As search for a new Hockey East commissioner pushes forward, might the future of Hockey East be in peril?

What conference will Boston University hold membership in for the 2020-21 season? (photo: Rich Gagnon).

As we approach the month of February, no doubt one of the biggest topics involving Hockey East right now is who will succeed commissioner Joe Bertagna, who will end his 23-year tenure as leader of the league when this season concludes.

USCHO has learned that 11 candidates for the job were interviewed this week, led by an executive search firm and a panel of both coaches and athletic directors. From the original group of 11, four have become finalists and will interview again in the second week of February before someone is finally chosen.

In the process of trying to determine who candidates were and, for that matter, still are, USCHO has also learned something more shocking: there is a possibility that the successor to Joe Bertagna might not be leading Hockey East when all is said and done.

According to multiple sources with knowledge of the process, a faction of athletic directors is trying to move the current 11-team conference away from a standalone league and into an all-sport conference.

Should this happen, Hockey East, which has existed since the summer of 1984, could be no longer and a current Division I all-sport conference would administer the league.

Inquiries placed to multiple administrators at Hockey East schools either declined the interview or did not respond. Bertagna, who sources say has kept his distance from the process to choose his replacement, also chose not to comment.

There are certainly advantages to moving away from a single-sport conference and into one that administrates multiple sports. The depth of a staff immediately comes to mind as does the ability to be represented by your conference at the NCAA level. Currently, the Big Ten is the only all-sport conference that administrates a college hockey league. This can be critical when leagues want to propose – or oppose, for that matter – NCAA legislation.

But college hockey for many decades has existed with multiple stand-alone conferences and has done so admirably. When the current ECAC Hockey broke away from the all-sport ECAC conference, the transition felt somewhat seamless. When what is currently Atlantic Hockey separated from the MAAC, another all-sport conference, the progress of the league has been extremely positive.

So it seems difficult to think that a league such as Hockey East, one that has crowned nine national champions and, over the last 20 years sent 13 teams to the national title game, would cede control of a valuable brand and institution.

When you look at a possible all-sport conference that could be courted, there seems to be one highly viable option: America East. Currently, four Hockey East members claim membership to America East for other sports: Maine, New Hampshire, UMass Lowell and Vermont. Boston University was a member until the summer of 2013 and, sources say, the split was an amicable one.

The other conference that could have some viability is the Colonial Athletic Association, of which only Northeastern is a full-time member, but schools like New Hampshire and Maine are members in football and UMass is a member for lacrosse. The CAA has multiple sports where affiliate members – schools that are members of other conferences but play in the CAA for a single sport – take part. Should the CAA absorb the current Hockey East membership, that would be the case for 10 of the 11 teams, a significantly large number.

The same sources that confirmed the potential for moving the 11-team conference to an all-sport platform also note that none of this is anywhere close to final. Which also might lead one to think that school vs. school, athletic director vs. athletic director, there could be a significant amount of in-fighting that exists.

As these 11 teams look to the future, that alone could be one of the largest issues they face: understanding what this group, league, conference wants to be in the future.

Multiple coaches and administrators have indicated the desire to be more like the NCHC, which under the leadership of commissioner Josh Fenton has won four straight national championships and created one of the best online/television platforms of any of the six college hockey conferences.

This summer, when it was announced that Bertagna’s contract would not be extended at the conclusion of the 2019-20 season, Vermont athletic director Jeff Schulman, then the chair of the Hockey East executive committee, acknowledged the media platform and revenue growth for the league are important.

“In terms of what we’re looking for, it’s unique when you’re looking at 11 different athletic directors making the decision and 12 if you add in Holy Cross (a Hockey East member on the women’s side only),” said Schulman. “First and foremost, we’re looking for someone’s whose values align with our membership. Someone who is committed to creating a framework in which our men’s and women’s programs can compete at a national championship level without compromising academically.

