Commentary: Out of realignment, an opportunity for growth

We knew this day would eventually come, and it looks like the wheels have indeed been set in motion — the grand reshuffling of college hockey. The formation of the Big Ten and the “Super League” will blow massive holes in the WCHA and CCHA, two venerable conferences.

Fans are not happy, especially at the schools left behind. The message boards and Facebook have been lighting up with a virtually universal negative view of the coming changes, even from fans of schools moving to the Big Ten or the “Super League.” They will miss the traditional rivalries, the WCHA Final Five, the excitement of Wisconsin visiting Michigan Tech or Michigan at Bowling Green, matchups that wouldn’t happen in basketball or football (unless it was a tune-up game for the big school and a payday for the little guy).

But there may be a bright side to all this. It’s my belief that if college hockey is to grow, it will be because mid-size schools start programs in addition to some more big-name schools. A realignment like this will eliminate the gridlock caused by having only five large conferences that can’t get any bigger. What we need instead are more, smaller conferences that are comprised of schools with similar profiles.

This means hockey becoming more like (shudder) basketball, with a handful of major conferences with big TV contracts, but also with many, many more leagues that are doing quite well with their smaller fan bases and geographic rivalries.

Under this model, teams that in the past had little chance of an NCAA bid will now be in the running. They won’t be pounded by larger schools all season long and then make a quick exit in the conference tournament. Would Rochester Institute of Technology or Air Force want to be in the WCHA? No way. Each team puts up winning records in front of sold-out buildings and has a much better chance of making the NCAA tournament than Michigan Tech or Bowling Green.

In an interview with the Colorado Springs Gazette in May, Air Force coach Frank Serratore said he thinks teams like Michigan Tech are “demoralized” playing a WCHA schedule, while Air Force, a member of Atlantic Hockey, “Gains confidence from playing in a conference that is challenging but not overwhelming.”

Air Force has won only one AHA regular season title in the past five years, but has captured the playoff title, and the NCAA bid that goes with it, four times. And once you’re in the tournament, anything can happen. Seedings have meant little and teams like Bemidji State and RIT have reached the Frozen Four.

If college hockey is to expand, it will be because schools don’t have to be like Penn State and have $88 million fall into their laps in order to start a program. They can start small in a conference with less travel and the ability to compete right away.

The price the bigger conferences will pay is in less at-large bids, unless the tournament is expanded. A larger number of six- or eight-team leagues will eat up spots in the tourney with automatic bids. But everyone loves a Cinderella story, and college hockey has produced its fair share. This will only get better as smaller schools, which used to languish at the bottom of the standings in big conferences, get on a level playing field and have a decent shot at an NCAA bid.

Some programs are going to have to live with the loss of prestige that goes with being in the same league as a national powerhouse. The prevailing thought is that attendance may suffer at these schools. But won’t winning more games help that? Merrimack, a school that doesn’t fit the profile of most other Hockey East schools, didn’t draw many fans until it started winning, albeit within Hockey East. But can the Warriors do it again? Would it have been better off all the years it was losing 20 games a season and drawing little fan support to have been in a league in which it could compete year in and year out instead of once every decade?

As they say, time will tell. But with change comes opportunity. Hopefully, the schools “left behind” will recognize that.