What did we learn about men's college hockey in 2015?
It's the type of question that should accompany an essay contest, or some sort of PowerPoint presentation, in order to narrow down the answer. Add a number to the question and the takeaways can be shown in slideshow form.
There is a lot to digest.
2015 in college hockey was a year of superstar freshmen and an unprecedented three top-10 NHL Draft picks. A year where some new friends in Arizona State ended up joining the party. A year where a few old friends made noise for the first time in decades. New arenas opened. There were upsets, moments of despair and heartbreak mixed with joy.
Providence realized the ultimate goal in the ultimate fashion against Hockey East foe Boston University.
We got excited. We got angry at times. The Big Ten cemented itself as the villain college hockey may have needed with increasing empty seats and apathy setting in throughout the year.
2015 was the year where things got turned upside down. Wisconsin cratered to rock bottom, Colorado College continued struggling on both ends, Penn State hit program highs, and even Minnesota grabbing its conference's only NCAA Tournament bid was seen as a disappointment to the high expectations the team had for itself.
Games became easier to watch, if you knew how to get them on TV or streaming. National television packages slimmed down. Defense and ties became the norm in the WCHA while the NCHC, which earlier had six of eight teams make the NCAA Tournament, experimented with offensively exciting 3-on-3 overtime.
North Dakota's never-ending nickname saga came to an end.
A group of teams in the ECAC continued solidifying the league's reputation with several teams in the top tier of the Pairwise Rankings, Atlantic Hockey made several moves with RIT and Robert Morris making noise on a national level, and Minnesota State earned the first #1 overall seed in program history before being pushed into an upset by the Tigers.
Michigan Tech said hello to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1981. Bowling Green just missed trying to relive its own 1980s glory years and ends the year in position to give a belated greeting in a few months. Harvard's Jimmy Vesey returned to school after a career year, the CHL came calling for players that had just stepped foot on campus, and records were set and broken.
No one will soon forget the impact Jack Eichel had in 2015, becoming only the second freshman to ever win the Hobey Baker Award. Same goes with 18 year-olds like Dylan Larkin, Noah Hanifin, Zach Werenski, Kyle Connor, Collin White and Alex Tuch. Their contributions will live past the year at their schools.
If it has become easier for true freshmen to make an impact in 2015, the same can be said about teams.
The Friars, needing a Michigan loss in the Big Ten championship game to make the NCAA Tournament, showed off that parity is not a 2015 fad in college hockey. There is no such thing as easy games. The top tier continues to grow with new schools claiming stake.
Several of the teams that ended the first half of the year in the top finish 2015 in the same position. Quinnipiac, PC - going nine months between defeats - and Harvard have only one loss with several more schools tasting defeat a total of two or three times.
With so much to take in and digest this year, not everything can be mentioned here. In a way that is the point. What we learned this year is that college hockey is seen to be many different things and that this chasm is out in the open and growing.
Realignment in 2013 opened up opportunities for expansion and new rivalries. Many of the changes so far in the past two-plus seasons have not added the intended interest or eyeballs. The rivalries have yet to take between teams, but rather have smaller hockey-only Division 1 schools and large, Power 5 conference schools.
That can be shown in the current fight over the age of freshmen to be limited from 21 to 20. There is no one way to see it other than 60 schools looking out for 60 different interests. The larger schools supporting would like to put in more in line with other college sports and as a development path for the NHL. The smaller schools would like the status quo which has been helped by having older freshmen to compete against the 18 and 19 year-olds.
At the very least, the current recruitment to graduation cycle can be as much as a 12 year span.
Still, the fight over the age limits became more than just a suggestion or fix. It was enough of an issue to forgo the rest of the conferences for a test of power by the Big Ten, along with a show of strength by most of the other schools to keep the sport‘s uniqueness in its own grasp from the "B1G boys."
With that, another new Power 5 school in Arizona State and the gentleman's agreement going by the wayside, so did a steady and uneasy alliance, with snipes and suggestions flowing from both sides. (My personal favorite is Dean Blais' suggestion to make all the rinks NHL size.) Sides were drawn. Every school has something different learnt on the ice with 2016 looking to give more answers among the growing gap of big and small off of it.
"For the good of the game" in college has different connotations. That may not be truer in 2015, a 12 month period that began with the crowning of star, individual 18 year-olds at big schools on national television and concluded by smaller schools (for now) successfully holding onto, and succeeding with the exact opposite vision to win in the sport.
Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation mostly covering both the University of Minnesota and Big Ten. You can also follow him on Twitter -- Follow @gopherstate