With all apologies to the NFL and NBA, college hockey has had the most interesting off-season this year. While billionaires and millionaires struggle over getting more money and benefits, college hockey has radically changed its appearance in the span of the three months. It is still a niche sport - there aren't any networks trying to make the smallest details seem important and drag viewers along - but fans everywhere are impacted with realignment that many fear will be the end. For those who haven't been following:
- Last September, Penn State announced an $88 million gift from Terry and Kim Pegula to start a Division 1 hockey program in 2012-2013. This led to speculation that the other five Big Ten schools who have hockey programs (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State) would leave their respective leagues (WCHA for the Gophers and Wisconsin, CCHA for the other three) to create a Big Ten Hockey Conference with the Nittany Lions. That was made official in March and the BTHC will begin in 2013-2014.
- As a response to the Big Ten and potential loss of revenue, North Dakota and five other schools (University of Denver, Colorado College, University of Nebraska-Omaha, Minnesota-Duluth from the WCHA and Miami [OH] from the CCHA) last week decided to form the National College Hockey Conference beginning in 2013-2014. Although nothing is official, these programs are looking to find a national television deal similar to the Big Ten Network (Versus has been mentioned) and would like to add Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish, however, look to be entertaining offers from Hockey East instead.
- With all the musical chairs, this has left an insufficient number of programs in the two established Western conferences; the WCHA has 5 smaller teams while the CCHA has 7 including Notre Dame. However the CCHA is sure to lose the Irish and has had at least one more team move to the WCHA in Northern Michigan; giving them the six teams necessary for an automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament and leaving the CCHA short.
- In response, the CCHA is holding talks with teams in Atlantic Hockey to see if they want to join.
- Finally, new programs like Minnesota State-Moorhead are exploring whether or not they want to invest in Division 1 hockey due to the massive changes in conference affiliation.
Everyone caught up? Good.
So that's five out of the six established college hockey conferences which will gain or lose a team and two completely new conferences. It's a lot more interesting than whether or not two-a-days should be allowed, but one negative of all this realignment is a slew of teams which lose guaranteed home games against big-name schools like Michigan, North Dakota and Minnesota. In a sport where Division 3 colleges can be competitive against BCS schools, losing a big name hurts a smaller schools' revenue; a team like Minnesota State was able to get 1000 more people against the Gophers than their average. Unfortunately with the demise of the WCHA that's gone now with the Gophers joining the Big Ten Hockey Conference. However, in the wake of losing all this tradition I have a suggestion for the Gophers, Minnesota college hockey teams and the Xcel Energy Center:
Create a new all-Minnesota tournament to fill the void.
This isn't a new idea and in fact the X hosted an all-Minnesota WCHA doubleheader in 2008 which failed. One of the reasons for it failing was the fact that there was just two games on a Saturday and no tournament structure. Despite claims to the contrary, it wasn't the Beanpot. Everyone was just playing for pride and two points in the standings. Making a real tournament which could be called anything like the Hot Dish or have corporate sponsorship (looking at you Dairy Queen) in which there are winners and losers will grab the attention and competitive spirit of players and fans everywhere.
Plus despite past failures, the time is right for all parties to try again because of realignment.
With the Minnesota teams and big names Wisconsin and North Dakota being split up into three different conferences, none of the conference tournaments come close to matching the attendance of the WCHA Final Five; the area's marquee event that the Xcel Energy Center hosts. Even if they end up bidding on a conference tournament (either the Big Ten or NCHC), each of the new conferences are too spread out with the number of teams who can make the trip to St. Paul. That's not the case with an all-Minnesota tournament as the fanbases of the teams involved can make a weekend trip out of this as all five schools are within four hours.
The Gophers, as a program, come off great playing their in-state rivals for something important in a non-conference game. Done right this also makes sense financially as it would take away a road trip or two while not being seen as a home series. The other four Minnesota colleges (especially the three not playing in the NCHC) also win as they get to play in front of a larger crowd and most likely make more money in gate revenue than a normal non-conference series.
Although some may see the Big Ten and NCHC as the end of college hockey, it is key to create new traditions from the ashes of the old. There are plenty of small details which would need to be figured out like the date (maybe the third week of January when nothing happens and students are back in school), structure (who plays who, one weekend or two, etc.) or teams (since there are five Minnesota schools), but everyone has a reason to take part and start a new tradition. New England has the Beanpot, Michigan has the Great Lakes Invitational and this new tournament can take the place of the WCHA Final Five and be that event in Minnesota.
In the end, claiming superiority in the State of Hockey is big - just look at the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs this year - and having the chance to do so despite all the changes in college hockey makes it worth the price of admission.