Penn State Hockey and It's Effect on Division One Hockey Part II: What Could Happen to College Hockey When The Lions Drop the Puck In 2012

[More on the addition of Penn State to Division I College Hockey from Friend of Brew, Windy City Wolverine. It's a three part series, and it's time for Part II:

Part I – Why Are People Freaking Out?
Part II – Penn State’s Arrival – What COULD Happen
Part III – The Crystal Ball: One Plausible Scenario, With the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Enjoy. It's pretty awesome.]

In Part I of this series, I set out the basics of what has just happened to the college hockey world--namely that Penn State has decided to start a Division 1 program, and why a lot of people are nervous about the consequences.  Now it's time to look at some plausible and, er, less plausible scenarios as to what the future holds, as well as who would benefit and who could get hurt if each scenario came to fruition.

Scenario 1:  The Big Ten Hockey Conference Death Star becomes fully operational.

Star_medium
That's not a moon... 

The first scenario is the one that most non-college hockey fans would instinctively expect to happen--a new Big Ten Hockey Conference (BTHC) forms with Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio and Penn State.  Jim Delaney did nothing but fan the flames of this possibility, with the statement.

"With the addition of Penn State, the Big Ten Conference will have six institutions sponsoring men's ice hockey programs, leading to the presumption that there will be a Big Ten Men's Ice Hockey Championship at some point in the future."

With the creation of the BTHC, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Minnesota and Wisconsin leave their current conferences, and all hell breaks looks.  A common assumption  is that each Big Ten school would play the others four times, meaning that there would be a twenty game conference schedule, along with a conference tournament at a to-be-determined location or locations. 

If the BTHC scenario comes to fruition, then the future of Western college hockey will change.  A lot.  From the Big Ten's point of view, the Big Ten Network and some of its members could be looking at huge benefits from a BTHC.  Penn State immediately gets ten marquee home games a year--making sellouts at its new 6,000 seat area quite likely.  Ohio State and, to a lesser extent Wisconsin, would probably see attendance increases with more higher profile Big Ten games, as the casual "HEY I'VE HEARD OF THAT STATE SO IT MUCH BE WORTH WATCHING" crowd jumps on the bandwagon.  And the increased exposure on the Big Ten network probably helps some or all of the schools in terms of visibility and recruiting.  The actual financial benefit from Big Ten Network hockey is hard to quantify, but anything that makes the network more valuable directly benefits the member schools.  Finally, a Big Ten conference tournament has the potential to provide even more revenue to these schools, depending on the format and location. 

That being said, it doesn't all comes up roses for the Big Ten schools if they play under a single conference.  In the current setup, it is not unusual for three or even four Big Ten schools to make the sixteen team NCAA tournament in a single season.  Although not THE reason for this happening, the fact that the schools are split between two conferences helps a great deal.  As it currently stands, both the Gophers and Badgers usually only play two games--combined--against Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State.  Therefore, if two of these schools are also in the upper half of college hockey, it is very easy for up to four schools to put up very impressive records at once.  However, if the Gophers and Badgers suddenly have to play twelve games against these three schools instead of two, somebody's record is going to take a pretty big hit.

On the flip side, fans of the remaining CCHA and WCHA schools fear that the result is going to be catastrophic.  At a minimum, there is a fear that some of the major existing rivalries (especially in the WCHA) are going to disappear or become quite irrelevant.  With a Big Ten Hockey Conference, games between Badgers/Gophers and North Dakota, Denver and Colorado College become much less frequent, and less important in many respects.  There is also a major fear that, once the BTHC forms, the Big Ten schools will follow the model of their football and basketball brethren and refuse to play road games against their former conference opponents.  Furthermore, one of the major money makers for the existing conferences--the conference tournaments--become much less lucrative, with lower attendance figures being almost a guarantee.  Put all of this together, and a few programs could struggle to survive.

Soooooooooooooo much more after the jump...............

 

Despite the WCHA and CCHA fears, not all is bad for the rest of college hockey should the BTHC come a reality.  One of the major issues currently facing the sport is the lack of room in the existing conferences.  The WCHA currently has twelve teams, and the CCHA has eleven (with the assumption being that Penn State is welcome to the twelth spot).  With no other conferences west of Pennsylvania,  the existing conferences are essentially closed to new membership.  As a result, any Western schools considering a Division 1 hockey program has a major issue on its hands.  Would it be willing to take the risk of starting a program with no conference to play in???  Probably not.  With the BTHC, however, the WCHA becomes a ten team league, and the CCHA goes down to eight.  In other words--you potentially have up to six spaces for new conference members.

