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Baseless Speculation to Financial Shortages: The Best of NCAA Division I Close Calls

Rhode Island 's hockey team never got off the ground. - Chris Chambers/Getty Images

With Arizona State announcing its intention to join the NCAA Division I hockey world next year on Tuesday, it joined a prestigious collection of programs at the top of the college hockey food chain. But ASU, following in Penn State's 2010 footsteps, also departed a much less desirable group: Those who came close - either in speculation or in fact - to the brass ring but have nothing to show for it.

Here are ten of the most memorable rumors, close calls and false starts of the last 15 years (excluding Penn State and Arizona State, both of which are now retired from the genre), ranked approximately by how close each came to DI reality.

10. California Dreaming The reign of former National Hockey League Players Association head Paul Kelly as director of College Hockey Inc. (from November 2009 through February 2012) was marked by Kelly’s willingness to reach out to schools he wanted to see in NCAA Division I, then putting the existence of those conversations on the record. One set of those name drops generated quite a bit of discussion back in 2010.

Frankly, the first college or university that decides to add Division I hockey in California will have just an absolute bounty in front of it. They will have their pick of some of the most talented kids in the country and they've got some great young kids coming up. If we could ever convince USC or UCLA or Stanford or California to add a program, they would have such an immediate impact...We've got three NHL teams in California and there is a hockey following out there, so I think it's a natural fit for one of those schools.

With ASU joining Division I, Pac-12 institutions will undoubtedly receive an examination similar to...

9. The Entire Big Ten, Literally Once Penn State announced its initiation of NCAA hockey for the 2012-13 season and the Big Ten – which then had the six member institutions in Division I needed to sanction a sport – did the same for 2013-14, just about every Big Ten school beyond the six became the subject of speculation.

Most of those were simply asking the question of feasibility, with interested journalists (or Kelly, in one case) exploring the answers relative to Rutgers and Maryland, Purdue, Iowa, Northwestern and Indiana at different points and generally getting an answer of "not right now, unless someone hands us a large check." One blog even took the somewhat drastic step of predicting that all Big Ten schools will have varsity hockey by 2027.

Nebraska, though, has tended to receive elevated treatment compared to the others, likely thanks to some combination of a new arena that could accommodate ice, its location in the heart of United States Hockey League territory for recruiting purposes, the successes of its sister school down the road in Omaha and the fan base’s passion for all things Huskers. Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst – a Wisconsin native who notably worked in the administration of the hockey-powerhouse Badgers before heading to Lincoln – routinely fields questions about adding the sport, and many observers feel like NU will be the next Big Tenner up.

8. A Phoenix, Except the Rising Part During the conference realignment explosion that followed the NCAA Division I entries of Penn State and the Big Ten, the venerable WCHA found itself with a membership of a less-than-ideal nine teams. Enter conversations to get to a nice, round ten with the highly-predictable candidates, like American Collegiate Hockey Association (the primary sanctioning body for U.S. collegiate club hockey) founding member and long-time alpha dog Iowa State, and the much less predictable ones, like Wisconsin-Green Bay. Minnesota State-Moorhead (more on them later) was also a consideration.

The Fairbanks Daily News Miner revealed the talks, saying that at each school, "officials…have discussed adding Division I hockey to their athletic programs," although UWGB quickly shot down the report.

Ultimately, though, the WCHA went in a direction that was universally applauded in hockey circles: Alabama-Huntsville, DI’s lone independent program, which had languished without conference security and survived numerous trips to the university’s chopping block since the dissolution of College Hockey America’s men’s league in 2010.

Iowa State remains a popular guessing game target, while Wisconsin-Green Bay has more or less disappeared back to the complete hockey anonymity it enjoyed (?) before the News Miner’s story.

7. Buffalove The recent surge in realignment, thanks to poaching from the Big Ten, the National Collegiate Hockey Conference and Hockey East, gutted the Central Collegiate Hockey Association to the point where it was no longer a viable conference, and the CCHA disappeared after the 2012-13 season. It did not go quietly during an extended lame duck period, however, as plans for an initial set of CCHA "leftover" programs (Alaska, Bowling Green, Ferris State, Lake Superior State and Northern Michigan) to keep the league going with one addition emerged.

The [University at Buffalo is] exploring the possibility of restoring their varsity hockey program, the school confirmed to the [Bowling Green Sentinel-Tribune in 2011]. Buffalo is one five schools involved in discussions with Bowling Green regarding the future of college hockey and possible league affiliation.

"The University at Buffalo athletic department has been in conversations with established Division I hockey conferences to examine the possibility of returning our hockey program," Buffalo athletics director Warde Manuel said in a statement.

