Or the Third Era of the Big Ten Hockey Title
As we all know by now, the debut season of the Big Ten Hockey Conference is just days away much to the excitement of some and chagrin of many others. Many people raving on message boards have asserted that the whole thing is just a money grab and that the Big Ten teams are abandoning the traditions of their former conferences: the WCHA for Minnesota & Wisconsin, and the CCHA for Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State. The way I got started on this quest for information was because I was getting tired of hearing the complaints of all these jilted fans of WCHA teams. I had hoped to just prove to myself that the Big Ten teams have a justified cause for splitting because they’ve been in a conference together for well over 100 years and they’ve been playing each other regularly for all of their respective existences. What I found that I really wasn’t expecting was a history of Big Ten games, tournaments, and league championships that I never knew existed, all reaching as far back as 1922. This historical knowledge seems to be mostly unknown to the modern college hockey fan and writer and perhaps most surprisingly (to me at least), is seldom mentioned in Blue Ice despite that book being the definitive guide to Michigan hockey’s history. I tried to Google all sorts of variations of “Big Ten Hockey history” to try to see if anyone else had compiled all of this info but I found zip, so I think what I am writing here may actually be the most complete e-guide to the history of Big Ten hockey (you can determine if that’s a good or bad thing that I’ve been bestowed this honor) [ed: and now this diary is the #2 google result for 'Big Ten Hockey history' so there you go]. So as we get ready to drop the puck for the first official season of the Big Ten Hockey Conference, prepare to become learned in the ways of Big Ten Hockey, just as the founding fathers would have wanted.
I tried to include a lot of pictures because we all know the only thing that made history books of any value were the cool pictures. I hope to maintain your attention with these.
Your Big Ten hockey membership timeline
(Penn State & MSU were not Big Ten members in their first stints as D1 programs; click to embiggen)
Not everyone may have known that Illinois had a varsity team from 1937-1943 which I think is partially why so many people jumped at this rumor so fast. Illinois is the team all us college hockey nerds are really hoping will return to Division I though that’s based more on internet hopefulness than any sort of evidence at this point. (I also didn’t realize that Penn State had a D1 team in the 40’s until I nearly finished. Strange that you never ever hear about that. Their 1940 team: Lightbox)
1921-1943 The First Era of Big Ten Hockey
The “mythical” titles
I won’t get into the details of how each program got started as there’s already plenty of information out there on that for each of the respective programs. In short, in 1921, Minnesota and Wisconsin both began their varsity programs with Michigan joining the next year. These three teams formed the first edition of the Western Intercollegiate Hockey League (WIHL). Why they didn’t just call it the Big Ten is not apparent to me, but the league would soon add teams like Marquette and Michigan Tech and make it a moot point. These were the days well prior to any NCAA tournament so the only thing these teams appeared to play for was a conference title or mythical national titles (i.e. AAU). Surprisingly enough, you will rarely find reference to WIHL titles for these teams; instead, there are numerous claims of Big Ten titles based off of the Big Ten record. Below is your 1928 Wisconsin team:
The Wisconsin Waldos
Admittedly, these titles and every other title up until 2013 are going to be “mythical” to one degree or another but from very, very early we see that there are claimed Big Ten titles even in the absence of an official conference.
In order to determine who won the league in each season, I went through each team’s media guide and tabulated up the Big Ten standings and then tried to verify my findings with news articles from that time. Fortunately for me, the Minnesota Daily, the Michigan Daily, the Daily Illini (Illinois) and the Lantern (OSU) all have online archives of some sort and were a huge help.
The first official news I could find of a Big Ten title was from a 1925 article in the Daily Illini hidden down at the bottom. The Big Ten titles between Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin for 1922-1935 were as follows:
Links go to articles if I could find one. I also tabulated all the seasons so ones without article links were based off standings (and I checked to make sure tabulations matched what I found in newspapers in other years. Yes, it took a little while. “Tab” means I had to add it all up)
|Year||Big Ten Champion||Conference||Link?|
*In 1936 and 1937, it was down to just Michigan and Minnesota after Wisconsin dropped its program so these are as imaginary as it gets. Also, in Wisconsin’s first fourteen years as a varsity program, they failed to win any Big Ten titles as their program disbanded until returning to varsity status in 1963.
