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Penn State and the Big Ten Hockey Conference Pt. 2

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Part 1 is here if you missed it or you're reading this somewhere else.

The Big Ten Hockey Conference has always been a widely debated, and very contentious issue among college hockey fans. Now that Penn State is considering adding a hockey program, giving the Big Ten a sixth college hockey team, that issue is being revisisted once again.

There seem to be two schools of thought when it comes to the BTHC. Usually, those that follow Big Ten programs think it's a great idea, and those that follow other programs think it would college hockey's apocalypse.

For what it's worth, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said ten years ago that the Big Ten wouldn't force the issue of a Big Ten Hockey Conference, unless it was desired. I'd imagine that position hasn't changed, so the decision will probably be made within the college hockey community.

So could a BIg Ten Hockey Conference actually work? There's no question the BTHC would be successful. College hockey's strongest programs would continue to be successful and draw huge crowds. It's a question of how it would affect the rest of college hockey. People that argue against the BTHC have two major problems. 1. It would ruin college hockey from a competitive standpoint 2. It would ruin college hockey from a financial standpoint.

I don't really buy the first issue about competitive balance. The argument is that players would only want to play in the major conference, and the leftover schools would suffer.

But is that really different than what we have now? Michigan has made the last 18 NCAA tournaments. Minnesota has only missed 3 NCAA tournaments the past 24 years. Wisconsin has been there 4 of the past five years. Since 1996, Big Ten teams have won 6 national championships. They're already doing pretty well, and will continue to do well regardless of what conference they're in.

As far as procuring players, the theory is that all the best players would gravitate to the one big conference. Again, is that any different than the way things are now? How many players does Minnesota seriously go after and not get? Not that many. Same with Michigan, or Michigan State under their previous and future coach. Maybe Ohio State and Penn State would steal a few more top players, but I'm guessing the difference would be negligible. For every player they stole, there'd be another player, possibly just as good, available to the other college hockey schools.

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.

In short, I don't see much changing in that respect.

The second issue is the much trickier aspect, in my mind, and that is making things work financially. The basic theory is that college hockey's smaller schools need home games against Big Ten schools, and the revenue those large fanbases draw to their conference tournament in order to survive.

It's tough to say since we can't see the budget numbers for every school, but it seems pretty obvious that teams generate a big chunk of money from the conference tournament and from getting those teams at home, and they'd probably take a big hit financially. But could they still make it work?

Let's start with the WCHA. The conference would be left with North Dakota, Minnesota-Duluth, Colorado College, Denver, St. Cloud, Minnesota State, Michigan Tech, Alaska-Anchorage,and probably Bemidji State.

It's kind of an eclectic mix, and you have to wonder how tightly bound those teams would stay without Minnesota, Wisconsin, and their considerable dollars holding them all together. Would Michigan Tech want to stay in the new WCHA,with all the difficult travel involved, without Minnesota, Wisconsin and their money, or would they go the cheaper route and move into a conference with Northern Michigan and Lake Superior?

That leaves a fairly strong eight team conference, with historical powers North Dakota, Denver,and Colorado College, and some strong Minnesota teams. They could even cut down on travel somewhat by creating two four-team divisions where teams play each other four times per year, and each team in the opposite division twice. The one big problem would be hosting a conference tournament. I could see it alternating between Denver and St. Paul--or possibly Grand Forks, but there's always the concern of attendance tanking if the wrong teams make the tournament in the wrong city.

Those teams would all still be dying to get games against Minnesota, and to a lesser extent, Wisconsin. It could be the perfect opportunity for the return of the Minnesota Hockey Showcase, or a weekend-long tournament at the XCel Center. If the event was included in the season ticket packages of Minnesota, Minnesota-Duluth, Minnesota State, and St. Cloud, the event would sell-out and everyone involved could make a nice chunk of change. Aside from that, I think those schools would all want some sort of scheduling guarantee from Minnesota that included Minnesota traveling to their arena.

Plan B would involve a version of the old North Central Conference with North Dakota, Minnesota-Duluth, St. Cloud, Minnesota State, and Bemidji State. Travel would extremely cheap and easy in the conference. They'd lose strong programs in Colorado College and Denver, but outside North Dakota, most of those schools haven't been around a super long time, so they don't have the longstanding rivalry with those schools.

That would leave Colorado College, Denver, and Alaska-Anchorage out on their own. They could add Alaska into their conference. CC and Denver would already be flying to any other away game anyway. From there, they might be dependent on a school like Colorado State or some Canadian schools starting a program to have a full conference. It's admittedly not a great solution.

Things get much tougher when you start looking at the CCHA. 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.

Miami and Notre Dame both look like they have a strong future as college hockey powers, but are they enough to carry the conference? It's doubtful either has the fan base for it. Notre Dame's newly planned ice arena will hold 5000 people. You can't fit 4000 people into Miami's brand new ice arena. It's obvious neither thinks they have the potential to draw crowds the size of a Michigan or MSU.

The next problem would be hosting a conference tournament. That would be guaranteed to lose money regardless of where it was held. Joe Louis Arena currently only works because they've been lucky to have Michigan go deep in the tournament every year. It's doubtful that there would be a team left in the CCHA that would bring more than a couple hundred fans to a conference tournament, meaning their title game would be an embarassment in either size of venue, or emptiness of venue.

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.

The Big Ten Hockey Conference might seem like a great idea to some, but I think right now, it probably would be a bad thing for college hockey. Maybe it will happen some day, but right now isn't the best time for it. The sport of hockey isn't really popular enough for mid-major teams to be viable and successful without being able to be part of a conference with other major programs, and with the current economic situation, money is going to be hard to come by for programs that aren't able to turn a profit.