"While we are flattered to have these discussions, there are several things that would need to occur both fiscally and within conference alignments for this to work for UB at this time," Manuel added.

According to reports, Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, also noted as a UB booster, was set to serve as the school’s Terry Pegula and finance the move. But it didn’t happen, the CCHA died and the left-behind schools joined the not-as-fatally-gutted WCHA.

Interestingly, UB has recently re-emerged on to the rumor scene with the Pegula in this case set to be...well, Pegula.

6. Illannoying Illinois deserves its own entry separate from the rest of the Big Ten because, with PSU and ASU out of the way, the Illini are the undisputed kings of Rumorland and could probably fill out their own top ten list quite nicely. That distinction comes from a few factors like the school’s status as a club power (Illinois’ 2007-08 squad is the only one in ACHA Division 1 history to finish undefeated), its location in a rapidly-growing hockey state and, more recently, the Big Ten’s foray into hockey.

Arguably, the most memorable Illinois rumor was forwarded by Minnesota-based publication Let’s Play Hockey in late 2011, as LPH claimed that Jimmy John Liautaud – the founder of Jimmy John’s and an Illinois native – was looking to finance NCAA hockey at the school.

Another major flare-up came last year, when new Illinois assistant coach Blake Sorensen spoke to student paper The Daily Illini:

Part of the allure of being on the staff at a program like Illinois is the potential for the program to expand. With the formation of the Division I Big Ten conference holding its inaugural season in 2013 — which is a six team league including Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin — Sorensen saw Illinois as a logical addition to the league in the near future.

"Maybe I’m thinking out of the box, but I’m thinking the U of I would be the next school having the aspiration of going to the next level," Sorensen said. "So I said, ‘Why not?’ It was a very easy decision."

Just three days after Sorensen’s comment (OMG DOES HE KNOW SOMETHING?!?) ran, on July 27, 2013, a misconstrued Facebook status meant to tease new jerseys for the Illini’s ACHA team caused a two-hour-long freakout before responsible people grabbed the non-story.

Without a doubt, and to be fair to those jumping the gun, Illinois certainly seems like a matter of "when" at this point.

5. Not Quite Like a Boss Rhode Island, as the only flagship state school of a New England state without NCAA Division I hockey, receives its fair share of speculation as well. But Rhody has something Illinois doesn’t: A rink that could be the home of a DI team tomorrow and was, in fact, constructed with varsity status in mind. Bradford R. Boss Ice Arena, featuring a 2,500-seat capacity (still bigger than 14 DI rinks, including nine of the 11 Atlantic Hockey venues), opened in 2002. It was made possible by a $1.3 million donation from namesake Boss, who earned his fortune as the CEO and chairman of writing instrument company A.T. Cross.

The typical exploration followed shortly after.

"During [the last academic] year, the president [of URI] asked for a survey, so I talked to people from Hockey East, the ECAC and the MAAC as to URI — if we were able to fund it — getting into a league," [Athletic Director Ron] Petro said. "I made a recommendation to the president in April, but we’ve been hit with budget cuts as most people have been, so we’ve delayed any decision on that until we can get a better hold on how to finance a Division I hockey program for men and women, which we know would be way over a million dollars."

Prior to the budget cuts, Petro had recommended that URI attempt to gain Division I status.

"We are the only state university in New England that doesn’t support a team," acknowledged Petro. "That would be a goal of mine in the future, but it all comes down to funding."

It usually does, doesn’t it?

4. An AHA Moment Generally speaking, the primary wheelers and dealers – the athletic departments, the donors, the conferences, the club teams – are the last people to speak when it comes to adding NCAA hockey at a school, leaving those hungry for rumors to rely on message boards, Twitter, blogs and (sometimes) traditional media. That reality made it both bizarre and tantalizing when Atlantic Hockey commissioner Bob DeGregorio revealed in 2012 that he had been in talks with four schools to join his 11-team conference and make it an even 12. Two of those, Alabama-Huntsville and NCAA Division III’s St. Anselm, already had varsity hockey. The others, Rhode Island and Navy, did not.

Here’s what DeGregorio had to say about the would-be newcomers.

Rhode Island: "They have formed a committee to look at costs of taking both the men’s and women’s programs to Division I. It’s obviously a big financial commitment but they are interested."

Navy: "There has been some interest for some time but I think it would be another three or four years [before things get serious]. They are in the midst of taking their football program to the Big East [in 2015] and that’s where their focus is right now."

Navy, like URI, has a new-ish rink, the 2007-built McMullen Hockey Arena that was constructed with one eye on the NCAA and could easily be configured into something roughly on par with fellow service academies Army and Air Force, making the Midshipmen a frequent subject of discussion.