“We’re looking for a visionary, a strategic thinker. Someone who has good organizational skills, who has a high level of financial acumen, who is savvy about media and understands revenue generation. And obviously, it’s important that they have a passion for hockey.”

If the member institutions move in what would seem like a very off-the-beaten-path direction and make a choice to disband Hockey East all together, it could have ramifications that impact the league we know. Maybe a high-end brand such as Boston College would take the same route Notre Dame did and apply for affiliate membership to the Big Ten. Other smaller schools who don’t approve of such an approach could be candidates to align with other conferences.

All of this is speculation, but the thought of making a major change beyond simply changing Hockey East’s leadership will lead to many layers of similar speculation until more information is released.

Until then, we wait.

League or no league, where might Sacred Heart’s new venue fit in the Hockey East puzzle?

Yes, we will continue to use the Hockey East brand until told otherwise. That’s also why we continue to approach the topic of finding a 12th member of the conference a serious one.

Last week, Sacred Heart announced that the school will build a 4,000-seat, $60 million on-campus hockey facility, a move that could position the Pioneers to leave its current spot in Atlantic Hockey.

While no one among the current Sacred Heart administration wanted to call for a move away from Atlantic Hockey, athletic director Bobby Valentine was clear he wants to elevate the hockey program to national prominence.

“Not only does it provide a fitting venue for what will soon be a national hockey powerhouse, but it creates a halo effect that elevates all of our Division I athletic programs,” said Valentine in a statement. “It’s another example of Sacred Heart’s commitment to providing our student-athletes, students and fans with a remarkable experience whenever they step on our campus.”

Current Hockey East coaches are open to exploring Sacred Heart’s membership.

“We have to look at it,” said BC coach Jerry York of a potential membership from Sacred Heart. “The success they’ve had, how well they have played. CJ Marottolo is doing an incredible job there.

“They have talked to us about opening up their arena when it’s ready. That would be a great honor for us, to go down and do that.”

Boston University coach Albie O’Connell echoed York’s statement.

“I think this is for people above my paygrade to decide,” said O’Connell. “But if they’re going to spend the money and make a big commitment, obviously putting a $60 million facility that fits with the criteria of our league, that sort of situation from geography make a lot of sense.”

O’Connell was direct in saying he’d like to see a 12th team, something Hockey East hasn’t had since Notre Dame left following the 2016-17 season. He would like to see another team to resume balance in the schedule.

“Some years, the unbalanced schedule can be different to some teams rather than other,” O’Connell said. “To get another team, to get a set schedule, the parity within out league is pretty tight and you have three teams not making [the playoffs]; the unbalanced schedule could factor into it. That’s a frustrating thing for some coaches.”

Oh, those Black Bears!

Raise your hand if you live outside of Orono and counted the Maine Black Bears out of this season entirely.

Don’t feel bad if you did. Going into last weekend, Maine was in ninth place, outside of a playoff spot in Hockey East, and nationally was 31st in the PairWise.

But after a weekend sweep at Boston College, the first two road wins in Hockey East for Maine since October, Maine is suddenly not just relevant. They are a major threat in Hockey East.

Maine jumped to 17th in the PairWise and will play eight of their final nine games this regular season at home. Oh, and for the record, Maine joins Cornell as one of two teams in the nation that still hasn’t lost a home game.

Assuming that Maine can win six or seven games, based on both their home record and the opponents they will face (Merrimack twice, Vermont twice, Connecticut twice, Northeastern once and Providence twice – though home-and-home), the Black Bears almost seem poised to earn a home ice spot in the playoffs and could even drift into the conversation for winning the Hockey East regular season title.

You didn’t read that incorrectly.

Maine, if the Black Bears take 14 of the remaining 18 points, would likely ascend into a top three spot. And when you look at the teams near the top of the league, there will be carnage as many of them face off against one another.

I’m not trying to hit the accelerator too much on this Maine team, but after last weekend there is no doubt the Black Bears are in excellent position to do some late-season damage and go from also ran to top of the league.