Commentary: Let’s wait and see what Big Ten holds, but don’t overestimate its teams

The wisdom learned by veteran experience is to wait and see, let things happen and then react. However, some of the propaganda about what the Big Ten Conference will do to save college hockey is starting to get, at the very least, ridiculous.

Take the latest. A story in The State News, the student newspaper at Michigan State, by Jeff Kanan (who happens to do a good job there) typifies what has been printed by respected writers in the past couple of days, and there needs to be at least some balance here. Those would be writers in Ann Arbor, East Lansing, Madison, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Columbus.

A Big Ten Conference for hockey isn’t something I feel strongly about, and it is amazing how many really bright people working in college hockey feel that way but would probably get fired from their jobs for saying it publicly.

Let us recall the Wall Street Journal article from December that basically said the industry revolves around the Big Ten teams in college hockey. It just isn’t true. Good programs, track records of success, but not the hub.

The WCHA put five teams in the NCAA tournament; Wisconsin and Minnesota are not among them. The CCHA put four teams in; only Michigan is in among the hat trick of Ohio State, Michigan State and the Wolverines.

I give Wisconsin a pass — Mike Eaves runs a great program but he plays in a great conference. He was in a unique situation with seven seniors, four underclassmen, two great assistant coaches who left and still kept the program on track. Minnesota has done very little to up the competition ante lately. Not a critique, just a fact based on what that program used to be.

Since Minnesota’s back-to-back national championship run in 2002 and 2003, the only two Big Ten teams to win it all are Wisconsin in 2006 and MSU in 2007. Michigan made a Frozen Four and lost to Notre Dame recently. Wisconsin made it last year and got beaten soundly by Boston College, which is in the midst of a run of two titles in three-year span and three since 2001.

BC and Boston University combined have won as many national titles as all five Big Ten teams since 2001. Remember, Hockey East teams have made a national title game every year since 1999 with the exception of the all-WCHA Frozen Four in Columbus, Ohio, in 2004, which saw Minnesota, Denver, Colorado College, and North Dakota. The Gophers got beat by the Sioux in the semis.

Enough of that. We all agree that the Big Ten programs are good ones. Michigan is a winner. Wisconsin is a winner. Minnesota should rebound soon. OSU is in great hands with Mark Osiecki.

That turns our attention to MSU, and I’ll be brutally honest here. I like Tom Anastos and think he is the in the top three candidates for the smartest guy in college hockey. His hiring at Michigan State is a high-risk, high-reward deal because, as we saw with Barry Melrose coming back into the NHL without any bench experience in over a decade, being out of the trenches for a while isn’t a good thing. The game has changed completely since Anastos last patrolled a bench at the NCAA level.

He could do well here. His strengths are that he is a good hockey guy, well supported by all levels of hockey and is a great seller of his product. This is a wait-and-see situation and, like all new head coaches taking over a program, he is owed time to get started and build. This one probably doesn’t succeed as fast as Dean Blais at Nebraska-Omaha or Jeff Blashill at Western Michigan, but it could work.

That returns us to the labeling of Big Ten teams as powerhouse programs. At best, it’s stretching the truth. It is an opinion, not a fact.

Historically, these were strong and at times dominant programs, but that is not the case as we approach the 2011-12 season.

Boston College is a powerhouse. It has the hardware to prove it, and it just might get a third national title in four years in April.

Here’s the line from the State News column:

The Spartans have matched up with the Badgers and Gophers once a year for nonconference games, but playing a Big Ten schedule of 20 games would allow for four games apiece against the powerhouse programs. Having four multiple national championship winners in the same conference would make for ultra-competitive play and perhaps steal NCAA Tournament bids away from smaller conferences.

There is that powerhouse misnomer again. Four multiple championship winners in one conference is true but, again, not lately. It is like selling Michigan football as “college football’s winningest team,” but the reality is it has been beating Division I-AA teams and Indiana lately.

