Commentary: Which Way Will Dominos Fall After Penn State’s Introduction?

Rumors abound about Penn State and Division I hockey. Then again, I think we’ve passed the rumor stage. Multiple sources both inside the process and in high ranking college hockey positions have confirmed it is happening and the official announcement will happen this week.

For many years I felt Penn State would never do this and if it does — and there is chatter in the hockey community that Indiana joins later on — you say that’s great for college hockey. A huge part of me wants to see Joe Battista and all of his hard work with the Penn State club program over the past couple of decades be rewarded.

Related link: Penn State Set to Field Varsity Program, Sources Say

If you are a Big Ten fan, you are thrilled. If you are Lake Superior State, Ferris State, Northern Michigan and the rest of the CCHA outside of the big three, you are keeping a close eye on this for many reasons. The most obvious is if Penn State comes in, it is doing so for the sole purpose of being a member of a six- or seven-team Big Ten Conference. That isn’t being said by anyone on the inside, but a blind man can see this one.

If that happens, the CCHA says goodbye to Michigan and also a fond farewell to Michigan State and Ohio State. Now in its 40th season and about to celebrate its 30th year of having its title game at Joe Louis Arena, this is a league well run by Tom Anastos, who enters his 13th year at the helm. The CCHA has set the bar pretty high in all that it does and should a Big Ten Conference be coming it will challenge this conference to get very creative in terms of its membership.

It will have no effect on the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry, but losing Ohio State hurts the rivalry with Miami. Michigan is a huge road draw in the CCHA as are the Spartans and the Buckeyes. With Notre Dame’s recent success (last season notwithstanding) as well as its brand name, and with the meteoric rise of Miami as a national power the CCHA might never be healthier as a conference as it is right now. Ohio State is coming back and Michigan State can always be counted on to be solid. The Spartans are the CCHA’s most recent national champion and have many alums as current NHL players.

You could make a case that the Big Ten member programs haven’t been the sole proprietors of success lately. Northern Michigan continues to be successful and winds up at the Joe for the CCHA championship weekend. Ferris State is always competitive and well coached by Bob Daniels. New coaches at Western Michigan and Bowling Green, coaches who have had recent success, bodes very well for this great conference. Miami is due for a national title and could be on track this season after back-to-back Frozen Four appearances.

Notre Dame is still a huge road draw, but who knows where the Irish plant their flag as a football program in the future and if it’s in the Big Ten (or 11, or 12, or 13 or 14) then possibly out go the Irish through no fault of the CCHA.

The WCHA is a little different with Denver, North Dakota and Colorado College as members because they are all big-time programs with national status. Losing the Gophers and Badgers isn’t great for the WCHA mostly because their conference tourney is in St. Paul, Minn. You would have to think that the CCHA and WCHA might be looking at some type of merger. On that note, would we see an all-Ivy League conference and see some of the more western-based ECAC members link up with the CCHA? It is all speculation of course, and based on nothing more than trying to think two steps ahead, but you’d have to think some cosmetic surgery will be needed to realign the face of college hockey.

American big business is about the big getting bigger and the small or obsolete getting taken over (ever think Blockbuster Video would go under 20 years ago?). Don’t for one second think that if Penn State comes in (despite Atlantic Hockey or the ECAC being a good match geographically) you will hear a giant bomb go off in college hockey as a Big Ten Conference gets into the discussion. Realistically, PSU would be great for the CCHA.

This is something floated in this space before but while the Big Ten is a conference with good rivalries, not every team is a rival of every other. This is a football-driven conference and to a lesser extent a basketball one, so school rivalries have developed based on geography (Michigan-Michigan State, Minnesota-Wisconsin, Wisconsin-Iowa, Ohio State-Michigan) and also competition.

Penn State is interesting because, unless I have heard this wrong from the alumni of a lot of these schools I am friendly with, Penn State isn’t exactly a blood rival with any of its conference rivals. Minnesota? Not really. Wisconsin? Somewhat. Michigan State? Thinking no but would listen to a counter argument there. Ohio State? Has to be; OSU has run Big Ten football for years. Michigan? To an extent due to the Wolverines’ pedigree (and as a friend and Bucky alum mentioned once, “we just hate Michigan in Madison”), but has either school really had a defining moment win vs the other or suffered a crushing defeat to the other? Did the Camp Randall Classic really add any fuel to the fire here? Do we need to have these conference “rivals” lumped together? You can make a strong case that the answer is no.

PSU is good for college hockey from this perspective: It’s a football-driven, marquee sports program coming into your world. They give you a well-known entity in an area that makes travel east or west an option. They can get to Boston to play the powers in the Hub. They can play Harvard and/or Cornell. They are big time and that is a factor. Penn State moves the meter and draws eyeballs. It also has money and will bring another state-of-the-art hockey facility into the fold. Along with Mercyhurst and Robert Morris, it gives Pennsylvania another college hockey option to battle against the presence of the Erie Otters.

Now, if you own a shopping mall and P.F. Chang’s comes in, you are thrilled. It’s a big chain that drives foot traffic to the mall. If you are a small Chinese restaurant in the area you might not be so excited. It is the same thing with college hockey as it relates to PSU coming in and the possibility of a Big Ten hockey conference. The flip side of this is that Penn State activates the shark that is the Big Ten and its ability to gobble up what is in its way. That’s capitalism, and that is what drives business in America, but this could have an adverse effect on some longtime college hockey programs.

If the CCHA teams like Lake State, Ferris State, Western Michigan, Bowling Green and Alaska lose big-time programs from their schedule like the Big Ten-affiliated schools in question, you have a problem. Are you driving an hour and a half to Big Rapids to watch Ferris State play Alaska-Anchorage like you would to play a rival like Michigan or Michigan State? That big tilt between St. Cloud State and Bowling Green getting you all warm and fuzzy? There could be room for these CCHA rivalries to continue on their schedules but it could be fewer and far between for these teams to meet.

Losing natural rivals and meter-moving teams is bad, but getting force fed unnatural rivals is worse. I still think losing the Capitals from the NHL’s old six-team Patrick Division has hurt their former division mates. The Caps were a rival to the Devils, Rangers, Isles, Flyers and Penguins, and today their rivalry with Pittsburgh (Crosby vs. Ovechkin) and Philly (right up the road) are probably more intense than their ones with divisional partners from Florida, Tampa, and Carolina (despite the latter two winning the Stanley Cup in the last decade). No one in Washington cares when the latter three show up, but when the old Patrick Division teams come in there is a buzz.

Maybe losing these teams won’t hurt the CCHA or WCHA. Maybe I see this all wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time. What I do know is Penn State coming in can be great for college hockey if it winds up in the CCHA. If it is the linchpin for the decay of the CCHA and the catalyst for the Big Ten hockey conference, its addition will fan some flames that could lead to future fires.

Both would be a shame.