Women’s hockey presented an angle to the story as well. College Hockey America shares an administration with Atlantic Hockey, making the always-starved-for-fresh-blood CHA a ready-made home for any school wishing to add a women’s program to help with Title IX compliance or because, you know, it’s the right thing to do.

Atlantic Hockey still has 11 teams today, making it tailor-made for a new NCAA program and this something of an open-ended story. Navy, however, withdrew from consideration early this year while Rhode Island has expressed little interest throughout, with most of that corner’s chatter originating with booster groups.

3. Water Polo? In Michigan? Really? Michigan’s paucity of NCAA Division I women’s hockey is one of the great enigmas of our day, much like what to call North Dakota on third reference without sounding repetitive. While Michigan State, Grand Valley State, Adrian and Davenport also represent the Great Lakes state in the ACHA’s top women's division, it was likely Michigan that came the closest to varsity status of the group. According to whockey.com, the pre-eminent website for women’s hockey information in the 1990s and early 2000s, the Wolverines were all but guaranteed to have a varsity women’s team for 1999-2000.

As far as women's teams going varsity, there is a 95% chance that women's hockey, along with men's soccer, will be going varsity at the University of Michigan for the 1999-2000 season. This was discussed at an athletic department meeting a couple months ago, and they voted to go ahead with it, but it's pending the approval of another committee. Apparently, though, the second committee is little more than a rubber stamp, and it's almost definitely going to happen.

All but. Michigan added men’s soccer (and women’s water polo) shortly after that posting, passing on women’s hockey mostly due to cost – U of M estimated that the sport cost twice as much as water polo every year – and facility concerns, as a second sheet to complement Yost Arena would likely have been needed.

2. Kennesaw’s Mountain One of the more off-the-wall entries on this list also managed to get further into the process than almost all of the more conventional schools. In 2005, the athletic department at Georgia’s Kennesaw State University, located 20 miles north of Atlanta, formulated a plan to join NCAA Division I in either 2006 or 2007. That plan was then presented to university president Dr. Betty L. Siegel for approval.

Believe it or not, it made at least a little sense. KSU sought to join College Hockey America’s geographically-diverse former men’s league, which had recently dropped to five members following Findlay canceling its program and Air Force departing for Atlantic Hockey.

Bill Morrison, the volunteer director of hockey operations for the club team was approached by [Athletic Director Dave] Waples and CHA Commissioner Bob "R.H." Peters. In turn, Morrison prepared an infrastructure report, talked with Waples, Peters and Alabama-Huntsville head coach Doug Ross regarding a possible move to Division I.

"You have everything in place in order to move this program into Division I," said Morrison. "(Waples) took the information and presented the information to Dr. Siegel.

"He was excited that we already had the infrastructure and it was pretty turnkey. It sounds like it could be a very, very easy transition."

Well...not so fast. The supportive Siegel resigned her post after 24 years that summer, and the whole plan wasn’t quite as easy or turnkey as officials expected. KSU was heavily invested in moving its existing athletic teams to Division I (a transition completed for 2009-10) and simply didn't have the money available to follow through with hockey.

Kennesaw State’s ACHA program remained one of Division 3's best following that disappointment and won the 2007 national championship, although it was suspended for the entire 2013-14 season due to an alcohol-related incident before returning to action this year.

1. Has Been or Never Was? Does Minnesota State-Moorhead belong on this list, or a different one including Pennsylvania, Kent State, Illinois-Chicago and Wayne State? Tough to say.

MSUM's unique story began in 2009 with study and fundraising efforts, then burst back on to the public's radar with a announcement in July 2011 that the school was 40 percent of the way towards the $37 million in donations believed to be needed to add Division I hockey. Speculation followed placing the Dragons with fellow state system school Minnesota State-Mankato in the stripped-down-by-realignment WCHA once the magic number was hit.

It would be dishonest to say that Moorhead was ever taken completely seriously by the larger college hockey community, an attitude reinforced by silence from the Moorhead corner for several months. By the following January, the school's athletic director was simultaneously denying rumors that the effort had been abandoned and setting arbitrary four-week fundraising deadlines.

Curiously, MSUM actually held tight to that self-imposed deadline, abruptly announcing on February 27, 2012 that its chase for varsity hockey had been suspended. As always, it was about money.

"We had a business model that required a $37 million dollar endowment from private sources to support hockey and while the community response has been impressive, we have been unable to identify the full $37 million," said [school president Edna Mora] Szymanski. "The endowment was necessary because in recent years, our legislative appropriation has gone down by $6 million and I cannot justify diverting tuition or tax dollars to a new intercollegiate sport. Our priority must be first and foremost on continuing to provide our students a great education."

A hype page for hockey remains on the Dragons' website, giving supporters hope that efforts will be re-ignited someday.

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