I’m a big fan of Michigan’s hockey program and how it is run, but the reality is it last won a title in 1998. The Wolverines are a consistent participant in the tourney with 21 straight appearances, so they can be considered an elite program and a constant threat to win the national title. But powerhouse isn’t accurate, and even coach Red Berenson would probably tell you that himself. The Wolverines’ season has ended at the hands of Colorado College, North Dakota, Air Force, Notre Dame and Miami to name a few in the past few years.

The concept of stealing away tourney bids might not work, either. If these teams just beat up on each other, as they probably will, they could actually lessen each other’s chances of an at-large bid. This isn’t college basketball, where every team with a pulse gets in, and college football, where there are more bowl games than good teams.

On that note — and I say this while openly admitting that I do not know the minutia of conference realignment in terms of legality and financial needs — who is to say that this does not lead to the Ivy League breaking off from the ECAC to be its own conference like it does in many other sports? A six-team ECAC, a six-team Ivy? You lose an auto bid.

Who is to say that Atlantic Hockey does not make a decision to condense to two smaller and separate conferences so the Sacred Hearts and Bentleys of the world have a better chance to make the tourney? The more conferences, the less at-large bids.

Now to the other side and Mike Chambers of The Denver Post. He writes:

Right now, I like the look of ours. What I mean my “ours” is a hypothetical, Western-based power league consisting of DU, CC, North Dakota, Miami (Ohio), Notre Dame and Nebraska-Omaha, and maybe the other ‘Sota schools — Minnesota-Duluth, St. Cloud State, Minnesota State and Bemidji State. If it’s only a six-team loop — preferrable to guarantee home-and-away series against every league member, a key for building rivalries – I’ll take our six teams over the Big 10 boys.

That is assuming Miami and Notre Dame are lured out of the CCHA, and there are those who think Miami and ND would fit nicely with Hockey East, especially with Notre Dame in the Big East Conference in many sports. Then again, and most importantly, they might not go anywhere and stay in the CCHA.

Whatever happens is fine by me, because I know “our” programs are going to like where they land. If our teams make a plan and stick together, our new league could be more exciting than what we currently have. Certainly, longtime WCHA rivals DU, CC and UND could sell far more tickets in home games against Notre Dame, Miami and Nebraska-Omaha than Michigan Tech, Alaska-Anchorage or Bemidji State. And undoubtedly, if a super conference happens, Minnesota and Wisconsin would benefit by still playing North Dakota and DU a couple times a year.

People underestimate the power of North Dakota (Sioux Nation, the most passionate and loyal hockey following in America), Notre Dame (huge football fan base that will follow anything Irish, great coach, breaking ground on new arena), Miami (great college town, one of America’s top programs in the last five years), Nebraska-Omaha (great hockey city, hall of fame coach), Denver (traditional giant, 10 straight 20-win seasons) and CC (Colorado Springs’ No. 2 program).

For Big Ten fans, this is a great week. You get your teams lumped together and a schedule of familiarity.

For CCHA fans outside the Big Ten bubble, this is a tough week. The CCHA could be in major trouble and that is a shame. The programs left in it will survive but where will they be? Miami and Notre Dame could go together to the WCHA or to Hockey East. Both make sense and you would think they go together, but maybe they split and one goes one way and one the other.

The WCHA has solid/elite programs in Denver, CC and North Dakota. You could make a case the five just mentioned have as good a chance, if not better, to win the national championship in the next two years as any Big Ten team.

Behind closed doors we can all assume that there is a plan in place to deal with this. One coach said to me that they could boycott the Big Ten teams for a couple of seasons to give them a lousy non-conference schedule, but that doesn’t really help anyone. It is an interesting idea but probably not a good one for the big picture.

Let’s all sit tight and see what transpires. Until then, we’ll look toward a Frozen Four that if the No. 1 seeds hold serve (a possibility but always a long shot), will be BC, Yale, North Dakota and Miami.

It seems the future conference of powerhouses isn’t in that group.