College Hockey:
Commentary: An attempt to process college hockey’s grand changes

In 2008, an independent retail outlet in Detroit called the Bureau of Urban Living re-worked the old British World War II slogan “Keep Calm and Carry On,” pitching it as a slogan for the beleaguered city. Today, posters and T-shirts sporting the phrase can be seen all over southeast Michigan.

Keep calm and carry on. Sounds like good advice for what’s happening now in college hockey, doesn’t it? Advice, though, is often hard to follow.

There is just too much to process logically without feeling at least a little bit of panic, especially if you’re a fan of the leagues currently known as the WCHA and CCHA. Last week, Todd D. Milewski wrote about the inevitable hard feelings that will occur as a result of the splintering of the WCHA — which, incidentally, takes one of the new CCHA elites, Miami, along for the ride. Last Friday, Western Michigan announced that one-year head coach Jeff Blashill took a job as an assistant with the Detroit Red Wings.

Oh, and by the way, Western Michigan is another team mentioned in talk beyond the six teams committed to the new conference.

Too much to process, so this is what strikes me, semi-digestible bits:

The Big Ten Conference is going to ‘grow the sport’

In the Twittersphere, I saw one fan mention that college hockey trading Penn State for Ferris State would essentially equal an upgrade. I disagree, completely — and not just because FSU is a CCHA team. I’d say the same about Michigan Tech or American International or Brown. With only 58 Division I teams currently in the mix, college hockey can’t afford to lose a single one.

The thinking that Big Ten hockey will heighten the profile of the sport as a whole and entice other large universities into the world of D-I men’s ice hockey is flawed, at best. Sure, college hockey on the Big Ten Network may draw more people to college hockey — to Big Ten college hockey.

As for other big schools making that D-I leap, it took a mega-donor to make Division I men’s ice hockey a reality at Penn State. How many sugar daddies do you think there are in the realm of college hockey?

WCHA members reveal their true nature

Two years ago when the WCHA took the orphaned Bemidji State Beavers — while poaching Nebraska-Omaha from the CCHA (Northern Michigan also was reportedly approached by some in the WCHA) — most people in the college hockey world beatified the WCHA while vilifying the CCHA for not granting Alabama-Huntsville membership. Even though I warned people that Big Ten hockey was in the mix and that each league was looking out for its own best interests, people saw the programs in the West as saviors of the sport.

My, my.

I have to say that I’m relieved that the fairy tale of the WCHA as virtuous has been exposed for what it was: fantasy. That the “large” programs in the league are departing for a new one — leaving behind the little guys, including those Beavers — should surprise no one. Frankly, it makes perfect sense for those big programs, given their perceived need to compete against the Big Ten for exposure. I would have been surprised had they not done this.

Do I like it? No. It will do for those schools in the new conference what Big Ten hockey will do for its six members — but to a much smaller extent, and only west of Pennsylvania. Casual college sports fans will care less for those western schools than they do for the Big Ten schools, and the Big Ten schools will have much, much more exposure than the schools in the new league.

All for one and one for … oh, forget about it

I don’t blame the WCHA members and Miami for bolting, although I think it is a bit panicky and not in the best interest of college hockey. However, those hockey programs exist to promote those college hockey programs solely, not the sport in general. Anyone who thinks otherwise is nuts.

The forming of a new conference out West should put to rest those old, pesky notions that anyone in collegiate sports is altruistic. Those days are gone. It’s not just the Big Ten that’s about dollar signs; everyone is. This is big business.

Notre Dame?

Don’t ask, because I don’t know. With a shiny new arena and a program on the rise — and that amazing Fighting Irish collegiate tradition behind it — Notre Dame can probably write its own ticket. Like many, I’ve heard Hockey East and the new western conference as possible destinations.

I just haven’t heard anything concrete.

Those left behind, aka, the little guys that make our niche sport so lovable

This is the part that breaks my heart. When I started covering college hockey in 1995, I covered the three CCHA teams in Ohio, and two of those teams were little guys at the time. Bowling Green had been a powerhouse but was fading; Miami was just beginning to build its powerful program. Even Ohio State was an underdog, an unloved Scarlet-headed stepchild at a school that cared about football and basketball and all else second.

