Penn State has been looking into building a 6000 seat ice arena that would potentially house a Division I men's and women's hockey program, which would make them the 6th Big Ten conference team with a D-I men's hockey program. That raises two important questions. 1. Where do you put Penn State if there is no Big Ten Hockey Conference. 2. Where do you put everybody else if there is a Big Ten Hockey Conference. There's a pretty lengthy answer to each, so I'm going to tackle them in seperate posts. In this first one, I'll look at possible homes for Penn State that don't include a Big Ten Hockey Conference.
First off, the idea of Penn State starting a D-I hockey program would be, without a doubt, incredible for college hockey. College hockey operates under the Big Tent theory that any program is a good program. The sport has gone from over 60 teams, which allowed the NCAA tournament to expand to 16 teams, down to 58 teams, with Bemidji State and Alabama-Huntsville in serious limbo. Aside from seeing the game shrink rather than grow, it would be hard to justify a 16-team tournament with 56 teams in the NCAA.
So the powers that be in NCAA hockey would be happy with any new program. I mean, they were pumped about the possibility of Kennesaw State going D-I(until people realized that didn't make much sense) But when it's such a large, well-known institution like Penn State, it's all the better.
Where do you put Penn State and their new program? The bad news is that there doesn't seem to be a really natural fit for the Nittany Lions. The good news is that they potentially bring so much to the table that I'm sure conferences would be willing to bend over backwards to accomodate them.
I can come up with three potential placements for them...
1. Atlantic Hockey/ECACHL
Both of these conferences offer the best fit in terms of travel, but there's not much else after that. Both conference will be at 12 teams, so adding a 13th would make them cumbersome. And there's really not much benefit to Penn State here either. There isn't a school in either conference that carries the name recognition to draw the interest of casual fans. People have heard of the Ivy League schools, but everyone I've ever run into that doesn't follow college hockey assumes Harvard, Yale, and Princeton are terrible at hockey, just like they are in the other major sports.
I guess this beats being an independent, but otherwise, I don't see how it would work.
2. Hockey East
This is less ideal from a distance standpoint. One of the nice things about Hockey East is that every team is close together that it's easy to bus anywhere, and it allows them to play midweek games. It would also give the conference an uneven number of teams at 11, but they operated with 9 teams for a number of years and did okay.
Boston College is the only major conference D-I program in Hockey East, but there are a number of college hockey powers that could potentially draw crowds in Happy Valley. I don't know what Penn State's demographics are, but they could end up drawing big among students that come from the Northeast.
It's a bit of a sacrifice for Hockey East, but like I said, Penn State would offer a lot too. If they managed to fill their building, or at least come close to filling it, that would put Penn State in the upper third of the league in terms of attendance, which means more revenue coming into the league.
3. The CCHA
Ultimately, this probably be the best place for Penn State, though it would take some effort. There's already built-in rivalries with Big Ten schools like Ohio State and Michigan. It's not ideal, travel-wise, especially for some of the northern Michigan schools but again, they'd be bringing some nice revenue to the league in return.
The one problem standing in the way would be the size of the conference. It's still unclear how the CCHA and WCHA will look after this summer when some difficult decisions have to made about Bemidji State and Alabama-Huntsville, and the possibility of Northern Michigan or Nebraska-Omaha switching conferences. But regardless of how it all shakes out, it looks like both the WCHA and CCHA will be at maximum occupancy once the summer is over.
The best solution would probably be to divide the CCHA up into divisions, with Michigan and Michigan State anchoring a division with the Michigan teams, and Notre Dame, Ohio State, Miami, and Penn State anchoring a southern division. The smaller schools would get the big draws in their own rink often enough to remain viable and the league would get stronger.Everyone would seem to win.(Note: This plan probably works better if UNO moved to the WCHA, rather than Northern Michigan)
So I guess my preference would be to see Penn State join the CCHA some day. It wouldn't be easy; it never is when you have to start rearranging conferences, but I think it has the most benefits for all involved.
Up next, we'll see if we can make things work with a Big Ten Hockey Conference.