It’s been less than a decade since Penn State set off an earthquake in college hockey. When the Nittany Lions left the collegial-but-competitive top tier of club hockey for the cutthroat world of Division I play, the Big Ten finally got what they always wanted: a league of their own. That gave the Big Ten (Big Fourteen these days?) six DI teams, enough for an NCAA-sanctioned auto-bid hockey conference.
This overlapped the collapse of the short-lived men’s segment of the College Hockey America (CHA) conference—a union of smaller, let’s-get-into-DI hockey schools—leaving several programs with no league affiliation. And being an independent in college hockey means the potential for any kind of prestige is close to zero.
The B1G move gutted both the WCHA and the CCHA, and the survivors, along with CHA teams that persisted, scrambled to put two Humpty Dumpty’s back together again. The powers in the WCHA shed their less competitive long-time partners and grabbed the best remaining schools from the CCHA, and the NCHC came into being. The WCHA collected the remaining pieces and picked up the remaining CCHA schools, plus two CHA survivors and gave us the present WCHA configuration.
Notre Dame (as always) wanted their own version of independence and threw Hockey East into a mess, with an odd number of teams (which means league play always has one school not playing a league game somewhere) and crazy travel schedules. Atlantic Hockey, with its own turbulent history, latched onto the two final men’s teams from the CHA.
Since then, Notre Dame realized the folly of playing in Hockey East, and the Big Ten gladly accepted them as associate members—kind of like Johns Hopkins in lacrosse. The NCHC has become the biggest and baddest conference, winning the last three NCAA championships and getting four or five teams into the tournament most years.
When all is said and done, the WCHA, despite some incredibly exciting and competitive play, ended up as the most tenuous of the six conferences. With just one full-time Division I school (Bowling Green), the league always sits at the edge of losing their auto bid to the Big Skate. Toss in the geographical dispersion (from Fairbanks to Huntsville is a mind-numbing 4,000 miles by car or a 12- to 13-hour, two-stop airplane ride) and the weakness of several teams, and you have a league that is holding on, but not too far above “just barely.”
Hockey East and the ECAC are very stable, with long histories and short travel—much of it by bus. Even Atlantic Hockey is in a better place than the WCHA, with seven full-time D1 schools. You can argue that the caliber of play in AH isn’t as good as the WCHA (and the Old Dog would agree with that one), but the solid position of more than half of the league in the NCAA’s top affiliation is a huge stabilizing force.
So, what’s next? Things have been fairly steady for the past five years, with only the nomadic South Benders and Arizona State’s step-up to DI ruffling the scheme of things. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been a few tremors—more on that in a moment—but the leagues have all been about the same since 2013.
When all is said and done, the Old Dog thinks that the most powerful force that will affect any future alignments is media money. Years ago, we might have said “television money” but that’s so twentieth century. Certainly, on-air and cable television matter the most. The Big Ten Network always needs content, and the BTN money-machine certainly loves having something more appealing than women’s field hockey to keep the advertising dollars rolling in. (No offense to women’s field hockey—the Old Dog watches it from time to time and it’s engaging. But it isn’t going to draw the number of viewers that men’s hockey will draw.)
In fact, it can be argued that the NCHC is really about television and media appeal. When Minnesota State applied for membership, they felt they were competitive and were ready for the meat-grinder. But they were politely rebuffed. Why? The truth is they couldn’t bring in many new eyeballs for either the national TV contract or the subscription media deals that the NCHC has. Add in their likely cannibalization of St. Cloud State’s target Minneapolis-St. Paul markets, and you can easily conclude that the final decision wasn’t about what happens on the ice.
Hockey East and the ECAC have solid media bases, too. Atlantic Hockey is no slouch, either, with the Pittsburgh and Buffalo markets—plus some presence in Massachusetts, Denver, and even the fringes of New York City (Army and Sacred Heart) for media sales.