A primitive cave painting of a Minnesota hockey player. Dated to 5000 BC
Illinois adds varsity hockey
In 1937, Illinois added varsity hockey and Big Ten competition resumed as a part of the Big Ten teams regular schedules. After a so-so start, Illinois hired a young man by the name of Vic Heyliger in 1939. Heyliger had been an All-American at Michigan prior to joining the Chicago Blackhawks and then the Illini as its head coach. Despite being in the state of Illinois (not exactly a hockey state), Vic quickly turned around the Illini hockey program, winning three straight Big Ten titles from 1941-1943 (see below).
I wanted to include a whole section to Illinois because it’s fascinating to think about the what-ifs surrounding Vic Heyliger. Due to World War II, Illinois dropped hockey following their three Big Ten titles. As Vic had Illinois peaking, Michigan had bottomed out with the Big Ten standings going as follows:
Illinois had won three straight conference titles (‘41-‘43); Michigan had won precisely one Big Ten game in those three years, going 1-20-1 in Big Ten play overall (ouch). However, with the abrupt ending of Illinois’ program, Michigan was able to hire Heyliger who would rebuild Michigan, go on to lead the establishment of the NCAA tournament, and lead Michigan to all ten of the first ten frozen fours, winning six national titles in the process.
Had Illinois not folded, it’s fairly safe to say that Heyliger would’ve been leading Illinois to many of those initial frozen fours. At the same time, Michigan was actually considering dropping hockey because it had gotten so bad under head coach Guy Lowery:
“By the time Lowery stepped down, the program itself was in peril. In the spring of 1944, a local headline warned, ‘Michigan May Remove Hockey from Athletic Program’” Blue Ice, p98
“Of course, it didn’t take a genius to figure out that a man who could transform Champaign’s perennial chumps into perennial champs in just four years could do wonders at an established program like Michigan’s. If Crisler was going to spend the time, effort, and money to resuscitate the hockey program, he wanted Heyliger on board, and wouldn’t take no for an answer. Crisler got his man” Blue Ice p105
No team that’s been in a frozen four has ever folded. I think it’s safe to think that if Illinois hadn’t dropped their program, Michigan may have folded (even if temporarily) and Illinois would be playing varsity hockey today in Heyliger Ice Arena. Instead, Illinois folded and Michigan became (and remains) one of the most prestigious programs in the country.
Big Ten titles in the Illinois years:
|Year||Big Ten Champion||Link?|
*For that 1943 article, it seemed like Illinois was unable to make some games in Minneapolis. Counting them as forfeits would’ve given Minnesota the conference title, cancelling the games would’ve given Illinois the title. Eventually Minnesota conceded the games, giving Illinois the title though I can’t find the article where I read that anymore.
1944-1958 BIG TEN CHAMPIONSHIP CLAIMS STOP. (MCHL / WIHL)
After Illinois dropped hockey, the Big Ten was back down to just Michigan and Minnesota until Michigan State joined the league and added varsity hockey in 1950. The three teams played two home and two away games with each other each year but no one claimed Big Ten titles as a result. Maybe the introduction of the NCAA tournament in 1947-48 quenched the desire to have a conference title to claim but I’ve found no evidence either way.
Michigan, Minnesota and Michigan State all competed in the MCHL from 1951-1953 and then the WIHL (a 2nd iteration) from 1954-1958 before a new league named the WCHA would form for the 1959-60 season.
