College Hockey:
Commentary: Out of realignment, an opportunity for growth

We knew this day would eventually come, and it looks like the wheels have indeed been set in motion — the grand reshuffling of college hockey. The formation of the Big Ten and the “Super League” will blow massive holes in the WCHA and CCHA, two venerable conferences.

Fans are not happy, especially at the schools left behind. The message boards and Facebook have been lighting up with a virtually universal negative view of the coming changes, even from fans of schools moving to the Big Ten or the “Super League.” They will miss the traditional rivalries, the WCHA Final Five, the excitement of Wisconsin visiting Michigan Tech or Michigan at Bowling Green, matchups that wouldn’t happen in basketball or football (unless it was a tune-up game for the big school and a payday for the little guy).

But there may be a bright side to all this. It’s my belief that if college hockey is to grow, it will be because mid-size schools start programs in addition to some more big-name schools. A realignment like this will eliminate the gridlock caused by having only five large conferences that can’t get any bigger. What we need instead are more, smaller conferences that are comprised of schools with similar profiles.

This means hockey becoming more like (shudder) basketball, with a handful of major conferences with big TV contracts, but also with many, many more leagues that are doing quite well with their smaller fan bases and geographic rivalries.

Under this model, teams that in the past had little chance of an NCAA bid will now be in the running. They won’t be pounded by larger schools all season long and then make a quick exit in the conference tournament. Would Rochester Institute of Technology or Air Force want to be in the WCHA? No way. Each team puts up winning records in front of sold-out buildings and has a much better chance of making the NCAA tournament than Michigan Tech or Bowling Green.

In an interview with the Colorado Springs Gazette in May, Air Force coach Frank Serratore said he thinks teams like Michigan Tech are “demoralized” playing a WCHA schedule, while Air Force, a member of Atlantic Hockey, “Gains confidence from playing in a conference that is challenging but not overwhelming.”

Air Force has won only one AHA regular season title in the past five years, but has captured the playoff title, and the NCAA bid that goes with it, four times. And once you’re in the tournament, anything can happen. Seedings have meant little and teams like Bemidji State and RIT have reached the Frozen Four.

If college hockey is to expand, it will be because schools don’t have to be like Penn State and have $88 million fall into their laps in order to start a program. They can start small in a conference with less travel and the ability to compete right away.

The price the bigger conferences will pay is in less at-large bids, unless the tournament is expanded. A larger number of six- or eight-team leagues will eat up spots in the tourney with automatic bids. But everyone loves a Cinderella story, and college hockey has produced its fair share. This will only get better as smaller schools, which used to languish at the bottom of the standings in big conferences, get on a level playing field and have a decent shot at an NCAA bid.

Some programs are going to have to live with the loss of prestige that goes with being in the same league as a national powerhouse. The prevailing thought is that attendance may suffer at these schools. But won’t winning more games help that? Merrimack, a school that doesn’t fit the profile of most other Hockey East schools, didn’t draw many fans until it started winning, albeit within Hockey East. But can the Warriors do it again? Would it have been better off all the years it was losing 20 games a season and drawing little fan support to have been in a league in which it could compete year in and year out instead of once every decade?

As they say, time will tell. But with change comes opportunity. Hopefully, the schools “left behind” will recognize that.

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  • blackswampblues

    BGSU’s loss will be immense, and crippling. instead of long-time regional and MAC rivalries (Michigan, OSU, Miami, Western Michigan, Notre Dame…), the team will be forced to scavenge games with far-away teams where no rivalries exist: UAH, Mankato, Bemidji, Robert Morris… Who cares about playing those teams?
    For a program already on the ropes, this very well could be the knockout punch. Look for the number of DI programs to drop from 59 soon. 58, 57, 56…

  • Anonymous

    I would have to agree with this articles point of view.

