Myers: Big Ten hockey = big trouble?
Get the 1500 ESPN SportsWire delivered to your inbox daily, and keep up with all the news in Twin Cities Sports
There will be no points in the Big Ten standings on the line this weekend when the Gopher hockey team visits Wisconsin. But that problem may only be temporary. The conference hasn't officially awarded a championship in hockey in more than 25 years. But thanks to some philanthropy and a coming attraction in central Pennsylvania, the landscape of the college hockey world may see a huge change in the next few years.
After fielding one of the more successful and popular collegiate club hockey programs in the country for many years, they're building a real rink and preparing to field varsity hockey at Penn State. We can already envision plain white hockey helmets with a solitary dark blue stripe down the middle. That addition will mean that with the Nittany Lions and Gophers alongside the likes of Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State, half of the Big Ten's soon-to-be-12 teams will field varsity hockey programs.
The obvious question as soon as Penn State made its formal announcement last year was where will the team find a conference home, with the current Big Ten teams split between the WCHA (Minnesota and Wisconsin) and the CCHA (Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State). But what if the answer is that the Lions will just stay in the conference they're currently in - the Big Ten? What would that mean for the rest of the college hockey world if suddenly two of the CCHA's biggest programs and two of the WCHA's biggest programs were gone?
For years when the likes of Pittsburgh-based Robert Morris added varsity hockey, backers of the sport lamented that smaller schools were adding the sport, while the biggies like Penn State were not. Well, be careful what you wish for seems to be the lesson, as the impending debut of the Lions has led to as much hand-wringing as optimism in some circles.
For Gopher fans it would seemingly be fine. Add four games per year with four more Big Ten teams to the schedule (the Gophers and Wisconsin already play four times per year) and with 20 conference games, that would still leave more than a dozen opportunities to maintain traditional neighborhood rivalries with teams like North Dakota, Minnesota Duluth and St. Cloud State. The WCHA, even without the Gophers and Badgers, would likely survive as a 10-team league, with enough big-revenue programs in newer buildings (Denver, Nebraska-Omaha and North Dakota most notably) to generate the resources and TV income needed.
In the CCHA, the situation looks much more grim if suddenly the Wolverines, Spartans and Buckeyes were off the schedule for the league's other eight teams. Strong and successful programs like Miami (Ohio) and Notre Dame (which also has a new rink under construction) would remain. However, small-school programs in Michigan like Ferris State and Lake Superior State have budgets that rely in at least some part on the revenue they generate from the yearly home games versus those high-profile teams. Those two schools, along with the likes of Michigan Tech and Bowling Green (which flirted with dropping hockey two years ago), could face fiscal extinction if a Big Ten hockey league comes on-line.
Does it matter? Well, there are 58 Division I programs currently. That's just enough in the eyes of the NCAA to field a 16-team tournament conducted at four regional sites. Take away three or four of those 58, and we might be back to the somewhat goofy 12-team arrangement that had top seeds needing only one win to get to the Frozen Four.
The other side of the argument says that a Big Ten league could be the catalyst to spur a wave of college hockey expansion, for men's and women's programs, at big-name schools. Illinois and Iowa State give strong support to successful club programs, Nebraska is home to several popular junior hockey teams, and Syracuse fields a varsity women's program, leading some to believe that adding men's hockey could be easily accomplished. Even as far west as the Pac-10 there is speculation that the hockey boom in California (there are several dozen natives of the Golden State playing Division I hockey around the country this season) could lead to the likes of Cal, Stanford, UCLA and USC adding varsity hockey programs in the next decade.
The current Big Ten teams with hockey have had an impressive run of on-ice success. Michigan won a pair of NCAA titles in the late 1990s, while Ohio State made its only Frozen Four appearance in 1998. More recently, Big Ten schools have won four of the past nine national titles, and there's been at least one Big Ten team in the Frozen Four in eight of the past 10 years. While Ohio State has lagged in attendance for years and there are plenty of empty seats to be found at Mariucci Arena recently, sellouts of the 15,000-seat Kohl Center are commonplace at Wisconsin, and Michigan's legendary Yost Ice Arena has long been regarded as the noisiest and most profane place in Ann Arbor.
So for now, the Gophers and Badgers will continue to wear those WCHA patches on their sweaters, and they'll face off in Madison with WCHA points on the line, just as they have for the past four decades or more. And if nothing changes, they may still be playing for WCHA points four decades from now.
But college hockey watchers are keeping a close eye on what's happening in State College, Pa., and how the college hockey landscape may be changed dramatically as soon as some Lions hit the ice.