As far as the small-school fears are concerned, I'm not as doom-and-gloom as some, but much of that relies upon some blind faith in some schools doing "the right thing" by agreeing to give its former conference foes a hand.  Currently, many of the power programs play around an eighteen or nineteen game home schedule each year.  With the BTHC, that would mean ten home games and ten away games--with 14 games to spare under the NCAA 34 game limit (not including games in Alaska).  In other words, Big Ten schools could still play five or six road games per year against smaller schools and still be in no worse shape than they are under the current system. 

IF (and this is a 34 point font "IF"), the Big Ten schools would commit to some road games against smaller CCHA and WCHA schools for an extended period of time, I think the damage could be partially mitigated.  Think about it--would it really be that hard for Michigan and Michigan State to commit to one trip to the Upper Peninsula (alternating between Northern Michigan and Lake Superior) each year?  What about Wisconsin agreeing to two games per year against Michigan Tech and/or Minnesota-Duluth, with the home site alternating each year?  The same goes for Minnesota against the likes of Minnesota State (Mankato) and St. Cloud, and Ohio State for Miami and Bowling Green.  (And, no, games against Notre Dame DO NOT COUNT as "helping the little guy").

Michhockey_medium
I'll never get tired of seeing this tho...

My personal fear is that the non-hockey types at the Big Ten schools will not be receptive to so many road games out of conference, and the basketball model becomes the unfortunately model for hockey.  At first, schools start agreeing to one road series in exchange to two home series, and over time this drops down to one home series and one "neutral site" game (picture Wisconsin playing Northern Michigan in Green Bay (Oh wait, they've already done that), or the Gophers playing Minnesota Duluth at the Xcel Energy Center).  Yes, you'd probably still see alternating series between Michigan/Michigan State and Notre Dame, as well as an annual Gopher/Fighting (Censored) series (So don't worry Grand Forks, you won't have to find something to do with dead gophers besides throw them on the ice).  If this doesn't extend to the Ferris States and Lake Superior States of Western college hockey (the annual series, not the gopher chucking), it's not difficult to see two or three programs disappearing within the next several years.

Lastly, there is one non-Big Ten school that could benefit greatly from a BTHC.  That is the only D-1 hockey school south of the Mason-Dixon line: Alabama-Huntsville.  The UAH Chargers are the only current school in Division 1 college hockey without a conference.  Last year, they applied to become the twelth CCHA team, but they were turned down (many believe because the CCHA was holding the spot open for Penn State).  With the CCHA losing three of its four most high profile members, UAH suddenly becomes more attractive, if only to guarantee some more conference games for its current members and to keep the conference afloat.

Scenario 2:  Penn State joins the CCHA....AND the Big Ten.

Under this arrangement, Penn State becomes a full CCHA member.  At the same time, both the CCHA and WCHA  reduce their schedules so that a Big Ten, no autobid, league can coexist with both of the conferences.  Under one idea bandied around the Internet (including by yours truly), the CCHA and WCHA drop to 24 game schedules, where each team would play everyone twice except for a designated rival.  Those rivalries would include (naturally) Minnesota-Wisconsin, Michigan-Michigan State and Ohio State-Penn State.  At the same time, you have Minnesota and Wisconsin play two nonconference games against each of Michigan, Michigan, Penn State and Ohio State.  The result--a slightly unbalanced twelve game Big Ten schedule.  Or, if you wanted perfect balance, you could designate two of the four rivalry games as "Big Ten" contests, resulting in a ten game schedule.

If this seems a bit strange to you, note that there is a precedent for this.  The Ivy League, with six of its eight members having a Division 1 hockey program, maintains its own set of standings and statistics, even though all of its teams currently play in the ECAC Hockey League.  There is no automatic NCAA bid for winning the Ivy League hockey title, but the winner still gets bragging rights.

And don't think that this idea is inconsistent with Jim Delaney's public statement on the issue.  Remember that Delaney said that the presumption is that there will be a Big Ten Championship in the future.  That does not necessarily mean the same thing as a full conference with an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.  As long as the Big Ten awards a shiny trophy in the end and allows the winner to hang a nice banner from the rafters, it could be considered a championship.  In fact, having the Big Ten use an Ivy League-type setup could result in more bids to the NCAA's over the long run, since there will be fewer games for the Big Ten schools to beat each up over. 

In terms of who benefits from this arrangement, the smaller schools in the CCHA and WCHA are at the top of the list.  Although I'm sure these schools would rather not have their conference schedules reduced--and as a result have fewer visits on average by the larger schools--their place in college hockey doesn't change a whole lot under this system.  They maintain the stability of an established conference, they continue to get some marquee games at home against Big Ten teams, and the relative gravy train of the WCHA and CCHA conference tournaments continues.

Additionally, if the WCHA and CCHA conferences cooperate on scheduling and television (and given the alternative of Scenario 1, it's clearly in their interest to do so), the Big Ten Network gets its regular hockey programming.  Assuming that every intra-Big Ten matchup is a two game weekend series, you could have up to twelve weekends of regular season Big Ten hockey--enough for Friday Night Hockey from Thanksgiving through the beginning of March Madness  (assuming a week off for Christmas or New Year's).

