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If I were czar of men’s college hockey

07/24/2019, 10:45am CDT
By Kevin Kurtt

A proposal to create lasting stability, especially among the 27 teams in the west

Under the author’s plan, current and former WCHA members Bemidji State and St. Cloud State would reunite in the proposed Hockey West Conference. Let’s Play Hockey photo by Mike Thill

It began in the fall of 2010 when Penn State announced an $88 million gift from Terry and Kim Pegula to add hockey as a Division I varsity sport. From there, a series seemingly never-ending changes to the men’s college hockey landscape have occurred, right up until the summer of 2019.

The second shift was a game-changer for the college hockey world. On March 21, 2011, the Big Ten announced the establishment of men’s hockey as an official conference sport. 

Next, on July 9, 2011, five schools from the WCHA and one from the CCHA announced the creation of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC). That signaled the end of the CCHA, the formation of the new-look WCHA and a series of schools switching conferences to find their place in the modern world of men’s college hockey.

Beginning with the 2013-14 season, the reshaped college hockey landscape opened for play, but the changes weren’t over yet. In 2014-15, Connecticut made the move from Atlantic Hockey to Hockey East. In 2015-16, Arizona State elevated its club hockey program to Division I status. In 2017-18, Notre Dame joined the Big Ten after a four-year tenure in Hockey East.

Finally, on June 28, 2019, seven of the WCHA's 10 schools announced the exploration of a new conference that would begin play with the 2021-22 season. The seven schools include Bemidji State, Bowling Green, Ferris State, Lake Superior State, Michigan Tech, Minnesota State, and Northern Michigan. Left out of the mix are Alabama Huntsville, Alaska and Alaska Anchorage.

So here we are again. More schools changing leagues, leading to ever more questions about the future of men’s college hockey ... especially in the west. We think we have a pretty good picture what the three western conferences will look like for the next couple seasons, but if recent history has taught us anything, it’s that we should come to expect the unexpected when presidents, commissioners and athletic directors are making decisions in the college hockey world.

So in the interest of providing some stability for the sport, I hereby proclaim myself as the czar of college hockey. It was a bloodless coup in the creation of this new position, so no commissioner jobs were harmed. NCHA boss Josh Fenton will continue to lead a conference, although I made some pretty big changes to his league. Jim Delany, commish-in-waiting Kevin Warren and their Big Ten minions survived the coup, if only because even a czar knows it’s probably asking too much to challenge the behemoth that is the Big Ten.

So as the new leader of all of college hockey, I would like to propose several changes that are designed to create lasting stability in NCAA Division I men’s hockey, especially among the 27 teams in the western portion of the college hockey world. 

Reshaping college hockey in the west
Recognizing that it would be impossible to return to the days before the Big Ten, my largest task would be to reshuffle the deck of western college hockey and create two conferences that are more geographically-aligned.

First, I will create Hockey West, a 12-team league consisting of all Division I men’s hockey teams west of Michigan (aside from those in the Big Ten). That means all current NCHC teams except for Miami and Western Michigan will remain together, while current WCHA teams Alaska, Alaska Anchorage, Bemidji State and Minnesota State will move to Hockey West. Also joining will be Air Force (currently in Atlantic Hockey despite being located in Colorado Springs) and Arizona State. Fenton will serve as commissioner.

I reserve the right to split the new league into two six-team divisions with Bemidji State, Minnesota Duluth, Minnesota State, Omaha, North Dakota and St. Cloud State in the Prairie Division, and Air Force, Alaska, Alaska Anchorage, Arizona State, Colorado College and Denver in the Mountain Division. Play would consist of home and away series against each team within their division, with two crossover series vs. teams in the other division for a 24-game league schedule.

The biggest challenge for Hockey West will be the cost of travel with both Alaska schools in the same league, but I’m confident a successful Hockey West postseason tournament (much like the NCHC Frozen Faceoff) would help in subsidizing team travel to Alaska. 

