The other shoe dropped today, and it was revealed that a new start-up conference will be announced on Wednesday. North Dakota, Denver, Colorado College, Nebraska-Omaha, Minnesota-Duluth, and Miami are the conferences new members, with Notre Dame and an eighth team, most likely Western Michigan, as potential members.
I don't want to talk too much about the future, because this conference won't begin until 2013-2014, and my suspicion, and hope, is that a lot will change between now and then. So for now, I'll try to stay in the present and simply say: today was a very bad day for college hockey.
I've seen plenty of speculation that this spells the inevitable doom for the schools left on the outside looking in. There's definitely very legitimate concerns for those schools right now, but I don't think anyone can say with absolute certainty what their future will be. What I can say with a great amount of certainty is that yesterday, there were 24 strong schools in the west playing major conference college hockey. Today, there are 12, possibly 14.
There has been a tremendous surge of growth in American hockey in recent years. The talent pool has grown exponentially. The USHL has expanded. The NAHL has expanded. College hockey hasn't been able to capitalize on that growth, and if anything, is moving backwards.
I often make fun of people who invoke Herb Brooks' name as some sort of infallible hockey deity, when he was a much more complex character than that. But one thing he was absolutely right about was that with the caliber and depth of talent in the state of Minnesota, the state had the capability of putting together more than just two top-notch college hockey programs. He was eventually proven right when it put together five of them, and now, it appears that we're moving back to two.
This seems like a good deal for the schools involved, though again, that could be debated, because I'm not sold on it. But is it really worth moving an individual program one step forward if it takes the entire sport two steps backwards?
Other random points:
- On the day that five of its largest members decided they no longer wanted to be part of the conference, here was the WCHA's brilliant counter-move:
WCHA spokesman Doug Spencer told The Associated Press the conference is aware of the reports but will "reserve comment" until "the league feels it is appropriate."
No comment at all. Nothing even resembling leadership in a time of serious crisis. It's not like this announcement came as a complete surprise. People can blame the Big Ten, and athletic department greed all they want, but the total ineptitude and inaction from the WCHA league office also deserves a heavy share of the blame here.
-As far as the future for the schools left out, I've seen a lot of people writing off the effect on the WCHA schools, but even if they don't have to drop their program, they'll at least take a serious hit. St. Cloud, arguably the strongest left out so far, was charging anywhere between $25-40 per game for conference games last year, which is ridiculous enough on its own, but obviously not going to continue with a conference slate made up of teams like Alaska-Anchorage, Michigan Tech, and possibly the likes of Ferris State and Bowling Green. And it's not like they can make up the revenue in other areas. The only way to cram more advertisements into a St. Cloud hockey game would be if people started sponsoring other advertisements.
-As far as competition, the remaining schools definitely lose some prestige, and likely become a clear third option for potential players, but the talent pool is big enough that these teams will likely still be able to draw similar levels of talent. With junior hockey expanding like I said, there will be no shortage of prospects to recruit. Recruiting still isn't an exact science, so good college players will still fall through the cracks and trickle down.
-That said, does this move push the pendulum for players more in the direction of the CHL? Head to head, the NCAA still offers a better package, with the option to get an education AND play pro hockey, which the CHL doesn't do. But for a 16-18 year old player that has a CHL offer, but not an NCAA one? Is it worth taking that gamble and waiting for the opportunity to play major college hockey that may never come? If you take 10 teams out of the picture, that's 180 full scholarships that aren't out there anymore.
-So the Secondary Six wanted freedom to get a better TV deal/conference tournament revenues. Now that they're on their own, they'll have to provide their own solutions. Where is the TV deal going to come from? Versus is the most likely national cable network, and they could be looking for Friday/Saturday night programming. But I'm not sure. The league is made of teams that are either non-factors in mid-major sized markets, or a big deal in markets that aren't even a blip on the radar. They may get a tough lesson in how little cachet their schools carry. Are they really going to draw enough people to beat out a far cheaper Mixed Martial Arts re-run?
As far as the conference tournament, it's the same issue the Big Ten had. There's nowhere to host it that will draw a significant number of fans from more than one school. If they host top seeds host for the playoffs, good luck if Miami ever wins the league.