After one more year as we know it in 2012-13, the NCAA men’s hockey landscape will undergo one of the most shifting transformations since Pangaea broke apart.
Effective in the autumn of 2013, both the CCHA and WCHA will lose various programs to the new Big Ten hockey league and the National Collegiate Hockey Conference. Most of the remaining teams plan to join one another and carry on under the WCHA banner.
As of this moment, there will be eight teams in the NCHC when it begins operation in 2013-14, at which point the WCHA will slim down from 12 to nine member schools.
Comparatively lighter shuffles will soon occur on the east coast, impacting both Hockey East and the less prestigious Atlantic Hockey Association.
The AHA, NCHC and WCHA, in particular, could likely all get along with little trouble after the Division I pool is fully resurfaced. Nonetheless, all existing conferences other than the Big Ten―whose membership requirements are rather rigid―would have more assuring stability if they can reach an even 10 or 12 teams apiece.
The best way to grow the leagues and grow the game is to encourage at least one or two more schools to upgrade from club to varsity hockey and/or realign the leagues once more.
Based primarily on their prestige in other sports and support for the game in their surrounding areas, the following five institutions could each improve or enhance an existing or upcoming conference if they pursued Division I hockey.
No telling if it will ever happen for any of these places, but we can dream.
With the two new conferences and the resultant WCHA-CCHA merger, all three of the Ohio-based teams currently in the CCHA will be in separate leagues by 2013-14. Ohio State will have plenty to work with from a hype standpoint, but either Bowling Green or Miami could use an intrastate adversary in its new circuit.
The Bearcats are roughly three hours away from the BGSU Falcons and less than one hour away from the Miami RedHawks.
Granted, finding an arena other than one that starts from scratch could be a challenge here. There is the seasoned Cincinnati Gardens, which has housed various minor pro teams in the past, but a venue with that size and prestige would likely be a long-shot for a fledgling college hockey team.
With all that said, other schools have made it happen in the past. If Cincinnati could make it happen and make it work, it would embolden either the impending NCHC or the soon-to-be-reforming WCHA.
Chicago and its surrounding metropolitan area have a gratifyingly quantitative presence of professional hockey between the NHL’s Blackhawks and AHL’s Wolves. At the amateur level, there is the USHL’s Chicago Steel and such elite travel programs as the Chicago Young Americans, the Chicago Mission and Team Illinois.
All that’s missing in the Windy City, and the entire state of Illinois, is an NCAA-sanctioned program.
Considering the healthy presence of hockey in their area detailed above, the Northwestern Wildcats would be a particularly sound seventh member of the Big Ten if they were ever able and willing.
Having a Division I team right in the area would also improve the odds of bringing a Frozen Four to the United Center, one of the few major venues in the Midwest that has yet to do so.
The Steel City already has Robert Morris University, which will host next year’s Frozen Four at the Consol Energy Center.
Atlantic Hockey will soon be losing Connecticut to Hockey East, which would drop its membership down from 12 to 11 tenants. If they went digging for a new team to make it even again and found a newfangled program in the Pittsburgh Panthers, it would deliver two additional benefits.
Not only would the lesser-known AHA give itself a public relations boost by hauling in another Big East institution, but Pittsburgh would also spawn a civic rivalry with Robert Morris and intrastate feud with Mercyhurst.
With the addition of the UConn Huskies, effective in 2014-15, Hockey East will have five of the six schools that answer to the name University of (insert New England state name here).
The only exception is the Rhode Island Rams, who have never fielded a varsity hockey team, but have the facility and ought to have the incentive to consider one.
For a full decade and counting, URI has housed its club teams on campus at the 2,500-seat Boss Arena, which matches or exceeds the seating capacity of a few current NCAA ice venues.
“Rhody” also enjoys an intense intrastate, albeit non-conference rivalry with Providence College on the basketball court. Considering the fervor that percolates around that annual meeting, imagine what would happen if the Rams and Friars met two or three times per season in Hockey East action?
It’s certainly a more enticing idea than reaching into the Midwest and making Notre Dame the 12th member school, which the conference has unfortunately chosen to do in 2013-14. But, maybe if URI emerged with a viable program, the Fighting Irish could be ushered back into a more geographically sensible arrangement and keep Hockey East an all-New England league.
The possibilities don’t end there. If there were a third Division I hockey team in Rhode Island to go with PC and Brown, they could emulate the likes of Michigan, Michigan State, and Michigan Tech with their Great Lakes Invitational.
That is, during the week between Christmas and New Year’s, they could converge on the Dunkin' Donuts Center, along with a selected outsider, for a two-day tournament.
Anybody for an Ocean State Invitational?
Here is another Big East school that could be a welcome addition to Atlantic Hockey if it ever wanted to be, and it is likely a more realistic option than Pittsburgh. After all, the Orange already has a women’s varsity hockey team that will soon be celebrating its fifth anniversary season.
In addition, the AHA has the Rochester Institute of Technology. Inserting the Orange would thus open the door to another Rochester-Syracuse rivalry a la the ones we see in multiple minor-league sports.