Next, the remaining WCHA teams, along with Miami and WMU, will make up the Central Collegiate Hockey Conference (CCHC). I’m open to negotiations on retaining the WCHA name, but would prefer to label the new leagues as accurately as possible. 

The creation of the CCHC will eliminate the majority of travel concerns currently held by some NCHC and WCHA members as seven of the eight teams in this new league are located in Michigan or Ohio. Much like the two Alaska schools, Alabama Huntsville is an outlier, but one trip per season to Huntsville for the other seven CCHC teams will not break the bank.

For both new leagues, I’ll leave it up to each commissioner to decide if their postseason tournaments should be on-campus or at a neutral site, but this czar would like to go on record as saying we should be playing these events at campus sites until we can be sure a neutral site tournament would be more successful financially.

Ten teams in the Big Ten
It’s time the Big Ten lives up to its namesake and actually have 10 teams in one of its sports. Right now, the only sports sponsored by the conference that have 10 teams are men’s swimming & diving and women’s gymnastics. 

Under my plan, the league will eventually increase to 10 members, with all three coming from the ranks of current Big Ten schools. Illinois is first in line to add hockey as the school is in the final stages of securing financial commitments to build a downtown Champaign arena to house an Illini hockey team. 

Next on my list of Big Ten teams to add hockey is Iowa. Why? First, the Hawkeyes will have a facility as the 5,200-seat Xtream Arena is currently under construction in nearby Coralville. Iowa also ranks 18th in the nation with over $130 million in total athletic department revenue, so cash flow might not be a major issue. 

Challenges to the Hawkeyes adding hockey include, but are certainly not limited to, funding (adding hockey is an expensive proposition) and Title IX considerations (though Xtream Arena will be a viable option for a women’s hockey team). In addition, Iowa athletic director Gary Barta (a Minnesota native who grew up playing hockey) is on record as saying his school is not interested in adding the sport. But as czar of college hockey, I like to think that I’d be able to change his mind.

Up next: Nebraska. The Cornhuskers would play in Pinnacle Bank Arena, the home of Husker basketball that can hold nearly 13,000 fans for hockey. Nebraska would also already have the luxury of a practice facility in the nearby Breslow Ice Hockey Center (opened in 2015), the current home of Husker club hockey. Nebraska is also well-positioned from a revenue and fan base standpoint, ranking 23rd nationally in total athletic department revenue and owning some of the most passionate fans in all of college sports. 

Challenges to Nebraska adding hockey are similar to Iowa, with the threat a Cornhusker hockey program would pose to Omaha (also a member of the University of Nebraska system) being a unique factor to take into consideration.

Under the author’s plan, the University of Nebraska would be targeted to elevate its club hockey program to NCAA Division I status. Photo: Jerry Mendoza Photography

As czar, I’ll make a strong push for college hockey expansion, targeting schools and well-heeled donors to increase the sport’s footprint. Aside from getting Big Ten schools to join the party, following are some schools that will be targeted to enter the college hockey world:

• Alabama – The Crimson Tide ranks fifth in the nation in athletic department revenue and its club hockey team is supported like a Division I program. 

• Iowa State – A school from the Big 12 has to add hockey some day. Why not its northernmost member?

• Navy – The only service academy without NCAA hockey, Navy would be a perfect fit for Atlantic Hockey with a relatively new arena and government funding. Plus, we could institute an in-season triangular series between Air Force, Army and Navy, with the winner claiming the Department of Defense Trophy.

• Oakland – Like Illinois, Oakland University in Rochester Hills, Mich., took part in a feasibility study to determine if the school was well-suited to add Division I hockey. The result? “With the passion for hockey at all levels in the state of Michigan, the foundation appears to be in place for Oakland University to develop hockey programs that will be financially successful and competitive on a conference and national level.”

• Pac-12 schools – With Arizona State finding success after elevating its club program, don’t be suprised to see other western schools explore joining the Division I hockey ranks. My top picks: Arizona, USC and Washington.

• Rhode Island – URI has explored elevating to Division I, and its location in hockey-mad New England certainly doesn’t hurt. The Rams also have 2,500-seat Boss Arena right on campus.

