It’s mid-summer, that time when hockey burns the faintest despite all of our collective passion… but let’s face it, it’s tough to get wrapped up in the game on ice when the concrete is doing all it can to keep from melting.
So in accordance with the time-honored tradition of presenting off-season hypotheticals, I give you my New World Order of D-I hockey: how the game would look if I could re-tool it here and now.
There are soon to be five D-I men’s conferences: Atlantic Hockey, the CCHA, ECAC Hockey, Hockey East, and the WCHA. These will envelop 57 of the 58 current programs, as we all know of Alabama-Huntsville’s dismal plight. But I’ll say it now; these are not ideal conferences.
It wouldn’t be right to simply segment D-I into geographic compartments; that is disrespectful to the histories of the leagues and their respective programs. We should strive to preserve long-standing rivalries and affiliations, but there are some current arrangements that simply don’t make sense. Time for some tinkering.
First off, the two largest groupings of programs are in New England and Great Lakes states, with numerous other nearby outliers in New York and Minnesota, for example. (Yes, I am aware that both of these states actually touch Great Lakes, but not in the same way as Ohio or Michigan or Wisconsin, so kindly keep it to yourself.)
Instead of multiple different leagues, I’d prefer to organize the D-I landscape into something more resembling divisions… operating under the same rules, with roughly the same number of teams, so everyone has something resembling an equal shot at earning an auto-bid to the NCAA tournament. I’m shooting for six leagues of eight teams apiece, plus one league with 10.
Because there are so many teams bunched up in these areas, it should be relatively easy to maintain some traditional ties without stretching too far.
A dozen teams is too many, but whom do you cut?
Clarkson and St. Lawrence seem like easy candidates due to their location, but they wouldn’t be easy fits in any other league, either. You can’t remove any of the Ivies, despite Princeton’s status as the southernmost school in the conference by far. Rensselaer and Union have strong traditional ties to the league too, not to mention they’re right in the heart of its geographic footprint, and while Quinnipiac is the newcomer to the pack, it’s already got a buzzing rivalry with nearby Yale and would demand a partner-in-exit anyhow.
There is no win-win arrangement here, but I think the least painful decision would be to sever the North Country teams from the league. Hence:
This will be a bit different than its current arrangement. Gone are Air Force, Canisius, Mercyhurst, Niagara, RIT and Robert Morris, all of whom are quite far afield of the heart of the conference (and its namesake coastline). We need to add a couple programs to the mix, so in come Merrimack and Providence from Hockey East — two smaller schools that have a lot of history, but simply haven’t been able to compete at the same level as Boston University, Boston College, New Hampshire, etc. Thus:
This powerful league is thus left with what has been its strongest eight in recent years:
Northeastern Hockey Conference
This new splinter league will admittedly face tougher travel logistics than the two aforementioned conferences, but that is the unfortunate byproduct of programs that fall outside the primary D-I footprints. Most of these teams were culled from the outskirts of Atlantic and ECAC Hockey leagues, but we’re also adding Ohio State. I hate to put an impediment between OSU and Miami, but it’s the program that makes the most sense for this budding league.
Now then, moving out west…
Out go Alaska, “t”OSU, Lake Superior and Northern Michigan; in comes Alabama-Huntsville… because the Chargers need a home.
The Northern Hockey Conference
With 16 more teams to go, this is where we run into some serious travel expenses and a tough pack of programs to divide. Time to split what’s left. It’s hard to call this the WCHA, because it’s not going to be the most western of the new conferences… even though the temptation is there, because the heart of the WCHA will be in this new league. We keep the Minnesota schools in a pack for travel and rivalries’ sake, but at the huge expense of cutting Wisconsin and North Dakota out — Minnesota-Twin Cities’ biggest rivals.
Here we come to what should be called the Frequent Fliers Conference. It’s not pretty on the budget, but it’s packed with some high-caliber programs.
With a mere 14 games required for a balanced schedule in most leagues, that leaves as many as 20 non-conference dates open under the current restrictions… so even if Clarkson doesn’t have RPI on its conference slate, it could easily get a date or two with them every year, the same way USC does with Notre Dame in football. Same with Minnesota-North Dakota or -Wisconsin, and the same goes for Army-Air Force.
Not that any of this amounts to anything at all, but it was a fun exercise, and I hope to hear some feedback that contains more than a string of profanities (as enjoyable as those are to decipher through our censoring program).
More to come as the mood strikes. Happy off-season to all!