Commentary: An attempt to process college hockey’s grand changes

In 2008, an independent retail outlet in Detroit called the Bureau of Urban Living re-worked the old British World War II slogan “Keep Calm and Carry On,” pitching it as a slogan for the beleaguered city. Today, posters and T-shirts sporting the phrase can be seen all over southeast Michigan.

Keep calm and carry on. Sounds like good advice for what’s happening now in college hockey, doesn’t it? Advice, though, is often hard to follow.

There is just too much to process logically without feeling at least a little bit of panic, especially if you’re a fan of the leagues currently known as the WCHA and CCHA. Last week, Todd D. Milewski wrote about the inevitable hard feelings that will occur as a result of the splintering of the WCHA — which, incidentally, takes one of the new CCHA elites, Miami, along for the ride. Last Friday, Western Michigan announced that one-year head coach Jeff Blashill took a job as an assistant with the Detroit Red Wings.

Oh, and by the way, Western Michigan is another team mentioned in talk beyond the six teams committed to the new conference.

Too much to process, so this is what strikes me, semi-digestible bits:

The Big Ten Conference is going to ‘grow the sport’

In the Twittersphere, I saw one fan mention that college hockey trading Penn State for Ferris State would essentially equal an upgrade. I disagree, completely — and not just because FSU is a CCHA team. I’d say the same about Michigan Tech or American International or Brown. With only 58 Division I teams currently in the mix, college hockey can’t afford to lose a single one.

The thinking that Big Ten hockey will heighten the profile of the sport as a whole and entice other large universities into the world of D-I men’s ice hockey is flawed, at best. Sure, college hockey on the Big Ten Network may draw more people to college hockey — to Big Ten college hockey.

As for other big schools making that D-I leap, it took a mega-donor to make Division I men’s ice hockey a reality at Penn State. How many sugar daddies do you think there are in the realm of college hockey?

WCHA members reveal their true nature

Two years ago when the WCHA took the orphaned Bemidji State Beavers — while poaching Nebraska-Omaha from the CCHA (Northern Michigan also was reportedly approached by some in the WCHA) — most people in the college hockey world beatified the WCHA while vilifying the CCHA for not granting Alabama-Huntsville membership. Even though I warned people that Big Ten hockey was in the mix and that each league was looking out for its own best interests, people saw the programs in the West as saviors of the sport.

My, my.

I have to say that I’m relieved that the fairy tale of the WCHA as virtuous has been exposed for what it was: fantasy. That the “large” programs in the league are departing for a new one — leaving behind the little guys, including those Beavers — should surprise no one. Frankly, it makes perfect sense for those big programs, given their perceived need to compete against the Big Ten for exposure. I would have been surprised had they not done this.

Do I like it? No. It will do for those schools in the new conference what Big Ten hockey will do for its six members — but to a much smaller extent, and only west of Pennsylvania. Casual college sports fans will care less for those western schools than they do for the Big Ten schools, and the Big Ten schools will have much, much more exposure than the schools in the new league.

All for one and one for … oh, forget about it

I don’t blame the WCHA members and Miami for bolting, although I think it is a bit panicky and not in the best interest of college hockey. However, those hockey programs exist to promote those college hockey programs solely, not the sport in general. Anyone who thinks otherwise is nuts.

The forming of a new conference out West should put to rest those old, pesky notions that anyone in collegiate sports is altruistic. Those days are gone. It’s not just the Big Ten that’s about dollar signs; everyone is. This is big business.

Notre Dame?

Don’t ask, because I don’t know. With a shiny new arena and a program on the rise — and that amazing Fighting Irish collegiate tradition behind it — Notre Dame can probably write its own ticket. Like many, I’ve heard Hockey East and the new western conference as possible destinations.

I just haven’t heard anything concrete.

Those left behind, aka, the little guys that make our niche sport so lovable

This is the part that breaks my heart. When I started covering college hockey in 1995, I covered the three CCHA teams in Ohio, and two of those teams were little guys at the time. Bowling Green had been a powerhouse but was fading; Miami was just beginning to build its powerful program. Even Ohio State was an underdog, an unloved Scarlet-headed stepchild at a school that cared about football and basketball and all else second.

