There is no question that the biggest news in college hockey this year — perhaps even this decade — has been Penn State’s commitment to go Division I. On the wings of a huge private donation, an immense and storied athletic department and a tradition of excellence at the club-hockey level, the Nittany Lions will commence life as a Division I program in the fall of 2012.
The news was met with immediate joy from the hockey community, which hasn’t welcomed a new program to its highest rank since Syracuse formed a women’s program in 2008-09. The D-I men’s fraternity hasn’t borne a new member since Robert Morris in 2004-05. If anything, men’s hockey has been hemorrhaging teams, losing the likes of Wayne State, Findlay, Iona and Fairfield since the spring of 2003.
But after the initial jubilation had subsided, some questions began to surface. The biggest was, of course, which league would Penn State call home?
Why, the Big Ten hockey conference, of course.
The great divide?
“I think that’s a fait accompli, to be honest with you,” St. Lawrence coach Joe Marsh said.
“It certainly seems like it would be heading that direction in the future,” Rensselaer coach and American Hockey Coaches Association president Seth Appert agreed.
“I think it’s going to happen,” Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold echoed.
This is where we start to investigate the inevitable trickle-down effects of Penn State’s jump on the future of ECAC Hockey, specifically. With five pre-existing Big Ten hockey programs (Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Ohio State and Wisconsin), the addition of the sixth in PSU would give a hypothetical Big Ten conference enough squads to qualify for an NCAA tournament auto-bid. With the vast majority of each of these schools’ athletic programs already playing under the authority of the Big Ten, it seems a foregone conclusion that ice hockey is the next sport into the fold.
The formation of the new league would leave the CCHA with eight teams, and the WCHA with 10. Hockey East (10 teams), ECAC Hockey (12) and Atlantic Hockey (12) would go unaffected, for the time being. The number of at-large bids would drop from 11 to 10, leaving 53 teams to battle for one fewer berth than is available right now.
Will some of the influential members of the community decide that their program, too, deserves a one-in-six shot at an auto-bid, instead of one-in-10, or one-in-12? Could a massive D-I realignment be in the cards?
It wouldn’t be hard for ECAC Hockey to do: Ivies in one new conference, non-Ivies to the other.
“I hope that doesn’t happen,” stressed Marsh, a 26-year veteran of the ECAC coaching ranks. “We feel that maybe to stand pat in the wake of all this might be the way to go. It might really be a bonus for our league.”
The big question revolves around “the remaining teams in the WCHA and CCHA, and how they deal with what their leagues look like without those Big Ten teams,” Appert said. “If the CCHA stands pat or gains a team, they’re in good shape with eight teams.
“Where it becomes a little bit more problematic to college hockey as a whole, is if the remnants of the WCHA or the CCHA try to form together and create a new league, which then potentially leaves some on the outside looking in.”
Appert wasn’t reluctant to share his vision for ECAC Hockey’s future, either.
“Do I think the ECAC should stay as it is? Yes. That’s my opinion,” he said. “I like our 12-team league. I think there’s such great history and tradition and rivalries. I think the non-Ivies help the Ivies in certain areas, and I think the Ivies help the non-Ivies in certain areas, so I think there’s a very good give and take. I think all the different universities and hockey programs within our league add to the others, in one way or another, and they make the whole league stronger. I’m a fan of it as it is, certainly.”
He admitted, however, that spirit and tradition can’t always rule the day.
“Certainly, coaches have sway in some of these things, but some of them are outside the coaches’ control. If administrators and school presidents, conference commissioners, want to start doing some things … as college football is being realigned, I’m not sure the coaches were the driving forces behind those decisions; I think it was more the administrators and the presidents.
“At the end of the day, those decisions may be made by higher powers than us.”
Eyes on the prize
The Almighty Dollar notwithstanding, this representative trio doesn’t feel that it would be in this league’s best interests to split.