I came to love the little guys, all of them, throughout the CCHA. Even Michigan State and Michigan didn’t seem so big back then, and each school cared about all CCHA member programs — seriously. It was an amazing fraternity, and I was privileged to get my start there when I did.

So my heart breaks for the remaining CCHA and WCHA teams that will be left out of all of this.

As has been pointed out to me both privately and publicly, the remaining teams from the CCHA and WCHA could form a very interesting and arguably competitive conference. They could, in theory.

However, it’s their membership in their respective conferences with larger programs that has driven many of these teams to be competitive. It’s a slippery thing to define, but the smaller programs are better off when mixed in with the bigger ones in so many ways.

First, there’s recruiting. For years in the CCHA, everyone was competing with Michigan State and Michigan for top recruits. More recently, Miami, Notre Dame and Ohio State (to a lesser extent) have also been in that mix, leaving the rest of the teams — all smaller programs — to get creative to attract talent.

One of the ways the smaller programs have attracted top talent is by being smaller. Not every kid wants to go to a huge university or one with such a storied tradition. Smaller places suit a lot of kids just fine, especially when they know they can make an impact immediately. Take away the comparison to the bigger programs, and that tiny advantage is gone.

Second, there’s the competition. When a program like Michigan elevates itself to the level it has, every other program in the league benefits from the competition. When a team that is struggling to rebuild itself — Bowling Green, for example — plays a team like the Wolverines, that team can be made to understand by its savvy coaches what it takes to become and remain competitive, both in a league and nationally. Every team that is not a big dog attempts to rise to play its best against a big dog.

Third, there’s revenue. Yes, teams in the Big Ten will have to schedule against nonconference teams to fill a schedule, and near MSU and Michigan, that probably means playing their former CCHA buddies — but at home, not on the road. The smaller programs in the CCHA definitely benefit financially from when, say, a hated Ohio State team comes to town. That, my friends, is good for the sport, because teams that play sports in Division II, for example, get to participate in big-time college athletics, in their own little rinks.

Kiss that aspect of college hockey — something most of us west of the Eastern seaboard have come to love — goodbye, and fast.

Goodbye — and hello — Jeff Blashill

What a pleasure it is to watch the meteoric rise of Blashill’s coaching career. I’ve written many times about this guy, who’s one of the most genuine, nicest people I’ve known. Smart, business savvy with the leadership qualities of a winning general, there was no way that college hockey was going to hold on to Blashill. I just didn’t think he’d depart so soon.

What’s good for Blashill is both good and bad for college hockey. The bad is obvious, of course. We’re losing Blashill after one spectacular year at Western Michigan.

The good may seem less obvious, but this is good for the sport we love. Any time the NHL plucks someone to coach from the ranks of college hockey — especially someone who never played in the NHL — our sport gets a little nod of recognition. What quality former collegiate players are doing on the ice in the NHL, quality coaches from the collegiate ranks can certainly do behind the bench.

What’s unique here, though, is Blashill’s distinct college (and CCHA-specific) pedigree: raised in Sault Ste. Marie, played at Ferris State, coached at Miami, coached at Western. What’s missing? Michigan. Michigan State. Minnesota. Schools with brands.

In the Kalamazoo Gazette, Blashill said that this opportunity came “out of the blue.” He had planned on staying at WMU. Clearly, the Red Wings know a good thing when they see one.

Now, however, what happens with the Broncos? Will the conference forming in the west be interested in WMU (as it reportedly has been) without Blashill there? And who can follow Blashill’s one-year act?

There are lots of things happening in college hockey, and I get the sense that the margin between the haves and have-nots will widen even further in coming years. In the short term, in fact, I think things may be dismal for a few programs that suddenly find themselves on the outside looking in, the little guys with little leverage.

So that’s that

Can we keep calm and carry on? Should we? The Chinese are purported to have a saying of their own that also comes to mind these days: May you live in interesting times.

Interesting times, indeed.

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  • AJ

    Here’s to hoping that those small time Great Lakes schools’ communities will rally behind them to keep hockey alive.  Don’t sugar coat it- these realignments are devastating for college hockey.