I came to love the little guys, all of them, throughout the CCHA. Even Michigan State and Michigan didn’t seem so big back then, and each school cared about all CCHA member programs — seriously. It was an amazing fraternity, and I was privileged to get my start there when I did.

So my heart breaks for the remaining CCHA and WCHA teams that will be left out of all of this.

As has been pointed out to me both privately and publicly, the remaining teams from the CCHA and WCHA could form a very interesting and arguably competitive conference. They could, in theory.

However, it’s their membership in their respective conferences with larger programs that has driven many of these teams to be competitive. It’s a slippery thing to define, but the smaller programs are better off when mixed in with the bigger ones in so many ways.

First, there’s recruiting. For years in the CCHA, everyone was competing with Michigan State and Michigan for top recruits. More recently, Miami, Notre Dame and Ohio State (to a lesser extent) have also been in that mix, leaving the rest of the teams — all smaller programs — to get creative to attract talent.

One of the ways the smaller programs have attracted top talent is by being smaller. Not every kid wants to go to a huge university or one with such a storied tradition. Smaller places suit a lot of kids just fine, especially when they know they can make an impact immediately. Take away the comparison to the bigger programs, and that tiny advantage is gone.

Second, there’s the competition. When a program like Michigan elevates itself to the level it has, every other program in the league benefits from the competition. When a team that is struggling to rebuild itself — Bowling Green, for example — plays a team like the Wolverines, that team can be made to understand by its savvy coaches what it takes to become and remain competitive, both in a league and nationally. Every team that is not a big dog attempts to rise to play its best against a big dog.

Third, there’s revenue. Yes, teams in the Big Ten will have to schedule against nonconference teams to fill a schedule, and near MSU and Michigan, that probably means playing their former CCHA buddies — but at home, not on the road. The smaller programs in the CCHA definitely benefit financially from when, say, a hated Ohio State team comes to town. That, my friends, is good for the sport, because teams that play sports in Division II, for example, get to participate in big-time college athletics, in their own little rinks.

Kiss that aspect of college hockey — something most of us west of the Eastern seaboard have come to love — goodbye, and fast.

Goodbye — and hello — Jeff Blashill

What a pleasure it is to watch the meteoric rise of Blashill’s coaching career. I’ve written many times about this guy, who’s one of the most genuine, nicest people I’ve known. Smart, business savvy with the leadership qualities of a winning general, there was no way that college hockey was going to hold on to Blashill. I just didn’t think he’d depart so soon.

What’s good for Blashill is both good and bad for college hockey. The bad is obvious, of course. We’re losing Blashill after one spectacular year at Western Michigan.

The good may seem less obvious, but this is good for the sport we love. Any time the NHL plucks someone to coach from the ranks of college hockey — especially someone who never played in the NHL — our sport gets a little nod of recognition. What quality former collegiate players are doing on the ice in the NHL, quality coaches from the collegiate ranks can certainly do behind the bench.

What’s unique here, though, is Blashill’s distinct college (and CCHA-specific) pedigree: raised in Sault Ste. Marie, played at Ferris State, coached at Miami, coached at Western. What’s missing? Michigan. Michigan State. Minnesota. Schools with brands.

In the Kalamazoo Gazette, Blashill said that this opportunity came “out of the blue.” He had planned on staying at WMU. Clearly, the Red Wings know a good thing when they see one.

Now, however, what happens with the Broncos? Will the conference forming in the west be interested in WMU (as it reportedly has been) without Blashill there? And who can follow Blashill’s one-year act?

There are lots of things happening in college hockey, and I get the sense that the margin between the haves and have-nots will widen even further in coming years. In the short term, in fact, I think things may be dismal for a few programs that suddenly find themselves on the outside looking in, the little guys with little leverage.

So that’s that

Can we keep calm and carry on? Should we? The Chinese are purported to have a saying of their own that also comes to mind these days: May you live in interesting times.

Interesting times, indeed.