“At this stage, as things redistribute themselves … the bottom line is, you’ve got to keep your eye on the prize as to what we’re doing,” Marsh said. “I think it’s very important — for me, personally — that St. Lawrence is associated with the Ivies. Given the nature of our school, where we are in terms of our culture and our academics and all that, somehow hockey has to match with that. I think our association with the Ivy League helps. The only time St. Lawrence is mentioned with Princeton, Yale and Harvard is in hockey.”
On a more rational note, he added, “you break the league up, you can say, ‘Well, we’ve got a one-in-six shot,’ but the way it is right now, maybe we’ve got a two-in-12 shot, which is the same thing. I think you’re splitting hairs there, and for me, you’ve got to look at the big picture.”
“It’s hypothetical; it’s tough to get into,” Appert said. “You want to play your way in [to the NCAAs], not put yourself in a position to have to auto-bid to qualify for the NCAA tournament. There’s a lot of benefits to being in a bigger conference as well: Just from a scheduling perspective — from a strength-of-schedule perspective — I’m not sure I’d want to be in a conference with six teams. At most, you’re only playing 20 league games, you have to have 14 or 16 non-conference games, which are difficult to find. It probably hurts some of your natural rivalries, things of that nature.”
“Personally, this transcends hockey, this whole thing about leagues and such has a lot to do with fan bases and name recognition,” mused Marsh. “I mean, people at St. Lawrence, gawdalmighty, they love to play Harvard. … That’s a big deal.
“It’s important that we hang onto the traditions.”
Banking on the Big Ten
Overall, the forecast looks sunny to these six eyes. To a man, they concurred that college hockey will benefit immensely from another big-time university joining the fray and selling the product that is college hockey.
“Well, let’s not kid ourselves, everything does end up leading back to money, and that’s all part of what’s going on,” Appert said. “There’s going to be a trickle down, there’s no question, but I think this is a good thing. For us to really grow our sport, we need schools like Penn State and others that are big-name, prominent schools … to make a jump like that. For us to try to grow our sport, to elevate our sport, to increase our fan base, to increase our player base, schools with names like Penn State are only going to help.
“I think adding teams like Penn State will increase our player pool overall. It adds more of a name presence and of a university presence in our continuing competition to try to win the hearts and minds of players and parents in deciding whether to go college or major junior. That’s never going to go away, and I think that having more schools with a national presence” will help, he said.
Pecknold, now 17 years and counting behind the Quinnipiac bench, read from the same script.
“I’m excited for college hockey in general. It’s great when we can add teams,” he said. “It’s even better when we can add a university … at the level of Penn State. What I’m hoping happens down the road — and we’ll see if it happens — is that it will spur on Illinois, or Iowa, or some of the other Big Ten schools, or even spread out beyond that: Duke or North Carolina, or UCLA. That would be great for college hockey.
“There’s definitely enough talent to add another team. I think there’s enough talent if you added five or six, or maybe even seven or eight teams. I think there’s enough players out there. I don’t have any concerns, from my standpoint here as the coach of Quinnipiac. I think it’s great for the game.”
Keys to the future
“I think it’s really difficult … to speculate on what’s going to happen,” Pecknold said. “There are so many different scenarios, so it’s just way too early to speculate. Is the WCHA going to try to get teams from the CCHA, is the CCHA going to try to get teams from the WCHA after each is going to lose some teams? It’s just way too much. I think it’s way too early to tell.”
“The important thing is that all members of the college hockey community — the coaches, administrators, athletic directors, commissioners — have a sense of, ‘It’s great that we’ve added Penn State, but we can’t start breaking up other alliances at the expense of some of our strong current members,'” Appert said, issuing a firm warning regarding the nature of big-market and small-market athletics.
“It could lead to other big-name schools joining college hockey, which would be outstanding. But at the same time, we have to be sure that we don’t leave — to add one, or two or three or four or five — we don’t leave behind certain programs that might not have the name power, but have meant a tremendous amount to our college hockey community.”