1959-1981 The WCHA And The Big Ten
In 1959, the WCHA began league play and all three Big Ten teams joined the league. This is the same league that exists today, even if the whole league has had huge membership turnover since then. The Big Ten began formally tracking Big Ten standings and a Big Ten champion within WCHA play. No formal conference existed, but it was as close as you could get to it without getting there. Some of you might be thinking that all these titles are very imaginary and not official in any capacity. That was very true for the first era of the Big Ten title, however, when the Big Ten title resurfaced in 1959 it very much became an official thing.
Per Wisconsin’s media guide:
From 1959-81, Big Ten standings were determined by regular season WCHA games between Michigan, Michigan State and Minnesota [ed: and Wisconsin obviously]. Ohio State, a non-WCHA member, played two games against Wisconsin in 1968, two against Michigan State in 1971 and two against Minnesota in 1981.
Ohio State actually played numerous games against Big Ten opponents in this timeframe. Why only six counted as Big Ten games is not clear at all.
So what’s so special here?
“Enhance that image”
Minnesota’s Big 10 Championships Banner
So clearly someone in Minnesota’s athletic department also thought that the “mythical” Big Ten titles counted for something as Minnesota has a banner hanging in Mariucci taking credit for their ten unofficial titles during the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. For whatever reason this hasn’t been publicized at all, but each Big Ten team from that era claims Big Ten titles and recognizes league standings from that era.
As we can see, Penn State will not be alone this fall. Both they and OSU will enter with zero (official) Big Ten wins all-time. Insert snickering here.
I don’t know why there’s been so much coverage of Big Ten hockey with little to no mention of this previous history, but behold, it exists. These standings are only semi-official because they occurred within the regular season play of the WCHA mostly but it was a Real Thing for a whole 23 seasons. Compare that to Michigan’s time in the CCHA - which was 31 seasons - and you get a better sense of how long-standing the Big Ten championship – no matter how mythical – was recognized amongst the participating teams. Minnesota has a banner and each of Michigan, Michigan State, and Wisconsin still have the standings in their most recent media guides. (Here’s an article from the Daily even showing the ‘69 Big Ten standings after Michigan clinched the title; An accompanying image too.) Clearly this was much more than bored journalists tabulating league standings over the years.
BIG TEN TOURNAMENT (1968-1970)
For the ’68, ’69, and ’70 seasons, there was even a Big Ten tournament with all five Big Ten teams participating. Each tournament was hosted at a campus site but didn’t determine a conference champ, it was just a typical winter break tournament (similar to the Great Lakes Invitational).
|1969||Ann Arbor, MI||Wisconsin||Link|
Ohio State went 0-6 in this tournament so if you’ll recall from above OSU was 0-6 in ‘official’ league play and 0-6 in the tournament. Aside from getting some yucks in, it’s a big reminder of why OSU is so far behind the other established Big Ten teams; It isn’t a recent development. While Michigan, Minnesota, Michigan State, and Wisconsin were competing in the WCHA against the North Dakotas, Denvers and Michigan Techs of the world, Ohio State was playing teams like Buffalo, Toledo, and Dayton. Their program hasn’t ever been at the same national level as their brethren, and I’m not sure if that’s going to change anytime soon. Ohio State will likely be a Big Ten cellar-dweller in most years.
It’s unclear why the tournament stopped while the Big Ten standings continued to be tallied for another 11 seasons. I searched high and low for any photos from any of the tournament games but came up with zilch so if anyone can dig one up, you will be my new favorite MGoUser (the photo in this article on the ‘68 tournament is close but appears to be from a game against Minnesota-Duluth shortly after the tournament; you can see a UMD on their jersey).
All-in-all, the era of Big Ten hockey within the WCHA was as close as the league had gotten to being a league of their own up until Penn State joined the fray last year. The recognized championships are below:
From Wisconsin’s 1981-1982 media guide
Like the links above mention, your Big Ten titles for this era are as follows:
|Team||Big Ten titles|
This soiree into Big Ten hockey came to an abrupt halt when Michigan and Michigan State made the jump to the CCHA in 1981 – partially due to Michigan’s struggles in WCHA play. Gone were the regular home and away series against Minnesota and Wisconsin that allowed the feaux-Big Ten league to exist. The split left Michigan, MSU, and OSU in the CCHA and Minnesota and Wisconsin in the WCHA, and that’s where they all remained until a big ol’ dump truck of money arrived in State College a few years ago.