Now who doesn't like this?  I would assume that Penn State--with no recent Division 1 tradition--would prefer a full Big Ten conference so that there are more games with "name" schools to sell to its student body.  Additionally, Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez has made a several comments which have been interpreted as wanting more of a "real" Big Ten Hockey Conference.  Finally, although not having fully tipped his hand yet, Mr. Delaney and the rest of the Big Ten higher-ups may be not want any half-measures at this point, instead hoping for more games on the Big Ten Network and possibly a lucrative conference tournament, say in Chicago, where you can't walking into a Starbucks without bumping into three Michigan, Wisconsin or Minnesota alums waiting to buy their frappachino from a Sparta...nah, too easy!

Some other Scenarios:  These range from "Might look good on paper, but likely won't fly" to "what are you smoking" to "What did you smoke after you drank the ethanol"

  • The Small School Fantasy - Penn State Joins the CCHA...and Nothing Else.  Penn State simply becomes the twelth member of the CCHA, and not much else changes.  The Nittany Lions will almost certainly try to schedule nonconference matchups with Minnesota and Wisconsin, but there is no official round robin schedule among the Big Ten teams, and no shiny trophy with the Big Ten logo on it.  Since virtually every relevant source (i.e., every non-blogger/USCHO/insidecollegehockey.com poster) is already implying that some form of a Big Ten championship is on the way, this one probably isn't going anywhere.
  • The Eastern Fantasy - Penn State gives the West the finger and decides that it belongs in the East.  Yeah, and have fun explaining to your student body why you're playing Merrimack instead of Ohio State.
  • The Kumbaya Fantasy - The BTHC forms, but keeps and interlocking schedule with the CCHA and WCHA.  This is actually fairly plausible.  Under this idea, there would be some regimented order to how many games each Big Ten school plays against the CCHA and WCHA, with designated home and away series, some rotating format, etc.  This idea has a lot of merit from the perspective helping out the smaller schools, but I have a feeling that you won't see something this complex.  If a BTHC forms, I'd expect each school to make its own non-conference arrangements, and we'll just have to hope for the best.
  • The Big Ten Expansion Fantasy - The BTHC invites Notre Dame.  I'll never say never, but I put this one up there with "Kentucky in BCS Title Game" speculation.  Let's put it this in a very non-PC way.  The Big Ten and Notre Dame are to college sports what India and Pakistan are to Kashmir.  One feels the other out every few years, they both puff out their chests, and then walk away, satisfied that they've proven to the world how important they are.  Under this neverending dance, it's obvious that the Big Ten needs as much leverage as possible if it's ever going to win.  Although hockey is never going to decide the issue of football conference affiliation, it's clear that the, Irish with their new non-high school gym of an arena (and that's being generous to their current digs), would need the BTHC a lot more than the other way around.  Therefore, if I'm Jim Delaney, I enjoy watching Notre Dame keep the plastic on 2,500 of the 4,000 seats in its new arena while the Irish play a bunch of schools that nobody in its student body can find on a map, much less have an interest in.  Then, when it's time to play BCS musical chairs again, the Irish adminstration has one more little thing to think about.  Letting Notre Dame into the BTHC is just throwing this chip away.  (And this doesn't even touch upon that the BIG TEN DOES NOT HAVE ONE SPORT MEMBERS).
  • The Cloverfield Fantasy - The BTHC becomes a hockey superconference, with Notre Dame and hockey powers North Dakota, Denver, and Colorado College coming a long for the ride.  And then the fans of these schools woke up and came back to reality.

So, which one will it be?  My brain  tells me that Scenario 2 has the fewest negatives for all of the interested parties.  The Big Ten gets its conference schedule and its desired BTN programming, Penn State gets its marquee matchups to interest its new fanbase, the existing Big Ten Hockey schools get to maintain their rivalries while not overly cannibalizing each other (and costing themselves NCAA bids as a result), and the smaller WCHA and CCHA schools continue to get the prime draws and conference tournament revenue that they need to survive.  However, my gut tells me that this is not what will ultimately happen.  I have a bad feeling that the non-hockey types are going to eventually prevail in this fight, especially with some of the traditional old guard (e.g., Ron Mason, Red Berenson) either already out the door or getting pretty close to it.  With today's difficult economic times and the need to have as many self-sustaining programs as possible, I just can't believe that Big Ten conference and many of its member schools will be willing to go halfway for the good of the sport.

In Part 3 of this column, I'll look into the crystal ball and look at what I believe to be a is very plausible scenario for the CCHA, WCHA, Big Ten and Division 1 college hockey over the next decade or so.

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