Our own WCHA doesn’t have much in terms of metropolitan areas, unless you count Anchorage and Fairbanks. And the time zone in Alaska renders that a near moot point, even if the Nanooks and/or Seawolves became on-ice dynamos. Bowling Green does have some presence in Toledo, but Toledo isn’t even Buffalo. Hockey’s still a novelty in Huntsville and the Deep South in general.
While the fans in Houghton are truly great, in terms of media, even with the rabid Tech alumni community, the Huskies “eyeball factor” is smaller than the eyes of a naked mole rat. Ferris State gets the Grand Rapids crumbs that Western Michigan leaves, Bemidji State is truly in a world of their own, Lake State is lost in the sea of OHL fans across the St. Mary’s River and a tiny town, and Northern Michigan has a far less ardent alumni base than Tech.
What could happen in the next few years that could address all of these factors? The first is Arizona State. The Old Dog suspects that ASU thought several Pac-12 schools would join them, but so far, there’s no real interest. The WCHA courted the Sun Devils, but demanded a travel funding arrangement like those that the Alaska schools provide to subsidize the other members. ASU promptly turned them down, but then got the cold shoulder from both the Big Ten and the NCHC.
The Old Dog thinks (without worrying about the budgets of the league) that the WCHA should make another overture to ASU. At the same time, they really should open up another “front” in the realignment wars—and that would be trying to persuade Air Force to join the WCHA. The Falcons really belong in the WCHA geographically.
With Air Force and ASU in the WCHA, that would plug the “DI” hole the WCHA is in. It would expand the media market for the league and—with twelve teams in a clean geographical split—would allow the WCHA to form two six team divisions.
In the East, we’d have Tech, NMU, LSSU, Ferris State, Huntsville and BGSU. The West would have Anchorage, Fairbanks, ASU, Mankato, Air Force, and Bemidji. The East teams (and the Alaska schools) might have to share media revenue unevenly to compensate the West teams for travel expenses.
But, ooh, what great competition! Each division could have a full home-and-home series (20 games) and leave room for four cross-over series every year, giving the league slate a balanced 28 game schedule for each team, and a chance to be in every location on a regular basis.
There’d be family drama (Frank Serratore at Air Force against brother Tom at Bemidji). Some of the key rivalries would be preserved (Tech-NMU, MSU-Bemidji, Anchorage-Fairbanks) and leave room for some gritty cross-over rivalries, too (ASU-Tech for starters). Of course, to do this, Air Force would have to be persuaded to leave Atlantic Hockey. They might not like leaving Army behind in AH, but the chance to play in the WCHA is something that could look very attractive, particularly if regular trips to ASU are part of the package.
The Old Dog and Mrs. Dog would like that one, too. Right now, Huntsville is the one Husky road series we can reasonably get to—but Tempe really isn’t any farther and going to Arizona in the winter is better than northern Alabama in any event.
And the playoff potential—whoo! Each Division could have two rounds of best-of-three series. Getting into the top four in each Division could be as hard-fought as any regular season schedule in the country. Then the two Division champs could play in the winner-take-all championship game. Toss in the WCHA’s on-campus playoff scheme, and the league could have the most attractive package of hockey in the country.
That could be an important media draw, too. While all of this has more “buts” than an environmental impact plan, it does seem to make a great deal of sense and would strengthen both college hockey in general and the WCHA in particular. I’d love to see it, and it could happen soon, too, if the WCHA could show the foresight they’ve displayed in setting up the on-campus playoff system.
But (there’s that word!) there’s the revenue and expense side of this, which is very real. It would be a gamble for the WCHA, for Air Force, and for Arizona State. The downside for ASU is probably small, but it’s certainly bigger for the Falcons, and they are a key piece of the puzzle. It’s also an uncertain venture for the rest of the WCHA, as travel expense increases would have to be more than offset with media revenue for this to work.
As we all wait for the Huskies and Bulldogs to go at it in the J-Mac this weekend, the Old Dog pleads with the WCHA leadership to think about it this way. Aren’t you already in a less-than-solid place? Is there more risk in the status-quo than in another serious change in the national picture?