    • Guest

      Disagree AJ…I think in 10 years everyone is going to look back at this being good for college hockey. It is going to force the “little guys” to make hockey a bigger priority at their universities. No more riding the coat tails of the likes of North Dakota, Minnesota, Michigan, and BU. I would be very surprised if BU, BC, UNH, and Maine were not in discussions right now about forming their own Eastern Super League. Maybe that is what Notre Dame is waiting for, to see if those schools are going to band together. I don’t think for a second Notre Dame would join the already 10 team Hockey East. They are waiting to chose between a super conference out east or a super conference out west.

      • Joe C

        Hockey East already is the eastern “Super League” which does not need to delete a single program. HE continues to have successful tournament teams, develops plenty of NHL players and has good regional television presence in what is still a niche sport. Adding programs would be great, specifically, Notre Dame followed by UConn, making for a 12-team league with two divisions. Play your division foes three times and the other division two times and there is a nice 25-game schedule. Add in a third game against your “rival” from the other divsion and you have a 26-game schedule, similiar to the current 28-game schedule. Add in two more rotating third games against the other division and you are back to a 28-game schedule. Adding Notre Dame is little different than scheduling WCHA and CCHA non-conference games.

        The travel issues from a Notre Dame addition are far outweighed by the television and attendance possibilities. UConn adds Connecticut’s TV market along with the presence of the World Wide Leader in Bristol. You can hear ESPNU already “Put the Irish/BU or Irish/BC on Saturday night.”

        There is another successful eastern league. It is the ECAC. While those of us that went to Hockey East schools do not often say it loudly, the ECAC is a great league that does exactly what it set out to do and is completely healthy. We just wish it would be a little more successful, since we remember what it was like when Harvard, Clarkson, St Lawrence, RPI etc were all much better. 

        Notre Dame playing hockey against Big East caliber hockey programs fits nicely with Notre Dame’s overall sports strategy, especially considering the large Northeast Alumni and generational fan base stemming from its football program. Wherever Notre Dame decides to go in hockey, either Hockey East or the new Western conference, it will have the same success. Since it is not going to join the Big 10 anytime soon, it will be moving out of the CCHA. East or West is the only question to be determined.

      • AJ

        Here’s the thing though; smaller schools really CAN’T afford to make hockey I bigger thing.  I’m a Michigan Tech student, and avid supporter of our hockey program, but do you have any idea how hard it is to recruit to a school that only has 7,000 students, a pretty vigorous curriculum, and a 4:1 male:female ratio?  Not to mention the fact that to make hockey a bigger priority at our school, we’d have to raise our already pretty high tuition and cut funding from our other, already rather meek athletic programs. Playing at the DI level against highly competitive schools is what keeps our program alive, and I have to imagine schools like NMU, LSSU, FSU, and BG are in the same boat.

        • Curmudgeon

          Sounds like you might be describing Renssalaer…..

        • Guest

          Michigan Tech didn’t seem to have any problems competing 30 years ago. Face it…the athletic department and school gave up on the program years ago. Do you think that is fair to the other schools in the WCHA by finishing last or second to last in the conference every year with 5 wins and bringing in 1,000 fans a game? The changes we are see now have already forced institutions like Michigan Tech and Western Michigan to re-dedicate themselves to their hockey programs, ie bringing in and paying for high quality coaches. Northern Michigan President was just quoted as saying they are now forced to “do what is best for their program to be competitive”. I do not think many of the “small schools” would be talking like this or making sacrifices to better their hockey programs if it were not for the changing landscape of college hockey.

          • Jjhg

            Tech was one of the first schools in the nation to allow europeans on their team…and their teams were stocked full of them

  • Bruce

    In the current CCHA, except when Alaska is involved, a team can travel to an away game with any other league member by bus.  That will not be the case in a league formed by merging the remaining CCHA and WCHA teams.  For schools like Ferris State, Bowling Green, and Western Michigan, being in a league with the remaining WCHA schools instead of nearby schools like Michigan and Michigan State will mean significantly higher travel costs, just as their revenues are going down. 

