Editor’s Note: This is the second of six in a series looking at each conference’s schedule for the upcoming 2018-19 season.
A popular discussion around college hockey fans centers on the prospect of a “power conference.”
Leagues like the NCHC and Hockey East have a public perception of being something of a strong, super league because their membership have a certain caliber of tradition, history and longtime talent.
Only the Big Ten, though, can claim that it’s one of college sports’ true blue-blooded mastodons. It’s one of college hockey’s youngest leagues, but it’s the only one that shares sponsorship with an autonomous “Power Five” league. When it formed, it was the largest and arguably most significant bridge built from the occasionally-niche hockey world to the rest of the college universe.
“We had a pretty smooth transition for the Big Ten,” director of communications Adam Augustine said. “Jennifer Heppel helped coordinate things on our end with coaches and administrators of the hockey schools as we worked to bring it to fruition that first season. She had a tremendous background for hockey and a respect for the game, and that helped smooth the transition. She helped translate to the conference what the hockey teams were looking for in a conference, and it went a long way to making that transition as smooth as it could be.”
When the Big Ten formed, it merged Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State from the CCHA with Minnesota and Wisconsin from the WCHA. Penn State, having elevated its program from club status, joined after spending a season as an Independent. Heading into that first season, the league had a relatively short discussion about scheduling with all schools expressing similar desires about how it should be set up.
“To a large extent, it was what the teams were used to in the CCHA and WCHA,” Augustine said. “Most of them were used to playing two game weekend series with a home-and-away series against each opponent. So it was a relatively easy discussion at the early outset to settle on what was a 20-game conference schedule.”
It was a principle that, owing to the league’s size, created an interesting foundation for the league’s first four years. The six-team conference began play with its teams needing to fill over 40 percent of their own schedules. It meant conference play didn’t begin until the middle or end of November, at which point the other leagues were almost half over. That was a definite oddity, even though it was in-line with other Big Ten sports.
“The non-conference play is an indirect effect of how you do your conference schedule,” Augustine said. “The strangest part of our schedule in our first years were 14-16 non-conference games, and our teams weren’t starting their conference schedule until Thanksgiving.
“That was something that was familiar with other sports like basketball in the Big Ten office, but that’s a bit new to the college hockey world. As we increased the number of conference games, though, it started to disappear so long-term fans will see things start to look a little bit more familiar.”
The room for growth in that schedule happened by adding a team. Notre Dame joined the Big Ten as an affiliate member in ice hockey last season, which meant four more conference games. It upped the number of games to 24 while decreasing out-of-conference play to 10, a number more in line with the eight-team NCHC, which Augustine said was also a very easy discussion point for the conference.
“The core principles stayed in place,” he said. “There’s an obvious downside to having an odd number, which means there’s a bye every week for one of the teams, including the last weekends. If you talk to most coaches, a number of them don’t want to be sitting around at the end of year, so we tried to identify parties that might be available for games during that stretch. That’s why teams like Arizona State or the national development program show up on our schedules.”
Last season, Michigan hosted the Sun Devils to close out the season. It was the second straight season a team played the independent in January or February after Ohio State hosted it in 2016-2017. In addition, Big Ten schools have played seven games in the last two years against USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program’s Under-18 Team.
But the Big Ten’s biggest impact has been off-the-ice, where the familiar conference logo lends itself to the branding of the collective unit. There were conference rivalries well before the Big Ten formed, but the league umbrella created a new seasoning that’s starting to open doors for other opportunities.
For example, the league has its own television network, creating a whole new medium for college hockey. It co-branded hockey by leveraging the network, and it included a “Super Saturday” broadcast of Minnesota hockey next to men’s basketball. In addition, the conference leverages mobile technology through its own app that links directly to the network’s national streaming capabilities. All of that was in addition to regional and other broadcast outlets that carried Big Ten games.
For the league, it was something of a blending that took the old-world hockey traditions and pushed it to a new audience through the Big Ten banner. It’s something the league hopes honors the past, even as it pushes forward into a new era. And of course, there’s the growth of the game, which exists in the prospect of the recent feasibility study at Illinois.
“Hockey fans are unique in what excites them to what they find the most interesting on the schedule,” Augustine said. “If you root for Ohio State, you see Penn State and you understand what that means. You know who they are from other sports. There’s a course of familiarity in there, but that said, there’s familiarity in historical standpoints. (A combination from) six of these schools played together at some point in the WCHA. Depending on how far back you can go, (fans) will remember when these teams played each other on that basis.
“Every fan base is different. Some were very excited about the change, and some are still looking for that excitement. That’s okay. That’s part of forming a new league, and part of having the schedules change with different schools being a little different. We’ve had some more success as a league, and that will help. It’s not an overnight thing to shift opponents regularly. We know that and understand that, and it’s okay for fans to take time to adjust. At the end of the day, if the hockey is good and opponents have well-coached, entertaining games with talent, that’s going to draw them in.”