    Take Bemidji for example.  As much as I’m a fan of BSU – long term in the WCHA as it stands as of today BSU would likely be a perennial lower half/middle team.  Every few years they might challenge the elite or go on a little post season run like this past season.  They have a great coach and nice facillity so not that it’s impossible to someday be the conference upper half, but… 

    It’s wins that put fans in the stands – it doesn’t matter so much who you’re winning against as long as you’re winning.  In a combined WHCA/CCHA left over conference teams like Bemidji would likely be perennial contender.  The odds of a winning season, home playoff games, conference titles, and NCAA appearances increase quite a bit.  That’s what keeps fan and alumni interest. Same arugement for the other schools.

    Bemidji’s must sucessful DI season a couple years ago had nothing to do with being a member of the WCHA and the following season they got an at-large NCAA bid – again not being a member of the WCHA.  If BSU was a WHCA member at the time would that have happened – likely not.

    Keep in mind the the six team Big Ten and the new “me and my rich friends” conference will need to have a substantial non conference schedule.  It’s not like Bemidji, SCSU, or Mankato will NEVER play Minnesota again – in order to have enough games, especially home games, the instate teams (in Minnesota’s case) make sense from the point of costs and fan interest.  What’s going to put more fans in Mariucci – Niagra or StCloud?  Ever since BSU went DI they played UND and UMD on a yearly basis -  there’s no reason to believe going forward a series against the Souix or Bulldogs would not be an annual date on the schedule.

    The sky isn’t falling. 

    • Hockey

      BSU has not played UND yearly since being D1.  They have played them often.  But not every year.

      • Anonymous

        Correct; but they have played a substantial schedule against UND. 

        Since the 2001-2002 (I think the first D1 season was 99-00? -but are we really counting that one?) season they have met UND all but two seasons between then and present; in the years they did not play UND they did play Minnesota. (I think I’ve got that all right??) They have played Duluth every year since 2001-2002 if I’m not mistaken.  

        The point being a similar scheduling pattern would likely play out post BTC/”SuperSix”  Which of course works to Bemidji’s advantage in terms of at-large bid potential (providing they can win some of those games of course).

        • Hockey

          Yeah I was just saying.  BSU will be back to being one of the top schools in whatever conference they end up in.  Which will lead to a good chance at making the tournament each year.

          And there should be no worry about Bemidji State getting rid of hockey anytime soon.

    • Jacob J. Nelson

      I agree. As a BSU alum, I’m hoping a new conference will get put together with the area schools, SCSU, Mankato, N. Michigan, Anchorage, Michigan Tech, Western Michigan, Lake Superior and the rest of the schools w/o a home in the CCHA. It could be a Great Lakes Conference, to use as an example, but probably wont. I wonder with this shifting, if a team like Air Force decides to stay closer to home, vs playing out east, it would save on travel costs for sure. Another question to be brought up is with all of this conference realignment, if it is good or not for Ala-Huntsville. Depending on the size of a new area conference I would think there would be room for Huntsville. I don’t agree with the articles view of a bunch of 6 teams conferences, lets keep it at 2 with the Big Ten and the “Super Conference”

      -Jacob J. Nelson (Clearwater, MN)

  • Thomas Marchitelli

    I agree with the change.
    Initially, it will be a tough adjustment for the powerhouse teams but it will also allow less-talented teams to compete on a more level playing field and possibly win a chance to go farther in the playoffs.
    Like most things in life, it seems to be a trade-off!

  • Peterhdmd

    I find Mr Lerch’s viewpoint nauseating.  College sports are not Little League baseball.  A playoff system, in which the selected teams are chosen using a definitive and universally applied rating system (ie, PRW rankings), is designed to produce a CHAMPION!!.  Not everyone “gets to play” - only the most qualified should be admitted.  If  there are six, seven, nine, etc. conferences, each with the requisite auto-NCAA bid, the tournament becomes significantly diluted.

     A team that is unbeaten vs five or six sisters of the poor, is sub .500 overall, would have difficulty competing vs a Minnesota state high school semi finalist, and couldn’t hold a candle to the 4th or 5th Hockey East club, does not deserve play-off status!
    In just three of the last four years, a very accomplished, yet non-major conference champion (MDU-4thWCHA 2011; Miami-14th seed 2009; BC-4th HEA 2008) all fared quite well tournament-wise; and in all likelyhood would have been excluded if multiple automatic play-off berths had been secured by lesser qualified teams.