2013-Present The Big Ten Hockey Conference
In 2010, Penn State received their $88 million gift (now $102 million) from Terry Pegula and announced that they would field men’s and women’s varsity teams starting in 2012-2013. Those following college hockey basically knew that it would lead to the Big Ten forming their own league as it had been rumored for years before Penn State was ever cut that check. Sure enough, the Big Ten took only a few months to announce that they would sponsor their own league starting in 2013-2014, thus completing what had been more than 90 years in the making.
My point in writing this diary was not to try to suggest that these previous instances of Big Ten hockey are necessarily equivalent to what will be starting this weekend, but to relay the long history of Big Ten hockey that hardly anyone seems to know about anymore. Some schools and fan bases have tried to argue that this split-off of the Big Ten was just a cash grab or it was a break from tradition but knowing what I know now, I think it’s easy to argue that Michigan to the CCHA was a bigger break from tradition than moving into the Big Ten is now (certainly money and TV sets are involved though – as everything in the Big Ten is nowadays).
The Big Ten is the completion of what was inevitable ever since Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin started WIHL play in 1922, it just took them 90 years to finally get that 6th team.
Big Ten Titles
Big Ten titles
Big Ten tournament
The next question for many is ‘Who’s next?’ It’s pretty obvious that many within the college hockey world are looking forward to the day that happens based on how rapidly the rumor of Illinois impending move to varsity spread this summer. So, will it be just the six of us for another 50 years? Much has been written on this so I’ll keep it short. My e-pinion:
Most Likely: An associate member with an existing hockey program. I don’t think any other Big Ten school is close to adding hockey (barring significant donations) and I’m still of the opinion that most Big Ten schools will be adding men’s lacrosse before men’s hockey – unless the $2MM per year thing is real. As for an associate member, I am unsure of who brings the academic reputation, hockey reputation, and TV audience that the Big Ten would be looking for. Johns Hopkins was a slam dunk for lacrosse as they easily met all three of those. For hockey, I don’t know who would be a great hockey program that also gains anything for the Big Ten. North Dakota is big time and would add a huge fan base, but doesn’t add much from an academic perspective (#173 to USN&WR). Miami is a great program with good academics (#75) but adds almost nothing as far as markets or fan bases are concerned. A CIS school (like U of Toronto) is an interesting idea but likely a pipe dream.
If further realignment comes our way (like is rumored here), I think North Dakota is most likely.
Next In Line: Nebraska, then Illinois or Rutgers.
Nebraska is in a great place for this but has denied any serious interest. They have great fan support in general, a new arena that can be used for hockey, and a state with three USHL teams. Plus they have a natural rival in UNO. More detail here.
Illinois obviously had a varsity program and remains a strong ACHA team with good fan support. Every year people float the idea of Illinois returning (supporting evidence not required).
Rutgers actually attempted to move to Division I back in 1961 but failed to for some unknown reason. The program has a rich tradition dating all the way back to 1892. They currently sport ACHA DI and DII teams. I have no further evidence to support this.
Unlikely: Everyone else.
With hockey being so expensive to start and Title IX being a barrier as well, I’d say the next Big Ten school to join Big Ten Hockey is the first one to get a nice $100 million check from their favorite donor. E-pinion complete.
So I hope that was interesting for the rest of you. I probably lost all the non-college hockey junkies 2000 words ago but personally, I found it totally fascinating. Here’s to year one of real Big Ten Hockey, 92 years in the making.
Etc.: All your suspicions about the Cube are confirmed. Al Renfrew…voice of dissent. Gonzaga, Washington, USC, UCLA, and Western Washington(!) also had D1 teams prior to World War II (see 2nd and 5th columns). Cal had a D1 team as well, playing Illinois in 1940.