    • Smarterthanyou

      Not even close to being accurate. It won’t be any longer of a bus ride to St. Cloud or Bemidji as they were making to Nebraska-Omaha and it will cut down travel costs for LSSU and NMU dramatically. They will all be able to bus to each other outside of the Alaska schools.

      • Paula Weston

        That’s not quite true.  

        It’s not just a matter of comparing distances; it’s a matter of frequency at that distance, too. Take Lake Superior State, for example.  Yes, a trip to St. Cloud or Bemidji doesn’t seem that far, given how far LSSU travels to play on a fairly regular basis.However, for LSSU as a current member of the CCHA, the Lakers have four teams in the lower peninsula within 400 miles, Bowling Green and Notre Dame at roughly 400 miles, and of course NMU at about 165 miles. With Notre Dame, MSU, and UM  (and likely WMU) gone from regular conference play, that increases LSSU’s conference travel considerably.  Let’s not forget that NMU is rumored to join the WCHA, too.

        So when the CCHA has been carved up and meted out, there will be three CCHA teams without homes (as UAF is reportedly considering the WCHA as well):  Bowling Green, Ferris State, and Lake Superior State.  Should these teams join another league other than the WCHA — and it doesn’t look like the WCHA is interested in them — then these teams will be the closest competition for each other, and the closest trip for any of them among the three is between Big Rapids and Sault Ste. Marie, and that’s only slightly shorter than the trip between Big Rapids and Bowling Green.  

        To suggest that travel won’t be an issue is inaccurate.  

        • Bruce

          Travel might make Bowling Green more attractive to eastern schools than Ferris State or Lake Superior State.  Bowling Green, Ohio, is on north-south I 75 not far from east-west I 80 and I 90 and Toledo and Detroit Metro airports.  Bus trips from schools in western Pennsylvania and western New York to Bowling Green woud be much easier than trips to Ferris State or Lake Superior State.

          • Smarterthanyou

            dumbest thing I have ever read….

        • ROBO

          NMU is going to the WCHA…no doubt about it.  They’ve had it with Lower Michigan nonsense the past several years. 

        • StillSmarterthanyou

          Why am I not surprised you completely missed the boat, once again. It is solely based on the travel if the two leagues combine that is what the post was about. You would be far more bearable if you just took the simple time to read carefull and think before you respond.

  • WesternHeraldWIDRalum

    The CCHA has been good to my Broncos. However, one downside of playing in such a large conference, is the smaller non-conference schedule. It would appear that Notre Dame doesn’t care for that aspect, either. That goes for the Hockey East teams, too. For too long, college hockey’s regular season has looked like the old AL/NL regular season. Its not good that college hockey tends to see great cross-conference match-ups only in the NCAA tournament. The Big Ten teams will be all over the place in their non-conf. schedules. Likewise, I agree that it only makes sense that BC, BU, UNH & Maine should be talking. Why wouldn’t they want to spread their brands around the country, too? 

    We may not be a familiar face to college hockey’s western and eastern powers, but with loads of alumni, a charged-up fan base, a serious financial committment, a big school enrollment and a nice media market, the Broncos have a lot to offer a larger conference.

    • Joe C

      Hockey East plays a good non-conference schedule early in the season, then plays its league games in the second half of the season, along with the Beanpot. ECAC has a lot of Ivy League schools that do not play early games due to academic restrictions. However, both hockey leagues play unbalanced schedules, just like basketball and football, because that is what drives revenue. This has allowed smaller schools, like Merrimack, Lowell and Northeastern, to have a D-I programs and make NCAA appearnces just a few years after being doormats in their league. Providence can make the same jump, as can any school in ECAC, like Union did.

      How many cross-conference basketball games does one see in February and March? Only a very few and only because ESPN requested the “bracket-buster” matchups between potential bubble teams from mid-majors.

      I hope that the mislabeled “left-overs” can survive these trying times. Because the same thing is looming in football and basketball, where you had gigantic programs like Kansas and Missouri worried about their programs due to Nebraska/Texas/Colorado moving..

      I know that people mock the ECAC, but that conference is very stable. Atlantic Hockey seems to be stable as well. As long as those schools left behind in the CCHA/WCHA can be part of a league with an autobid, then they can pave their own path.