    Look, highly skilled hockey players want to compete against similarly challenging opponents.  That is how they will improve.  As such, some conferences get better athletes, more often, thus resulting in better overall competition and a greater number of quality teams.(Oh, as many are aware, this also occurs in basketball, football, and probably gymnastics and wrestling as well.)  Neither these conferences, players, nor college hockey fans in general should be deprived the enjoyment of having the most qualified teams vying for the NCAA title-especially not in deference to some obscue notion of the appeal of “cinderella.” 

     Futhermore,  in an effort to even greater enhance the crowning of a “true” champion, let’s scrub the disastrous regional quarterfinal sites(routinely drawing less than 18-20k attendence for 3 games), return to the best-of-three, on-campus-site system( last seen in 1991) for rounds 1 & 2-with only the Frozen Four a single elimination format.
    Hey! More games, more $ for the NCAA, and a REAL CHAMPION!  What could be better?  If only…

    PH Dresens, Groton, MA

    • Suture

      Amen, perfect.  See, college hockey is NOT college basketball where 64 teams (or is it more now?) get to make the dance.  Yes, BB does have a few auto bids to the tourney where smaller schools get a shot at the big boys.  But, this rarely comes at the cost of a mid-level Big 10 team, for example, not making it in (I know it has happened however).  In college hockey there is not nearly the number of teams so each NT slot is coveted.  This is why Peter is totally correct with his comments.  Why, why does everyone look out for “their own” and not consider the good of the whole?  I’m so tired of our sport (our country) being so damn self-centered that we ruin the forest so our tree remains “the best”.  As I said, we are now on a road to self destruction and it is very upsetting. I feel like the “leaders” at these schools (one of which I am a huge fan) are acting like spoiled little kids.  College sports are just that …..and don’t tell me that things have changed.  If this is the result of change then start changing it back.  Wow, this upsets me more each day…..and I root for a team that is in a better situation with these new changes….for them anyway. I just yelled at my buddy who said I shouldn’t be making these points.  Well, he grew up a spoiled brat too….lol.  Thing is, this crap is not funny.

    • guest

      its tUMD not MDU

  • Komey

    Realigning the conferences is also going to realign the haves and have nots.  The “Super 6″ will have their own haves and have nots.  How much will the team that suddenly finds istself as a bottom feeder in that conference will reminisce about days where they would find themselves in the upper half of their conference and getting NCAA bids.  Anyone who thinks otherwise is short sighted.

  • Hockey

    Where are all these schools that will be adding college hockey now?  I haven’t seen any waiting in line.  I have seen schools getting rid of college hockey though.

    Sure it would be great if a bunch of colleges decide to add hockey.  Seems like a big if to me.  Why would the schools now left out want to sit around hoping it happens?

    • Suture

      BINGO!!!!   This is the single biggest issue that I see over the horizon.  There simply are not many schools that are looking to add hockey….now or even in the near future.  What are we more likely to see in the next 4-7 years….more schools adding hockey….or losing the likes of Bemidji, BGU, Mankato or a few other smaller schools unable to cover the new travel costs…..all with fewer fans in the seats?  Mark my words now, college hockey is in trouble.

    • blackswampblues

      unlike many other smaller hockey schools, Bowling Green is trying to compete in Div I football, basketball, and hockey…as a result, investment in the hockey program has lagged for years. there will now be pressure on the new BGSU president to reevaluate the wisdom of continuing to pour money into hockey. with traditional hockey rivalries all gone…the money might very well be better spent beefing up the football and basketball programs. At least in football and basketball we still play Miami and Western Michigan, and even Ohio State.

  • MN Fan

    In Minnesota the Gophers benefit from the Big Ten. Bulldogs benefit from their new conference. Bemidji, St. Cloud, and Mankato benefit with a chance to win the WCHA every year while recruiting MN high school kids. This is good for Minnesota

    • BD

      Actually, if the quality of the Gophers does not improce, it is Minnesotas only hope for an easy entrance to a post season slot.

