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Get Ready For The Big Ten Hockey Conference

With Penn State set to add hockey as a varsity sport, the Big Ten could be on the verge of forming an actual hockey conference for the first time ever. But is this really a good idea?

Penn State To Add Hockey, According To Reports

After years and years of rumor and innuendo, speculation and conjecture appears to be coalescing into solid fact: Penn State University will add ice hockey as a varsity sport, with the announcement perhaps coming as soon as Friday, according to

Multiple sources in college and junior hockey, speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed the plan; one source told INCH that the university will make a formal announcement this Friday. A Penn State spokesperson late last week declined to comment on the matter.

"It is great for the sport," WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod said, while stopping short of confirming the plans. "A program of that stature to potentially add a Division I men’s hockey program is an exciting thing for the sport."

The addition of such a large and famous school to the college ranks is likely to be a good thing for college hockey in terms of recognition on the national scene. However, the possibility of varsity Nittany Lions hockey has always carried with it a more consternation-causing possibility: the very real chance that the addition of a sixth Big Ten school to college hockey would cause the five current hockey-playing Big Ten schools - Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State - to break off from their respective conferences to form a Big Ten "super-conference."

How The Big Ten Hockey Conference Would Affect College Hockey

Chris Dilks of SB Nation's Western College Hockey Blog addressed this question in February 2009 (and believe me, his post could have been written anytime in about the past decade; this discussion has been going on seemingly forever.) His post breaks down the two usual objections to a Big Ten hockey conference: first, that players will gravitate only to the six Big Ten schools, and second, that the absence of those schools from their homes in the WCHA and CCHA will kill the smaller schools in those conferences. He doesn't see too much of a problem in the first respect:

Each Big Ten school would still only have 18 scholarships, and could still only dress 20 skaters per night. There's definitely more than 120 potential college hockey players out there, and they'd have to go somewhere. Even now, I think more and more players are realizing that they're better off going to a somewhat less prestigious hockey school and playing a big role every night as opposed to being a healthy scratch at Minnesota or spending two extra years in junior for the honor of being a fourth liner at Wisconsin.

He does, however, note that the smaller-schools question - especially in the CCHA - is likely more pressing.

Every problem a smaller WCHA team would have is going to be even worse in the CCHA. The CCHA's smaller teams don't draw as many people to their arenas and have a tough time getting the funding they need. Money isn't just tight in the state of Michigan, it's non-existant, and while a St. Cloud or Minnesota-Duluth is second or third in the pecking order among Minnesota colleges for state money, schools like Ferris State and Lake Superior are way down the list in Michigan.

I just don't see a way that the CCHA could work without those Big Ten teams, and I think the end result would be some weaker programs--Bowling Green might be the most obvious--being forced to cut their program.

Joel Maturi Comments On The Possibility

A couple of weeks ago, Minnesota athletic director Joel Maturi held a teleconference with fans, and was asked by a ticketholder about the possible creation of a Big Ten Hockey Conference. Maturi has been heavily involved with hockey, chairing the NCAA Men's Ice Hockey committee and the WCHA athletic director's committee in the past, and so he knows of what he speaks - and his answer suggested that a Big Ten hockey conference is probably an inevitability.

"I do believe if there were to be six institutions in the Big Ten that play the sport of ice hockey, we would probably find a way to have a Big Ten conference. That's what it takes to be recognized by the NCAA as a conference, to have six members," he said.

Maturi was certainly not deaf to the concerns that this potential conference would create, however. "My concern is that we definitely find a way to maintain relationships with the WCHA for us, and the CCHA for the Michigans and Michigan States and Ohio States, because those institutions - especially in the CCHA side, the Lake Superior States, the Ferris States, the Bowling Greens - they need those Big Ten schools to come into their rinks to keep their programs viable. We have to be careful in my opinion of how aggressive we get, and being so big-minded that some schools drop the sport, because they can no longer afford it, and then we're all going to be in a bind."

The Gopher AD had clearly given some thought to potential solutions, though - and those have to do with some sort of scheduling arrangements between the WCHA, the CCHA, and the potential Big Ten. "My goal would be to do something like this: if we had a six-team conference and we played a double round-robin, that would be 20 games. You're allowed to play 34 games in hockey, and 36 if you travel to Alaska, and so in those 14 non-conference games, I would hope that we would be able to have eight or ten of those with WCHA opponents. We'd work with the commissioner of the WCHA and Wisconsin and Minnesota and divvy those games up, so that we'd have five home and five away or something of this nature, and then four other non-conference where we could play the Boston Colleges and the Maines and the Notre Dames," he said.

The Upshot of a Big Ten Hockey Conference

Certainly, the speculative conference would be the most lucrative in college hockey. It'd be the only conference with a TV network's support, as the Big Ten Network would no doubt love it. And it might be the most attractive for recruits in which to play.

It would also be almost inarguably the most prestigious conference in the land. The BTHC would have the two "name" schools from the CCHA in Michigan and Michigan State, two of the four or five "name" schools in the WCHA in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and two of the biggest universities in America in Ohio State and Penn State.

That said, I'm not totally sure what it would provide in terms of benefits to the established Big Ten hockey programs. For Penn State and Ohio State, it'd probably promote fan interest and attendance - but Minnesota and Wisconsin are already on TV every game they play. Minnesota sells out its rink every night of the year. Wisconsin usually competes with North Dakota to lead the nation in tickets sold. Apart from a possible slight bump in conference-wide TV revenue, where's the benefit to those two?

And as for prestige, the WCHA can trace its roots back to 1951. There's a lot of history there that'd be at least somewhat lost. From a Minnesota fan's standpoint, the hockey rivalry with North Dakota is perhaps only second to the rivalry with Wisconsin. There's the old enmity with Denver, going back to the days when legendary Gopher coach John Mariucci refused to play DU, dead set against the Pioneers' strategy of filling their team with Canadians in their mid-twenties. There are the more recent intrastate rivalries with St. Cloud State and MSU-Mankato, and much longer intrastate history with Minnesota-Duluth.

Would Minnesota really want to throw that away, scheduling arrangements aside, for the possibility of four yearly matchups with Penn State and Ohio State? Wisconsin and North Dakota have a, shall we say, pugilistic history going back years and years. Would the Badgers want to quit their battles with UND?

These are difficult questions, to be sure. The Big Ten Hockey Conference would be star-studded, but the conference office needs to consider whether it's the best thing for not only college hockey, but for the schools that would make up the conference.

In the short term, Penn State could slot into the CCHA, which is currently at 11 teams after Nebraska-Omaha departed for the WCHA. There will be much discussion about whether that's where the Nittany Lions should stay.

Photographs by Micah Taylor, clairity, and Fibonacci Blue used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.