In 1996, Michigan and Colorado College faced off for the Division I NCAA Championship in Cincinnati. To the casual college sports fan, it must have seemed like a typo – surely that’s got to be the University of Colorado, right?
Red Berenson, the legendary Michigan coach, remarked on the uniqueness of the game. I wish I could find the exact quote, but to paraphrase, Berenson noted the interesting situation that existed within college hockey in that a small school like Colorado College could not only reach the Division I title game, but that they would not immediately be dismissed, even against a school with the stature of the University of Michigan. Ultimately, the Wolverines would indeed claim the national championship… but not before the Tigers forced overtime.
How is it that Division III schools like Colorado College and Rensselaer have each won multiple Division I national championships? How can it be that Clarkson and St. Lawrence boast two of the highest all-time winning percentages in the history of Division I college hockey? How is it that RIT was playing Wisconsin in the Frozen Four this year? These are not questions that the ardent college hockey fan ponders. They understand the fabric of the game. They understand why Boston College and Boston University have the most heated rivalry in the sport, but are strangers in other sports. They know why Lake Superior State is a notable program. It doesn’t shock the college hockey fan when North Dakota beats Minnesota.
The college sports world revolves primarily around two sports – football and men’s basketball. Many of the same schools are dominant in one or both of those sports. But when it comes to college hockey, the smaller schools with the deep traditions have always been able to run with the best. To be fair, the top level schools are also quite dominant in college hockey. While there are only eight schools who compete in football’s six BCS conferences playing Division I hockey, five of them can claim national championships within the last 15 years, and all of them with the exception of UConn have made at least one appearance in the Frozen Four.
When one breaks the schools of the Division I college hockey fraternity down into the various subdivisions – the BCS, the remainder of the FBS, the FCS, the non-football D-I schools, Division II, and Division III, the largest single division is actually Division II with 16 different schools in that division “playing up.” And they’re no slouches, either. Lake State, Northern Michigan, and Michigan Tech have all claimed college hockey’s greatest prize. North Dakota’s seven national titles all came while the school was in Division II. Minnesota-Duluth and St. Cloud State are often among the best teams in the WCHA, arguably one of the best conferences in the nation. 2/3rds of the WCHA’s membership are Division II or Division III schools.
A big part of the reason for this unique aspect of the sport is the insulated nature of college hockey’s structure. With the exception of the Ivy League, which operates as something of a sub-conference of ECAC Hockey, there are no conferences that are anything more than “hockey only.” In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, a mid-major Division I conference, sponsored hockey, but it was a marriage of convenience only. The Big East, the ACC, and the Big Ten all have schools participating in college hockey, but they’ve never become directly involved themselves.
That could all change with the expected announcement tomorrow that Penn State will become the sixth Big Ten school to sponsor varsity hockey. As those of us who have watched the CHA’s soap opera come to its tragic conclusion know very well, six is the magic number for a set of teams to create a conference that can hold an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
What will become of college hockey’s unique status if that happens? Many pundits are fearing the worst. They fear that the creation of a super-conference made up of most of the sport’s largest and best funded schools will leave those smaller schools out in the cold. They expect that the decimation of the CCHA and the removal of the two of the bedrock schools of the WCHA will be bad for those remaining small schools, especially under the belief that these schools will not be able to compete with the larger schools anymore.
It’s true that there will be some drawbacks. Minnesota isn’t going to visit St. Cloud State if they don’t have to. Same applies for Michigan and Ferris State. Those bigger schools coming into town can often be a big draw for the smaller school. A Big Ten conference would be a natural invitation for the other six schools of the conference to potentially start a new program – Indiana has already been rumored to be following Penn State into the varsity ranks. Those new programs will have access to more resources than most of the smaller, traditional hockey schools.
But big schools joining the Division I ranks is no guarantee that they’ll start dominating anything. Look at UConn. They seem very content in running a varsity program with practically no resources allocated – most significantly, no scholarships. There’s no guarantee that these schools will commit the resources necessary to be successful. But there’s another aspect that people don’t often consider – one of the defining qualities of college hockey is that, with only a few exceptions, the sport is either the premier winter sport, or shares roughly equal billing with basketball. The overwhelming popularity of UConn basketball is one reason why the Huskies are relatively obscure in hockey. Even among the very best Big Ten teams like Michigan and Minnesota, hockey is popular enough to be one of the major draws of the winter. Ohio State, notably, lags in this category and has been unable to cement itself as one of the sport’s top programs. North Dakota, Boston University, and Colorado College may not be on the national level of the Big Ten, but their commitment and passion for the sport is unquestioned, and they regularly are among the top programs in the nation.
Does hockey have a prayer against basketball at Indiana? At Purdue or Illinois? It’s awfully hard to see hockey achieving levels there that it has achieved at Wisconsin or Michigan State. It’s not even a given that hockey at Penn State is going to be on par with their basketball program – time will tell.
Penn State is just one school. Granted, they are easily the biggest school to start a varsity program in the modern era, but they aren’t going to immediately start siphoning blue-chippers away from New Hampshire and Cornell. The small schools are already able to compete with the big schools, why would it necessarily be any different with most of them grouped in one conference? And bear in mind – a Big Ten conference would necessitate a new realignment of conferences that would encourage more schools to try their hand at fielding a varsity team of their own, and not just the big shots – plenty of the rumors of new programs over the years have been at the same type of smaller Division I and lower division schools that comprise the majority of the college hockey spectrum.
A Big Ten conference radically alters the landscape, and change is never easy, especially when the end result isn’t 100% clear. We may well lose some of the charm that makes college hockey a niche sport. But opportunities abound. This can be a positive for the entire college hockey world if it’s done right.