    • Kds

      SCSU, Mankato and Bemidji receive absolutely NO benefit from realignment. Look at St. Cloud State ticket prices for the only answer you need. Mich Tech or Anchorage series for maybe $12 and plenty of empty seats versus the Gophers, Badgers or the Sioux for $35-$40 and SRO.  The columnist (Lerch)  couldn’t be more wrong. Most fans would rather watch games against the “big name teams” win or lose. Simply “winning against your kind of teams” means nothing when you know the quality of the competition is inferior. Part of the enjoyment of college hockey today is that you DON’T have the usual suspects (Big Ten, ACC, SEC, etc) winning year after year.  Just as in basketball, football the top players will go to the top conferences, everyone else gets the leftovers.

    • SCSU Backer

      As a SCSU father and big hockey fan, we need to find something positive. Still pissed tho that UMD couldn’t hold back to keep the MN schools intact..less gophers..A new arena and championship went to their head after years of mediocrity! They will be at the bottom of the new conference and would wish they would have stayed. SCSU draws as well as UMD and BSU will draw well also. MSU has a nice arena and COULD draw well also. 

  • guest

    I think all of this is just crap! The ncaa already has teams in the playoffs that shouldn’t be their. If your a team that is at the top of a conference but can’t be a middle pack team in a bigger conference, why should they go.  The WCHA was almost a powerhouse conference on their own, besides some lower teams, and even the middle of the pack like CC and Bemidji could compete against anyone in the nation.  And now they’re splitting up two of the most traditional conferences just because the big ten wants to take some of the most respected teams and put them in a conference. They should’ve just put Penn State in the Hockey East or somewhere else and left everyone else alone. This is just ridiculous!

    • komey

      Take away auto bids and you would see the end of Atlantic Hockey.  NCAA hockey is fortunate that 3 of the 4 CHA teams found conferences.  Take away that 1 autobid and welcome back to a 12 team NCAA tournament once those teams fold.

      The NCAA has no real say in where a program goes.  The CCHA would have taken Penn State certainly.  Some think that part of the reason that the CCHA stayed at 11 teams was to get Penn State.  Once the Big 10 teams decided to create their own conference, thats when this so called Super League decided they needed to form.  The NCAA didn’t create the new league – North Dakota and Denver essentially did.

  • Falcon Frenzy

    Nice to see such chatter and emotion over college hockey; long overdue.  Unfortunately, none of this means much until the cards are laid out.  we’ll know more next week with the news conference.

  • http://twitter.com/UnluckyLoonie Unlucky Loonie

    Behind the hurt feelings has got to be a better day on the horizon. College Hockey can’t afford even the smaller programs like Bowling Green and St. Cloud State to go by the wayside.  Unfortunately as well, all this brouhaha is making the scouts and coaching staffs of the CHL very happy.

    Conference realignment starting with the Big 10 was going to happen eventually. What the NCAA is going to do about it is an important question to ask then: if they knew that the BIg 10 was going to happen, what steps did they make to assist the teams being left in the lurch?

    College hockey can survive in a different format than it is today–and it can be done in a way that is fair to all programs.  My question is can that plan be implemented in time before there is a Big 10 Hockey conference and nothing else?

  • BD

    I can see value in eitehr reamining in the WCHA or going to the new Super league.
    Regarding the super league, it is the tool by which the major hockey powers have banded together to insure the highest quality of competition.  There is not a poor team in that league and it SHOULD draw the greatest attention from not only the media but also scouts.

  • http://twitter.com/chrislerch Chris Lerch

    Division I Basketball has more than a “few” AQs – 30 of the 67 teams are there on autobids, a much higher percentage than the five out of 16 in hockey. The NCAA tournament is not about getting the “best” 16 teams and never has been. And as the past few years have shown, seeds go out the window – look at how well the #4 seeds have done in regionals, and we had a #15 seed make the Frozen Four two of the last three seasons . The top teams in the AHA for example, can play with anybody and beat anybody. More, smaller conferences will not make the NCAA tournament less competitive.