      Hockey East wishes you all luck. Some ECAC fans are still mad about the schools that left to form Hockey East, which is interesting considering the genesis of HE came from the Ivies threatening to create their own league.

      • Vicbrzo

        The ECAC does not play an unbalanced schedule.  Each ECAC Team plays the other 2 times.  Some schools (Clarkson-SLU) do play an extra non-conference game.

        • Joe C

          Unbalanced between conference and non-conference. That was the intent of the original poster, decrying the lack of balance between conference and non-conference, where leagues like HE plays 27 conference games and about 8 non-conference games. I am not sure about the ECAC splits, but Harvard only plays about 8, including 2 Beanpot games.

  • Winnipeg Jets Forever!

    Well as far as I am concerned we just turned 2 leagues into 4, “Super Elite” to the B10, “Elite” in the new conference,  WCHA leftovers plus UA Huntsville = 6 teams and NCAA autobid, and CCHA leftovers remains at 6 teams retaining autobid.  WCHA and CCHA can have interlocking schedules as well as B10 and “Elite League”, and yes Notre Dame will be going east, they aren’t going to be filling their new arena with BGSU’s and LSSU’s or even UNO’s and UMD’s for that matter.  Just one rip, I loved how nieanderthal man Dean Blais trashed the B10 schools for leaving their leagues and now UNO is doing the same thing.  My one hope in all of this is that it will encourage expansion at all levels since all leagues will definetly have the room for more teams.

    • Jets crash and burn again

      It’s funny how you tried to use a big word like neanderthal and you spelled it wrong.  Maybe you and Dean can take graduate classes at Minnesota and learn how to spell.

      • Jets Flying High

        Minnesota considers spelling a graduate level class?! I knew that University was terrible, bit that’s ridiculous!

    • Suture

      What did you just say?  Made no sense?  Dean Blais Neanderthal man…..wow, another child on here.  Please try to add something to the conversation instead of falling back to 6th grade name calling….my heavens man.  Dean, by the way, is the best college hockey coach….ever.  I know there are great coaches now and in the past, I get this.  But, if you knew Dean and knew how he is able to work with his kids you would understand what I am talking about.  Ask any player who has played for Dean, ANY player, they will attest to what I saying.  It seems so denigrating to hear someone of your ilk speak of Dean Blais in this manner. Dean’s ability to recruit the right kind of kid, his ability to instill in each player that each shift is their last and his knack for getting his teams to play above their talent level is something to behold. Most importantly, Dean will never, ever let a player or team play anything like another WCHA team that shall go unnamed….based in Minneapolis….gold and maroon colors….mascot is a rodent….:)   Dean’s Sioux teams had talent, but not nearly as much talent as we see with the more recent Sioux teams.  His national championship teams in 1997 and 2000 had a few nice players but I think most people would agree these teams won with grit as much as any God-given talent.  He won at UND, and now is winning at UNO.  UNO stood toe-to-toe with UND last year and I am not alone when I say we were not too thrilled about having to face UNO in the national tournament…if this would have come to pass. Did you see Dean Blais complain one bit when the non-goal was called a goal in the NT?  Dean displayed to all of us involved in college hockey that you have to accept these things with class, it is just part of college hockey.  I assure you he told his players to work harder next time as to not be in this situation next time around. Mark my words, UNO wins a NC within 2 years….which kind of sucks because this means they will have dispatched my team.  But, these things happen in college hockey….:)

      • Streaker

        The non goal in the tournament? Poking at the Gophers? Who’s using sixth grade humor/logic now? 

