Notre Dame is preparing to leave Hockey East for the Big Ten in the 2017-18 season, sources told USCHO on Tuesday.
The school joined Hockey East three seasons ago in the massive conference realignment for western schools.
That coincided with the formation of the Big Ten, which has been at six teams but is poised to add a seventh.
Big Ten coaches and administrators have long said that a six-team league wasn’t ideal and have mentioned a goal of expanding. No Big Ten schools have seemed to be imminently considering adding a varsity men’s hockey program, however.
The Big Ten has had a policy of not inviting affiliate members for single sports but recently added Johns Hopkins for men’s lacrosse.
“That was the first time ever that we had entered into an affiliate membership agreement with a single sport,” Big Ten deputy commissioner Brad Traviolia told USCHO in February. “Affiliate membership for hockey is an option. I wouldn’t say it’s the only option or it’s the inevitable option, but it’s something that the conference is willing to consider since we’ve somewhat opened that door with lacrosse.”
On Tuesday, Traviolia told the Star Tribune that the addition of Notre Dame would help the league become more competitive nationally.
For the second straight season, only one Big Ten team is in the 16-team NCAA tournament, and the league ranked fourth of six in Division I men’s hockey with a .500 combined nonconference record.
“We felt that affiliation membership is a mutually beneficial way to grow Big Ten hockey,” Traviolia told the Star Tribune. “… We’re going to be better off as a hockey conference for it.”
On Friday, Notre Dame will play former CCHA and future Big Ten foe Michigan in the first round of the NCAA tournament in the Midwest Regional in Cincinnati.
Playing those kinds of old foes on a more regular basis has sparked enthusiasm for the move at Notre Dame, senior associate athletic director Tom Nevala told the Star Tribune.
“There is great excitement because we’re renewing the rivalries that we cherish, and it will be great to go to those campuses on a regular basis,” he told the newspaper.
Also, sources confirmed that travel within the league was a major decision point for Notre Dame. In Hockey East, the Irish have to travel a much greater total distance over the length of the season than any other school.
The move will at least temporarily leave Hockey East with 11 schools; it had been at 10 until 2013, when Notre Dame joined after leaving the dissolving CCHA. Connecticut left Atlantic Hockey to make it a 12-team league in 2014.
The last major conference realignment started in 2010 when Penn State announced it planned to add men’s and women’s hockey programs with a donation from Terry and Kim Pegula. That made it six Big Ten schools sponsoring men’s hockey teams, the minimum number for the league to support the sport.
After a year playing as an independent, Penn State joined the newly formed Big Ten hockey league in 2013, bringing Minnesota and Wisconsin from the WCHA and Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State from the CCHA.
That same year, Notre Dame broke for Hockey East, while some schools from the WCHA and CCHA formed the NCHC. (See our conference timeline for more.)