  • icefogger

    I think this is a naive view.  Attendance is a much larger issue than this article allows.  The top teams draw crowds, and all programs need to put fans in the stands.  In Fairbanks: UNO, Michigan, Michigan St, Notre Dame, Miami have always been close to, if not sell outs.  Nothing against BGSU or Lake St, but they don’t draw the same, even when fans feel that the Nanooks have a much better chance to win than say against Michigan.  I’m guessing the same is true in reverse, when Alaska visits Bowling Green.  We already lost UNO and the rivalry that we had with them when they went to the WCHA, now this is going to be compounded with the exodus for the Super Conference. This is a mess, and it has become a free for all.  
    The idea of the dilution of conferences in order to give the bottom programs hope, is a pretty drastic grasp at straws, in my opinion.   

  • BeaverHockey

    As I read through all of these comments.  I keep reading about the “Super Conference”.  The thing is that all of those teams that are forming the “Super Conference” are in a conference together already, excluding Miami and possibly Notre Dame (who knows where they are going.)  Why not bring those schools into the WCHA and we can leave it at 12 teams.  The leftover CCHA teams can get dispersed into Atlantic Hockey or Hockey East.  

    I guess I am just being a little greedy, because I am a huge Bemidji State fan.  We have been fighting for years to get into the WCHA, so that we can play a tough schedule and start to build a winning program.  The WCHA said not until you build a new facility, so we did that.  Now we are getting better recruits because we get to play the UNDs and Duluths and Denvers and CCs and Minnesotas and Wisconsins year in and year out.  Now we are essentially going right back to where we came from.  I don’t see this benefitting Bemidji State or any other small school for that matter.  I only see the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.

  • blackswampblues

    As a BGSU alum, parent of a current BGSU student, and long-time BGSU hockey season ticket holder, I am now in favor of downgrading the program to DIII or club level. the DI program has suffered from poor financial support and attendance for years. Recent efforts from Scott Hamilton, Rob Blake, and the “Bring Back the Glory” campaign have been noble, but the glory is gone (as is fellow MAC school Miami). The money from DI hockey should be diverted into our successful DI basketball and football programs. Soccer should be upgraded, to be competitive with Akron (fellow MAC school and 2011 National Champion). As a DIII hockey team, perhaps BGSU would be welcome in the MCHA…where we could establish new rivalry with nearby Adrian College. And BG hockey fans can still enjoy DIII games, where hockey is pure and uncorrupted by big $$$$ and the NCAA.

    • blackswampblues

      ok forget dropping to DIII, lol.
      BGSU belongs in the CSCHL. Club hockey is a perfect fit.
      The CSCHL currently has Ohio, Eastern Michigan, Kent, Buffalo, Western Michigan–all MAC schools and long-time BGSU rivals. 
      Illinois will eventually leave the CSCHL for DI, but the league can easily withstand the loss.
      DI hockey is just too costly for a mid-major school, and the return on investment is poor.

  • MSU Grad 97

    Best thing that could happen for everyone involved (and get back at the Siouxper Traitor Conference) would be for everyone to make a 6 team conference, thereby almost assuring that there are very few at-large bids into the tournament.  As a Minnesota State fan, I think it would be great to see a MNSCU team making the tourney almost every year while the Rodents, Bad-reds, the Flickertails, and the Bullsnots have to sit out if they are not able to win their ‘super’ conferences.  

    • BD

      So you would prefer living in a conference made up of set-ups and pushovers?
      A conference everyone ignores?

  • AJ

    Yes, because we all know how well expansion teams were received (cite Bemidji and Hunstville) by the teams that are saying “but these new conferences will be good for hockey!”.  Hockey had always seemed like the last of the college athletic sports that cared more about the game than it did the money.  Guess that one’s no longer true either…

  • Yojimbo

    a 64 team D1 single elimination tournament would be something I would pay to watch.

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