  • Smarter than you

    Why should I be surprised that after months off you still come back with more of the same crap. Really you think your the ONLY one who saw the Big Ten coming? Laughable. And to think the new conf. is going to be second fidle to the Big ten, again laughable! The new conf. will have a TV deal with more exposure, 3 solid networks in talks including fox sports, versus, and cbs college sports. They get on either of those three the tv aspect is gone. And to think they will be meaningless is absolutely laughable. This conf. is instantly better than the Big ten. Ohio st. is awful, Michigan St. is awful and Penn St. will be awful. Minny hasn’t been relevant in a few years. That leaves two top level programs only in that conference. The new league outside of CC the last few years and UNO ( who is on the rise ) they have 4 teams that have either won a national title or been to multiple frozen fours in the last 7 years. That conf. becomes far more relevant in college hockey than the Big Ten. They will continue to get top recruits, because of their names and exposure as well as the continued success. This will also not be an awful thing for the other schools from the two conf. they will cut travel down and can renew rivalries. Ferris is the only school I would worry about. But seriously the BEST thing about Miami leaving is I dont have to read your awful crap following my program. Your pathetic lack of knowledge and facts is disgusting. You miss the beat on majority of what you babbled about up in that article….You seriously need to get a new profession, covering college hockey isnt for you. Actually covering or talking about any hockey isn’t for you…

    • Suture

      Smarter, I tend to agree with some of your comments and I also agree that some of the writers on USCHO are inexperienced, bias to a moderate degree (others think largely biased) and often do not get the “gist” of what is REALLY going on with a given league or team.  But, I think you were a bit harsh on poor Paula. I’m just thinking Paula might be this babe and you are beating up on her just a little too much.  Paula, I may not agree with your article completely but I sure hope you have thick skin girl….well, figuratively speaking anyway….:)   

      • Smarterthanyou

        Suture have you read a lot of her stuff? It is down right awful week in and week out getting simple statistics wrong, fundamentals of the game wrong, and big ten bias is just too much to deal with. She should have thick skin she has been hearing it for years, yet the same song and dance. I would direct her to the webster definition of insane…you would think someone would adapt at some point.

    • guest

      Fans like you make Miami look bad. But, then again, that has been my experience, anyway. Good luck playing UND, Denver, CC, Duluth and even lil ole UNO on a regular basis, and not hiding behind that CCHA schedule.

      • Bob

        That’s a little like the pot calling the kettle black. Look, if fans were judged by their online behavior alone, we’d all be “bad.” I’ve had plenty of personal experiences at Yost and the Joe, and online, that make Michigan look equally as bad. That said, good luck in what appears to be an awful BTHC.

      • Bob

        Also, why would you denigrate the CCHA schedule from which you have benefited so greatly over the past 20 years?

      • Smarterthanyou

        Ignorant monkey….Is that why Miami has owned Michigan the last couple of years…good luck falling flat on your face in the little ten. You go from a viable conference to one that has two solid teams….your arrogance is pathetic and will blow up in your face…Bob said it right, you talk about us benefitting, you were in the same damn conference monkey….

  • HockeyWest

    The author provided no interesting or relevant information or theories.  At the end of the day, only Penn State is new to college hockey.  Therefore, there will be about 20 more players in college hockey.  The same kids will be recruited and the same kids will choose a school/conference to play in.  The best kids will migrate to the same, superior schools like UND, Miami and Wisconsin.  The so-so kids will migrate to the same, inferior teams like MTU, BG and FSU.

  • Cgp_999

    This is all really disappointing. I am so sick of the little guy getting picked on all the time in every aspect of this world, now it’s college hockey too.

    Everyone is just after money now, no one wants to just play and keep tradition alive. I feel for all the small schools that will be hurt by this, BSU included. I hope that the WCHA and CCHA can stay afloat and really stick it to these other schools and steal bids and hopefully a few championships from them too. I think some of these bigger schools have seen that the gap between them and the small schools is closing and they needed to do something about it. They need to find a way to keep the little guy down and it is just sickening. I am sure if they had their way, they would make sure that only 20 teams in the country even played division one so they could keep it all to themselves. And I think UND is the most disappointing part of all of this. They have always seemed to help the little guy, were always there for BSU and now they are turning their backs on them. The name change, now the new conference. They are a bunch of sellouts. This whole thing is just really awful.

    • ROBO

      People forget about Bemidji and RIT the past few years….and of course VCU and top dog Bulter in basketball manhandling everyone in the field.  Don’t overlook the future WCHA with likely St. Cloud, NMU, Bemidji and company making NCAA runs. 

  • AJ

    I think there’s one very important thing that’s been overlooked in all of this- what’s going to be done about the Alaska’s?

    • Rondo

      Put them on a bridge to nowhere with Sarah Palin…..

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