The possibility of the expansion of the Big Ten has started rumors, speculation, and proposals both reasonable and ridiculous on message boards for fans of dozens of collegiate institutions from coast to coast. Undoubtedly, the ripple effects would be tremendous for the schedules of our favorite teams, and perhaps the structure of the NCAA itself.
Until any announcement is made, which won’t be as soon as most think, speculation and rumor will be repeated until every last tailgate meal is at risk of a reversal-of-fortune. Without trying to add to the nausea of those sick of constant amateur analysis, this article will take what is hopefully a slightly different angle – a look at how conference re-alignment might affect the landscape of NCAA Hockey.
Admittedly, most scenarios of Big Ten expansion leave NCAA hockey virtually untouched. There is however, one case that would not only be noticed by college hockey fans, but by channel surfers and frequenter of sports bars from the Northeast to the Northern Plains.
While it would be advantageous for the Big Ten to expand in a variety of ways, the crown jewel for the conference would be the addition of Notre Dame. The Irish won’t move unless they’re forced, but the Big Ten may have the force to create the move.
For Notre Dame to move, the Big East needs to be destroyed. This could be possible if the Big Ten poached a Big East institution, and an ACC power. If one of Pitt, Syracuse, Connecticut, or Rutgers went to the Big Ten, and the Great Lakes behemoth attracted Boston College – who hasn’t exactly had time to settle in the ACC – it would force the ACC to go after at least one team, and as many as five teams to hold serve. These teams would also come from the Big East.
The SEC would need to prove that it still owns college football, and would make a play for Oklahoma and Texas. Folks in College Station and Stillwater might have to go along for the ride to make such a deal happen.
The University of Texas holds a lot of chips in this hold ‘em game, and the academics at a leading research institution might not be able to stomach being grouped with other SEC schools academic reputations (although Vanderbilt doesn’t seem to mind). If they move, however, the Big Twelve will implode under its remaining weight.
The remainders of the Big 12 would cross the Rockies to the Pac Ten, and a few more might move to the Big Ten. The Big East would likely disintegrate as well, with the teams that play D-1 football begging to join either the new Big Ten or the new ACC. Notre Dame, who can’t be left out of a major college football organization that will trump the NCAA, will have to hold their noses and join the Big Ten.
All that is a very long way to draw up a scenario where there are at least seven D-1 hockey teams in the Big Ten. (If UConn joins, they would be an eighth, but at present, the Huskies are really not a factor in hockey.) Boston College, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, and Wisconsin would skate as rivals through the grey, cold Northern winter.
Not only could the Big 10 likely extend their conference offerings to include hockey, but would instantly surpass Hockey East as the best hockey conference in the nation. The seven teams would have a combined 28 national championships, and each has made the frozen four since 1998.
The next step is that the Big Ten Network, to whose success history might credit the entire shift in the first place, could then cover many, many more games. If Hockey East fans think that they are still as powerful as the Big Ten, wait until the Big Ten Network starts making Big Ten games available to satellite customers across North America, and a third of the cable networks in the US. The effect on recruiting would be incredible, and the Big Ten would expand its dominance.
The effect of the Big Ten Network on college hockey can’t be understated. The sport itself would reach a new audience (since Versus really isn’t doing the job at the professional level), and the Big Ten teams and players will lead the way into living rooms and sports bars.
It could also lead to the elevation of other programs from club status to varsity status in the upcoming years. Such ascension is never easy or painless, but the lure of television exposure and extra revenue could accelerate the process. Some Title IX issues exist, but women’s sports are likely to be added at these institutions anyway as revenue increases. Of course, hockey fans wouldn’t mind seeing an expansion of women’s hockey to keep the balance board level.
Hockey will never be the revenue producer that football is, but it does very well at certain institutions. Many NCAA hockey players are Canadian, and Big Ten Network subscriptions might increase in Canada, as well as New England and hockey hotbeds outside the Big Ten’s reach.
The Big Ten has discussed competing as a hockey conference many times in the past, and has done so as recently as last year. Although the stated reason for avoiding it is the negative impact it would have on collegiate hockey, the understood reason is that it simply isn't viable with only 5 teams. If that number became seven, and Notre Dame and Boston College were included, it is doubtful the sympathies for the WCHA and CCHA would bother anyone affiliated with the new power of college hockey. For better or for worse, college athletics are a business at this level, and the opportunity for better competition and more dollars will trump traditions and old rivalries every time.
Admittedly, there are a lot of hypothetical situations here, and the dominoes have to fall with incredible accuracy for this to play out. That said, it does give NCAA hockey fans a somewhat realistic scenario to either dread or lustfully anticipate. If the chain reaction doesn’t start, then it’s only an appetizer on the buffet of endless speculation guaranteed to have all sports fans reaching for antacid in the upcoming months.