• Syracuse – The Orange already sponsor a women’s hockey team, so adding a men’s team in a strong hockey area shouldn’t be too much of a stretch.

• UNLV – Home of the NHL’s most recent expansion team, Las Vegas is also looking to join the NCAA hockey ranks as the UNLV club team had made a recent push to elevate its program. There’s certainly no lack of money in Sin City to go after.

Miscellaneous changes
• No more shootouts. It’s a gimmick that does nothing more than dilute conference standings in the interest of a modicum of entertainment of fans. What’s so bad about ending a game in a tie?

• Overtime will be expanded from five to 10 minutes of 5-on-5 play. I’m sure this won’t be popular as 4-on-4 or 3-on-3 OT can be entertaining, but my reasons are simple. First, an extra five minutes of play will increase the likelihood of a goal. Second, why play overtime in a format different from which we play any other time during the season? Why should regular season overtime be 4-on-4 or 3-on-3, while postseason extra sessions are 5-on-5? Again, what’s so bad about tie games?

• NCAA Regionals go to campus sites. This is a hot-button issue in college hockey with most coaches in favor of neutral sites and fans/media split on the issue. Although I understand the logistical and “fairness” advantages of a neutral site, NCAA tournament games simply should not be played in front of a crowd that can’t come close to filling  the lower bowl of cavernous NHL arenas. These are the most important games of the season and should have the atmosphere of a packed arena to go along with them. I’m not  totally against still using neutral sites when it makes sense financially and logistically, but let’s sell the great game of college hockey by utilizing its great on-campus arenas ... like Mariucci, Yost and  Engelstad, to name a few.

• Three permanent Frozen Four locations and one rotating site. As czar, I will put the NCAA Frozen Four on a four-year cycle with  Boston, St. Paul and Tampa hosting every three years, and a fourth location open for bid for the fourth year. Boston and St. Paul are no-brainer sites as home of the nation’s hockey hotbeds, while Tampa has hosted a pair of extremely successful and popular Frozen Fours in the last eight years. Keeping three permanent sites ensures long-term success for the tournament, while having a different city host the event will give the event a fresh feel every four years.

• Finally, rein in ticket prices. A single-session ticket for last season’s NCAA West Regional in Fargo, N.D., was $59 (plus fees), while an all-session package went for $99 (plus fees). An all-session ticket for last season’s the NCAA Frozen Four in Buffalo, N.Y., was $225 for the upper level and $475 for the lower level. Announced attendance for both the semifinals and the championship game was just above 13,000 in an arena that holds 19,070. 

When it costs a family of four around $900 (not to mention parking and concessions) to attend the Frozen Four and the arena is far from sold out, perhaps ticket prices are a little out of whack with demand for said tickets. As czar, ticket prices for all conference tournaments and NCAA regionals will be around $20, with discounts for children, students and seniors. Frozen Four ticket prices will start around $40. Let’s fill the arenas, create great atmospheres for some of the biggest games of the season and have the leagues/NCAA make their money off the increased parking/concession sales that come with bigger crowds. 

I’ll also allow beer sales at all college hockey events. You’re welcome.

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Men’s College Hockey ... in the West

Proposed Realignment in Men’s College Hockey

Michigan Alabama Huntsville Prairie American International Brown Boston College
Michigan State Bowling Green Bemidji State Army Clarkson Boston University
Minnesota Ferris State Minnesota Duluth Bentley Colgate Connecticut
Notre Dame Lake Superior State Minnesota State Canisius Cornell Maine
Ohio State Miami North Dakota Holy Cross Dartmouth Massachusetts
Penn State Michigan Tech Omaha Mercyhurst Harvard UMass Lowell
Wisconsin Northern Michigan St. Cloud State Niagara Princeton Merrimack
(Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska) Western Michigan RIT Quinnipiac New Hampshire
Mountain Robert Morris RPI Northeastern
Air Force Sacred Heart St. Lawrence Providence
Alaska Union Vermont
Alaska Anchorage Yale
Arizona State
Colorado College

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