In 2013, college hockey chose to undergo a major realignment because they were very seriously concerned about maximizing their potential television revenue. This was the equivalent of your city dog catcher worrying about electoral votes in swing states. The problem with basing your sport on TV money is that you actually need TV viewers. The results were predictably disastrous.
So now we're on the verge of starting over again. Notre Dame is joining the Big Ten. So is Arizona State. Or Miami. Or Omaha Or North Dakota. Or Kenesaw State. Or some other school that, despite whatever other characteristics they may bring to the table, is not a full-time member of the Big Ten.
The problem is, the people in charge of managing this round of realignment have already tried this once, and have proven to be kind of a little bit pretty fucking terrible at it. Now it's my turn.
Of course the simplest solution would be to just admit the Big Ten conference hasn't worked and return to something similar to college hockey's old alignment. But that's not going to happen. Better for those in the Big Ten offices to be thought an embarrassing failure by the select few that care about college hockey than by the vast majority of people that don't.
I've looked at this numerous different ways given the current landscape, and the only possible solution I can come up with is this: North Dakota has to move to the Big Ten.
Yes, North Dakota is not really a Big Ten university. That's fine. The Big Ten isn't really a hockey conference.
It's a true win-win-win for everyone involved. The Big Ten adds a program that doesn't need Autocorrect to spell 'hockey'. North Dakota can begin to heal the deep existential wound they suffered when they were told they weren't good enough for Minnesota's new conference; a hurt which has guided every ridiculous move they've made since. The rest of college hockey wants to get rid of North Dakota and their fans? A weeknight game against Ohio State is the best I can do.
Remove North Dakota's ego from the situation and fixing the rest of college hockey in the west becomes easy. Without North Dakota propping up the rest of the conference, the NCHC pipe dream lasts about as long as you can hold your breath. That brings the other seven schools in that league to the negotiating table that the WCHA has been patiently waiting at for the last three years and we can start thing whole thing over.
Conference 1 is basically The Old CCHA, with these eight schools:
Lake Superior State
Conference scheduling is easy with eight teams. Four games against everybody for a total of 28 conference games. All eight teams makes the first round of the playoffs for a best-of-three series. Final weekend rotates between Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids and Huntington Center in Toledo.
Miami and Western Michigan's massive travel savings more than make up for losing one or two "national" television games per season. Use that extra money to buy TV time, which is basically what they're doing now. Historically, Michigan Tech has always fit better with their old WCHA brethren than their UP counterparts, but it is what it is, and as alternatives go, this isn't terrible. They end up with a much better position than they are currently in.
That leaves ten teams remaining for the Make the WCHA Western Again conference which I split up thusly:
WCHA East Division
St. Cloud State
WCHA West Division
Conference scheduling would be four games each against teams in your own division(16 games) and two games each against every team in the opposite division(10 games) for a total of 26 conference games. Top four teams in each division make the playoffs. One hosts Four and Two hosts Three in each division for a best-of-three playoff series. The four winners advance to the conference championship, guaranteeing two eastern teams and two western teams on the final weekend every year. Both semifinals would be E/W match-ups.
Site of the conference finals could rotate. The home rink of any of the five east division teams would work. The smaller capacity compared to a building like Target Center is mitigated by the lower costs of renting out the building, and the fact that you could probably sell individual game tickets for the semifinals rather than a single ticket. St. Cloud is centrally located compared to the other Minnesota schools. Or wait until the end of the season and let the high seed host. If teams complain about having to hold their building open, book the band Ratt and tell them they're playing at whichever site doesn't get to host. Ratt doesn't care.
You could also give Denver a shot at hosting and seeing how attendance does. Or give it to Arizona State and see how many people travel, since the NCAA Regionals/Frozen Four has proven that college hockey isn't much more than an excuse to take a vacation. Again, lots of possibilities.
There's an awful lot of travel for everyone in the West Division, but they are all so disparate that they're going to have a lot of travel to anywhere. The cost of flying to Alaska isn't as harsh for Arizona State because they were already getting on a plane anyway. Denver will likely claim they're too good for that division. Don't care. They blew up college hockey over a TV market that drew 37 thousand people for an NCAA Tournament game. They're lucky we don't tar and feather them like somebody clearly did to their old mascot.
Bonus Fun Idea: This set-up would seem to make the North Star Cup superfluous. That's not a big deal because the only people that seemed to care about it anyway were uninvited North Dakota fans, which is why I would make them part of the event. Call it the WCHA/Big Ten Challenge or whatever and have a Minnesota-based WCHA team play a Minnesota/North Dakota in the semifinals of a two-day tournament. You get a bit of old Final Five atmosphere, and clears up some of confusion about which outstate team is participating any given year--if you played last year, you don't this year.
Alas, if North Dakota doesn't want to go to the Big Ten, or the Big Ten doesn't want them, the same basic set-up would work if the Big Ten took Arizona State(though that seems very unlikely at this juncture), with Omaha sliding into the WCHA west division. Or, it's been three seasons since Omaha has joined a new conference, so they're probably due for a change. Just slide North Dakota into their spot.
This may not be the perfect solution that will make everybody happy about everything. But I'm 100% sure this set-up would be worlds better than what we currently have, and would be good for the future of the sport.