009 at 5:45 PM ^

of any sort of Big Ten hockey conference. Perhaps add a few more WCHA/CCHA crossovers with Big Ten schools and create some sort of cross conference Big Ten Challenge Cup or something. The WCHA (and to lesser extent CCHA) have long histories and rivalries of their own. I like college hockey's tradition of a regional game where smaller time schools and compete with big powers.

No offense to PSU or Illinois, but they would play doormat for quite a while, if not permanently to the established schools. the UMN UND series is one of the best in college hockey, and although in theory it could continue, it would not be quite the same game when they are not dueling for the McNaughton Cup.

college hockey also features lower scale in state type rivalries (esp UMN v. SCSU/UMD/MNSt) and those smaller rivalries and in state intrigue are really what makes college hockey different in the context of college sports. Too often all the Big Ten teams play each other in every sport and i think it can get a little boring. its nice to mix it up with some different opponents and rivalries.

Of course, i am a UM fan, but i would hate to see college hockey go down a road of homogenization where only the biggest conference schools compete and win and you would never have any more small schools like LSSU (in the 80s and 90s) or DU (2000's) win championships. I don't see that happening anytime soon, but if there was a sort of Big Ten hockey conf, that may be a step in that direction.

Yinka Double Dare

February 17th, 2009 at 5:57 PM ^

If the CCHA takes Huntsville, would someone leave, or would the CCHA stay at an odd number? The 12-team number they're at now works pretty well with having the 3 "pods". You'd think they'd want an even number in the conference if possible though.

I'd think the CCHA would rather have a new Penn State program than Huntsville though.

February 17th, 2009 at 6:01 PM ^

It would not be unprecedented for a marquis conference to permit non-member schools to be part of the conference for a given sport. In wrestling, the Pac-10 is comprised of four traditional Pac-10 schools (Arizona State, Oregon, Oregon State, and Stanford) and six schools that are not conference members for others sports (Boise State,
Cal Poly, Cal State Bakersfield, Cal State Fullerton, Portland State, and UC Davis).


February 17th, 2009 at 6:18 PM ^

The only way I can see 3 conferences working out west is if you build a western one, centered around DU, CC and NoDak, a central one centered around Minn. and Wisc, and an "eastern" one centered around M and MSU. This allows Minn and M/MSU to keep their smaller rivals in conference.

I like the numbers better if we assume that PSU starts a program, Niagra and UAH come west and somehow Air Force can be convinced to leave the AHA. Then you could have something like:

1. North Dakota
2. Denver
3. Colorado College
4. UAA
5. UAF
6. UNO
7. Air Force
8. Bemidji State (this is a toughie, but I'm out of western teams)

1. Wisconsin
2. Minnesota
3. St. Cloud
4. Duluth
5. Mankato
6. Mich. Tech
7. NMU
9. UAH (again, questionable)
10. Notre Dame (again, questionable)

1. Michigan
2. MSU
3. Ferris
4. Western Mich.
5. Penn St.
6. Niagara
7. Robert Morris
8. OSU
9. Miami
10. BGSU

So, in summary, this plan keeps the LP teams together, puts the UP teams with the Minnesota schools (except Bemidji), and keeps the Ohio schools together. Overall the balance is good, although I imagine that it would never fly because all of the travel burden is shifted to the western schools.



February 17th, 2009 at 7:12 PM ^

stream of thought:
-it looks like basically the WCHA is just split it half and each half takes on some smaller conference teams plus several from the ccha.
-ND won't want to leave the ccha because of their rivalries with us and MSU
-'West' Conference would be even more top-heavy than the ccha is right now


February 17th, 2009 at 7:41 PM ^

Take the Big Ten Teams and combine them with the Mid American Conference Teams; sprinkle in some northern Michigan teams on top and BAM! You've got yourself a Big Mac... Think of the sponsorship possibilities.


February 17th, 2009 at 9:29 PM ^

If Penn State does get a D-1 team, and they start a 3 team conference with Niagara and Robert Morris, why can't they fill it out with a couple of the good D-3 teams? Or why didn't the CHA ever try to get more stability by asking a few of the good D-3 teams to join to at least get to 6 teams?

Wolverine In Exile

February 18th, 2009 at 7:56 AM ^

I started a diary on this while Brian was out when the first mention of the WCHA accepting Bemidji was spurring talk of the WCHA poaching UNO from the CCHA and then opening a spot for UAH in the CCHA.

I still think the easiest solution for all involved (with the basic premise being college hockey needs as many viable D1 programs as possible) is to just accept UAH and Penn St into the CCHA. Then you divide the CCHA into two divisions:

Michigan St
Lake St
Northern Michigan
Western Michigan
Ferris St

Notre Dame
Ohio St
Bowling Green
Miami (NTM- oh wait its hockey, so they're just Miami)
Penn St

While the North division's travel expenses would be extremely low as it's almost all within Michigan (just think if you could swap Alaska with Mich Tech) you place Alaska in there to balance that out. Michigan & Michigan St as well as Northern / Lake St & Ferris / Western are still in the same division as rivals. In the South division, you build the budding rivalry between ND and Miami, maybe get Ohio St a new rival with Penn St, and really what's the difference for UNO traveling to Huntsville (which is in the northern part of Alabama, less than an hour from the AL/TN border with its own airport in the town) as opposed to the Soo?

You get 4 games against each team in your division (24 games), 2 against 4 out of 7 in other divisions (8 games and no one goes more than 1 season without seeing everyone in the conference). That leaves you at 32 games. Looking at Michigan's schedule from this year, Michigan's going to play 38 games total with 10 games out of conference (I incl the NTDP & Waterloo in that). Take those exhibitions out and knock Michigan to 36 games. That leaves room for two OOC tournaments and the only loss is two games against St Lawrence and games against BU and Niagara. Substitute Waterloo for any other OOC and you still get a quality OOC to pad the tourney resume. Any problem with that? (I'm sure there will be knowing this board)

Six Zero

February 18th, 2009 at 10:58 AM ^

isn't necessarily the economy, but whether or not there's a legitimate market. I know I know, that's the purpose of a feasibility study in the first place.

But the bottom line is, SURE PSU Icer games are a fun night out and something different, but this is NOT a real hockey experience for a dedicated fan base. I've played in the Ice Pavilion before, and I'll tell you what it is-- a RINK, not an ARENA.

Filling 1300 seats is one thing, but even 5000 is another matter entirely. Hockey in central PA has some very dedicated fans, but I'm not sure there's enough casual or broad interest to support this decision. I've been to Yost, but never to an actual game-- but I've watched plenty of CCHA hockey and recognize the dedicated fan base. There's a passion for hockey in Michigan.

In State College... meh.

Don't get me wrong, I'd love it if I'm wrong... I've played house leagues with alums of the PSU hockey club and I'm sure they'd be all for it... but I can't see the numbers supporting the cost of all this. As previously discussed, hockey as a collegiate sport has so many other built-in expenses that many schools just can't afford to make it happen. To cover costs, they have to have guaranteed ticket sales, and I doubt they'd get it.