It might not rise to the level of certainty of death and taxes, but the likely addition of hockey to the Big Ten Conference lineup has college hockey commissioners doing some advance planning.
WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod said he has heard from Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany and representatives from Wisconsin and Penn State that the Big Ten will push forward with a plan to sponsor hockey beginning with the 2013-14 season.
The addition of another sport under the Big Ten umbrella has to be approved by the presidents of the member schools.
An announcement of the conference’s intention to go down that path could come as early as Monday, sources said.
“It’s never done until it’s done, but every indication from all of those sources is that this is what their intent is,” McLeod said. “So I take them at their word. I guess who knows what could derail it, but that’s the premise that we’ve been working on, that they’re going to start in ’13-14 and have a standalone conference and a standalone tournament.”
Jennifer Heppel, the Big Ten’s associate commissioner for governance who has been tabbed as the conference’s point person for hockey, declined to comment when approached recently.
Big Ten member Penn State is adding a Division I varsity program in the 2012-13 season and is expecting to move into a new arena in September 2013.
With fellow Big Ten members Minnesota and Wisconsin from the WCHA and Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State from the CCHA, that would make six teams in a Big Ten hockey league.
Removing those teams from the existing Western conferences would be a significant change to the college hockey landscape. The CCHA would be left with eight teams (it was at 12 last season before Nebraska-Omaha left for the WCHA), while the WCHA would be back at 10.
More importantly, the leagues would lose some high-profile, full-Division I schools.
The CCHA and WCHA are, at least publicly, taking different approaches in assessing their potential post-Big Ten-debut futures.
“A lot of that is so speculative because as you go down the road, there are decisions that go beyond your own control,” CCHA commissioner Tom Anastos said. “So there’s certainly a level of reaction that would ultimately take place.
“What we’re trying to do in terms of any proactivity is to be communicative, stay out front, talk to people. We all care deeply about the sport and we want to try to figure out, if there’s change, how do we have it impact the landscape in the best manner possible?”
When Penn State formally announced its plans for a varsity program in September, Delany said via a news release that the expectation was that “a conference championship would not take place before the 2014-15 academic year” and occur with a mind to “balance all of the unique interests in play.”
The timeline, however, appears to have advanced by a year. Big Ten athletic directors met last week in Indianapolis, and hockey was one subject scheduled to be on the table.
In the WCHA’s case, to avoid incurring a financial penalty, Minnesota and Wisconsin would have to inform the league that it intends to leave for the 2013-14 season by the time of the league meetings in late April 2012, McLeod said.
The WCHA is working on a three-pronged approach to the situation, McLeod said:
• It has been having conversations with Minnesota and Wisconsin regarding an ongoing scheduling relationship between the schools and the rest of the WCHA.
• It is working with a consultant to determine ways to make up for the loss of Minnesota in the Twin Cities market. The WCHA has a tentative agreement to keep its postseason tournament at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., and will be gathering data at the Final Five this weekend.
• It is working with consultants from Los Angeles and Denver to look at its league-wide television structure and what possibilities exist.
Anastos said the CCHA has created a number of models for the future appearance of the league, based on what would happen in what he called a “landscape reset.”
A CCHA membership committee has been talking regularly about the various scenarios, he said, with the communication escalating ahead of league meetings at the end of April.
The league had been talking about ways to make possible more games between Big Ten teams — and therefore more content for the Big Ten Network — but the situation changed when Penn State came into the mix.
And that change might not be the end of it. The introduction of a full-fledged Big Ten into college hockey could be the end of the shuffle of teams, or it might be just the first domino to fall in a large-scale reorganization.
For now, the leagues are dealing with assumptions and speculation.
“I know lots of people feel they’re in a wait mode, but that’s kind of the unusual nature of the dynamic we’re dealing with,” Anastos said. “If there is not an interest by the Big Ten for some reason to move forward in doing something, our membership and, I think, the WCHA membership is perfectly content.”